The great Wi-fi free for all

Travel Bulletin - - ISSUES & TRENDS - By Kris Mad­den

The de­bate about free Wi-fi con­tin­ues to chal­lenge hote­liers. The ques­tion is: can ho­tels af­ford to pro­vide free Wi-fi – or can they af­ford not to? To­day’s ‘must-al­ways-be-con­nected’ guests, es­pe­cially busi­ness trav­ellers, are mak­ing de­ci­sions about where to stay par­tially based on the in­ter­net ser­vice a ho­tel pro­vides. A num­ber of sur­veys show that free Wi-fi takes pole po­si­tion in cus­tomer rat­ings of the most im­por­tant room ameni­ties. Re­search by Ho­tels.com found Wi-fi ac­cess ranked higher than any other ho­tel amenity, in­clud­ing com­pli­men­tary break­fast and free park­ing. But as ho­tels know, Wi-fi is never re­ally “free”. There is a cost in pro­vid­ing in­ter­net ac­cess be it to the ho­tel, guest, or both. In its 2012 Ho­tel Wi-fi Re­port, in­dus­try web­site Hotelchat­ter es­ti­mated the cost of wiring up a 250-room ho­tel to be around US$125,000. These days, guests are car­ry­ing mul­ti­ple de­vices, and their de­mands for band­width are con­tin­u­ally ris­ing. So the is­sue is not sim­ply one-size-fits-all ‘free Wifi’, it’s more com­pli­cated than that. Not all guests have the same con­nec­tiv­ity re­quire­ments so some ho­tels be­lieve not all guests should re­ceive the same ser­vice or pay the same price. Band­width based on speed, data, or time is a way for ho­tels to tai­lor the con­nec­tiv­ity ser­vice based on what a guest wants to do. Ex­am­ples might be those who want to sim­ply check emails get ac­cess for free, while guests want­ing to stream movies might pay a fee. Brands like Hil­ton and Hy­att have an­nounced that they’re of­fer­ing free Wi-fi ac­cess in their guest rooms. But only their higher-tier loy­alty mem­bers will get pre­mium, high-speed ser­vice for free. Mar­riott has an­nounced free, ba­sic Wi-fi for its lower-tier loy­alty mem­bers. But to qual­ify, guests have to book di­rectly through the ho­tel’s web­site, app, or reser­va­tions line. Ac­cor has cho­sen to pro­vide un­lim­ited free in­ter­net for its loy­alty club mem­bers who have reached sil­ver sta­tus and above. “Ac­cor is al­ways look­ing for ways to pro­vide im­prove­ments to the guest ex­pe­ri­ence and lever­age de­vel­op­ments in tech­nol­ogy,” says Ac­cor guest tech­nol­ogy man­ager, Grant Iron­side. “Of­fer­ing Wi-fi to our guests is the com­bi­na­tion of two tech­nol­ogy com­po­nents: the sup­ply of ISP ser­vices, or the in­ter­net “pipe”, and the hard­ware and sup­port to con­nect our guests’ de­vices. “While we are see­ing bet­ter value in sup­ply of ISP links, this is be­ing matched by an in­creas­ing guest ap­petite for these ser­vices. The hard­ware re­quired for the dis­tri­bu­tion of in­ter­net ser­vice through­out the ho­tel still re­quires a large in­vest­ment in in­fra­struc­ture and on­go­ing main­te­nance. “We are con­sid­er­ing the fu­ture need for guest band­width re­quire­ments and in­ves­ti­gat­ing tiered of­fer­ings with pack­ages for ev­ery­day brows­ing, and pack­ages for up­com­ing ser­vices such as high def­i­ni­tion video on de­mand. “These are the con­ver­sa­tions we are hav­ing with our guests and mem­bers along with our tech­nol­ogy part­ners to de­liver value to our guests and our hote­liers,” says Iron­side. Tech­nol­ogy so­lu­tions provider for the hos­pi­tal­ity in­dus­try IBAHN Aus­tralia says whether ho­tels charge or of­fer free Wi-fi, it should be part of a well thought out strat­egy. Fif­teen years ago In­ter­net ac­cess was not avail­able to most, if any guests, and it was cer­tainly not high-speed. Look­ing back a decade or so ago, most ho­tels charged for wired In­ter­net ac­cess, but even then there was still a de­bate around whether ac­cess should be free or whether ho­tels were over­charg­ing guests. The com­pany says ho­tels have to ask them­selves what they are try­ing to achieve; some­thing bet­ter than their com­peti­tors, the fastest con­nec­tion, the cheap­est con­nec­tion, or the most re­li­able con­nec­tion. In the­ory these should all sup­port putting more heads on beds. An im­por­tant thing to re­mem­ber, par­tic­u­larly in the 4- and 5-star ho­tel sec­tors, is price is not al­ways the de­ter­min­ing fac­tor when it comes to Wi-fi. A sat­is­fac­tory ex­pe­ri­ence, speed and se­cu­rity of­ten rank higher for many guests, par­tic­u­larly for busi­ness guests who want to con­nect easily, at high speed, and have peace of mind their con­nec­tion is se­cure from hack­ers and viruses. Ryan Bow­man, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of So­cialfi, says part of the prob­lem is that ho­tel own­ers have been re­luc­tant to turn off that rev­enue stream be­cause un­til re­cently no al­ter­na­tive ex­isted to mon­e­tise Wi-fi. “At So­cialfi, we be­lieve a bet­ter op­tion is to use Wi-fi as a con­duit to cre­ate a deeper re­la­tion­ship be­tween a ho­tel and its guests, us­ing so­cial net­works as a key part of the so­lu­tion. So­cial net­works rep­re­sent an op­por­tu­nity to cre­ate, nur­ture and lever­age these re­la­tion­ships like never be­fore, and Wi-fi is an ideal con­duit to achieve these goals,” says Bow­man. With the pace of con­sumer tech­nol­ogy mov­ing at break­neck speed, it seems keep­ing up with cus­tomers’ de­mands while find­ing a re­turn on in­vest­ment is an is­sue that will con­tinue to chal­lenge the ac­com­mo­da­tion sec­tor for some time yet.

Hotelchat­ter es­ti­mated the cost of wiring up a 250-room ho­tel to be 125,000’ around US$

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