At Seattle's Hotel 1000, which markets its high-technology trappings to people visiting a tech-driven city, guests can get high-definition...
At Seattle’s Hotel 1000, which markets its high-technology trappings to people visiting a tech-driven city, guests can get high-definition movies delivered over the Internet to a giant flat screen. That is, they can if they point the remote at exactly the right spot: an unlabeled clump of wires peeking out from under the monitor.
At the W Los Angeles-Westwood, guests can use something resembling a plastic parking meter to order margaritas from a poolside chaise. Most stick with waiters.
At the new Grand Del Mar resort in San Diego, a breakfast tray left outside the room will beam a silent message to the management until it gets picked up. At least, it will after the hotel gets some new gizmos to make it work.
Many such hotels are trying to catch up with a population that is more comfortable with technology than ever. The $133 billion lodging industry’s cutting edge sees a business opportunity in traveling lawyers pining for high-speed Internet access, 20-somethings looking for a place to plug their iPods and vacationers preferring YouTube over the boob tube.
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Driving the charge
Although the trend is gathering steam, it’s a tricky proposition for an industry that is more Flintstones than Jetsons.
“We’re a business that’s still trying to come to grips with the toaster,” charged John Burns, president of Hospitality Technology Consulting in Scottsdale, Ariz. “If you have to turn the knob to make it lighter or darker, we have to think about that.”
Still, customers want what they want. In a survey of business travelers this year, 58 percent said free high-speed Internet access was “very” or “extremely” influential in determining where they stayed — triple the proportion from five years earlier.
The current round of upgrades is driven by two big constituencies: Guests want Internet access. And hotels want flat-screen televisions, which generate in-room movie sales.
Independently owned hotels are leading the charge into the future. Their competitors are following, worried about losing customers. Eventually that will lead to hotel stays that aren’t quite so frustrating for the connected crowd: guests who want to surf the Net while instant-messaging and playing computer games.
There certainly are going to be some hiccups, as recent visits to some of the souped-up hotels made clear.
The W in Westwood installed the drink-ordering gizmos, which officially are called intelliChaise Personal Ordering Systems, in late July. The hotel’s information technology manager, Teo Risquez, said he has seen 15 or more in use at a time during crowded cocktail hours.
But the technology requires exactly what it’s intended to replace: a waiter. Guests need a server to give a brief tutorial and input their room numbers before they can set up a personal code for access.
The maker of intelliChaise — Tiare Technology of Cherry Hill, N.J. — said that an imminent software upgrade should make the balky touch-screens more responsive, and that it is still working out the kinks. The W Los Angeles-Westwood is only the company’s second customer, following the Four Seasons in Miami.
The W is among the still-rarefied class of hotels that make technology a big part of their draw.
The one in Westwood lets guests rent laptops for $25 a day. A “Wired” package, which is the chain’s most popular add-on, includes unlimited Net access and a year’s subscription to Wired magazine.
Perhaps most usefully, a kiosk in the lobby enables visitors to check out of the hotel and check in for their flights, so they can leave in minutes with a printed receipt and a boarding pass.
The hotel, like many others, is upgrading to a bigger Internet pipe, with plans to charge at least the heavy users for access to the faster connection. It also promises high-definition free cable and pay movies on high-definition flat screens soon.
At the Grand Del Mar in San Diego, which opened this month, guests get television delivered via the Internet and no-contact key cards that unlock doors when they are waved past a sensor. The hotel soon will offer the trays that tell staff when they’re ready to be picked up.
Less ostentatious has been the spending — probably in the hundreds of thousands of dollars — to put in signal amplifiers and other gear ensuring that guests get cellphone reception.
“Geeked-out” in Seattle
For now, Seattle’s Hotel 1000 is seen as the most geeked-out place to stay, at least on the West Coast. That title comes with the classic penalty for high-tech pioneers: gadgets that don’t work.
An amazing number of the hotel’s services are connected to a single fiber-optic backbone, including Guest-Tek’s Internet-based TV system, electronic do-not-disturb buttons and room phones that offer free Internet-based calling to anywhere in the U.S. — doing away with the traditional practice of jacking up in-room calling rates in search of profits.
Problem areas include French press coffee makers with six-step instructions that could perplex their operators, and the TV remotes, which must be pointed at an infrared sensor instead of the television screen. Guest-Tek says that is because the hotel bought the wrong kind of monitors.
Although not everything works, Hotel 1000 can still fulfill at least one ultimate geek-on-the-road fantasy.
A recent guest’s call to complain about a broken remote was met with a peculiar response from the front desk clerk: “I’ll send an engineer right up.”