Hard times an infocom wake-up call for hotels?

Can the nation’s hotel chains be dragged into the digital age?

Every time I check in to a hotel that promises free WiFi only to discover it has nothing of the sort — because coverage only extends to the front third of the building or because the network’s capacity can accomodate no more than three users at a time — I’m amazed how many hotels catering to business travelers still believe that the truly essential infotech amenities in the room are the TV and the never-used wireline phone, while Web access is not their concern.

During my last stay at a hotel, I was told that if I couldn’t get WiFi reception in my room, I should try the restaurant, but I was afraid that if I couldn’t get reception there, they’d tell me to go to the kitchen or the alley. And during my last stay at a good hotel, I was annoyed to see the Web access wasn’t free; why not charge me extra for the water in my shower as well?

Hard times may be a wake-up call that helps hotels graduate to more contemporary infocom sensibilities. For example, the decrease in business travel due to recession is already leading an increasing number of them to offer telepresence rooms. In fact, two huge deployments were announced this morning.

AT&T (NYSE: T) has landed a deal to put Cisco telepresence rooms in Marriotts around the world, starting with 25 of its largest markets, such as New York, San Francisco, Washington, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Frankfort and London. The first of them will go live in October.

Also this morning, India-based telecom carrier Tata Communications (NYSE: TCL) announced a deal to install Cisco telepresence rooms in Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, 10 of which will come this year and include Sheraton hotels in New York, Sydney and Toronto as well as the Los Angeles Airport Westin and the W Chicago-City Center. That’s in addition to the 100 or so locations in which Tata is deploying telepresence for its sister company, Taj Hotels.

Another interesting innovation in the hospitality space came last week when NEC Unified Solutions announced it was installing IP phones in the newly opened Wit Hotel in Chicago (owned by DoubleTree) complete with applications from NTT DoCoMo that give guests touch-screen access to services like valet notification, restaurant reservations, ordering wake-up calls, requesting towels, and looking up airline flight or weather information. Wake-up calls can even be made by celebrity sound-alikes (supplied by Chicago’s famous Second City troupe) of Barack Obama, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, Al Capone and the late renowned sportscaster Harray Caray.

As the recession forces more folks to use infocom as a substitute for travel, hotels need to be ready to lure them back when the economy improves by convincing them that hotel infocom has evolved along with them and by making the strong case that infocom and travel complement rather than compete with each other.

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