What is it?
It seems that a critical mass has been reached now with respect to broadband internet access being provided in hotels. It isn't very long ago that you would have to work hard to find a hotel that provided anything more than slow dialup internet access. Typically, it was also very expensive as using a hotel for calls invariably is.
At the start of 2003 many hotels in Ireland were taking a serious look at this. They probably had been getting requests from travellers and saw it as a possible revenue and business generator. In Ireland at least, the popular choice has been to go with a solution where the service is offered by a third party.
Service provided by a third party
Typically, common areas of a hotel have wireless network hardware installed. The equipment is Wifi (or 802.11) based and the area is called a hotspot. However, in some hotels, a wired or wireless connection may also be offered in each room in the hotel. This service may be offered by the hotspot operator or a separate service provider.
Operators like O2, EsatBT and Eircom now have services available in many hotels around the country. All the existing providers also have plans to increase coverage of their hotspot services and it is assumed that they will use hotels as part of this strategy.
This can be an appealing model for hotels as they don't have to provide a relatively large amount of capital to install a system. They also don't have to manage the running of the system in house. Although we aren't privy to the financial arrangement, we assume that the hotel shares somehow in the revenue generated by the network.
Most hotspot providers offer the option to subscribe to various monthly plans. The ability to look for a hotel when travelling that has a hotspot provided by your chosen vendor means a seamless connection with no extra billing concerns or scratch cards to buy. It could also be argued that the hotel will win business because of this.
The downside though is that the hotel has very little control over the network in reality. We have used these services fairly extensively in a few hotels and they are of course administered centrally. The front desk was vaguely aware that they had a service. They would sell a scratch card at a pre determined rate. There was no way to cut a deal for extended stays or multiple rooms.
In one instance, when we had problems, the hotel showed genuine concern for our predicament but could do very little besides calling the support number. We found overall that the hotel staff although motivated towards helping us become frustrated that our problems weren't solved quickly. We were also quite frustrated that we couldn't get the service to work reliably and the fact that we had to continue to buy relatively expensive access by scratch card for an unreliable service exacerbated the situation.
Service provided in house
Some hotels have opted to install and manage a service themselves. In this case, the hotel will pay the capital cost of installation for a wired and/or wireless network and be directly responsible for its running.
It takes quite a bit more commitment than the outsourced model. In many ways, it is the 'brave choice' as the hotel must come up with the capital to install the system and commit to running it directly.
For those hotels that opt for the 'do it yourself' method of broadband provision, there are some obvious benefits. Being in complete control of the network has to be the primary advantage. This means the hotel is at liberty to alter the service in any way it sees fit. If it wants to offer the service more cheaply to a good corporate customer or to 'throw it in' with the price of a room it is easier to justify. It's also straightforward to add features or extend coverage, making use of the network for internal management and so on.
The Hotels - Alexander, Davenport, MontClare and Stephens Green.
We have personal experience of hotels that have gone both routes. Our first report is about one group of hotels which has gone the inhouse route. So far, it seems to have worked very well. Just off Merrion Square in Dublin are the Alexander, Davenport and MontClare hotels. Close by is the St. Stephens Green hotel. All are owned by the O'Callaghan Hotel Group.
The three hotels off Merrion Square are clustered closely together and all offer wired and wireless access in all hotel rooms while also offering wireless access to the common areas of the hotels. The St. Stephens Green hotel is currently being enabled to offer the same services. Also at this hotel, the group is piloting online payment for clients. Depending on its success, this will be offered to patrons at the other hotels.
The Alexander Hotel was a favourite of ours as for quite a while it offered free hotspot access through an Eircom trial. This finally went away late last year. When we inquired lately about access in the lobby, we were told that it was now a paid service and that the hotel was offering the service directly.
The Group decided to provide its own service for various reasons. Gerry Colreavy, the IT manager for the group says, 'We are very aware of the Clients frustrations with Internet access and therefore we have designed this network to make it as seamless as possible.' He adds, 'In the event that a Client has a problem, we are at hand to resolve it as soon as possible'
This gets to the heart of one of the biggest issues with this type of service. Many travellers who would like to use this type of service aren't technical enough to troubleshoot and none of them want to have to. For the user, it would be nice for the technology to get out of the way and just work. While no internet connection today can offer this, having someone at the hotel who can discuss specifics with you is vastly superior to spending expensive mobile time on the phone to a tech support line.
Gerry elaborates, 'One of the main reasons we chose not to use a vendor is that we didn't want to get caught up with the support loops which are so typical of such vendors'
Gerry also indicated that the group found it 'more cost effective and efficient' to take on the task directly.
They seem to have thought about the needs of the business traveller as you can opt to print to a shared printer over the network. While most hotels have a business centre available for guests to print, copy and fax, these hotels offer the casual visitor the service also.
for now, the pricing is simple and fairly flexible. It is also fairly inexpensive compared to other hotels offerings. Twelve hours access costs €10 and 24 hours costs €15.They are reviewing this on a constant basis and are also interested in feedback from hotel guests which will hopefully lead to more pricing options. Wouldn't it be nice to pop into one of these hotels for a coffee, scone and half hour of access for a fiver in the afternoons?
While both strategies have their place, as technology geeks, we admire the O'Callaghan Group for going the road less travelled. While the outsourced offering will improve at the other hotels, there are still teething problems. Where the self provided networks arguably lose out is with the hardened road warrior who might look for a hotel offering the service to which he or she subscribes.
The hotspot providers have been talking about 'roaming' agreements between operators, where you would buy a service from one of them and be able to use it with other providers networks. It is unclear if the smaller networks provided in house by these hotels would also participate in these agreements but it would be one way to get around the problem.
For more information on the O'Callaghan hotel groups broadband networks you can email them at firstname.lastname@example.org or call +353 1 6073900.
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