Space odyssey


The US lodging industry is a giant, with more than 47,000 properties, 4,389,443 guest rooms, and over $133 billion in annual sales* (Internationally, there are another 702,000 properties generating over $800 billion in annual sales**) With 44% of all hotel visits work-related, it’s an industry heavily dependent on business travelers. And while hotels continue adding perks designed to increase relaxation as well as productivity – everything from healthy meal options and flat screen televisions to on-site business centers and free outgoing phone calls – some travel experts say they aren’t trying hard enough.

“Hotels as a group have been slow to meet the needs of business travelers,” says Christopher Elliott, who pens the popular travel blog and newsletter. “They need to realize that by taking care of their most important customers, they can win them over for life.”

In 2008, taking care of business travelers starts with keeping them connected. “It’s all about technology, says Kathleen Ameche, author of The Woman Road Warrior and a technology consulting executive who spends approximately 30% of her time on the road. “The days of sitting around waiting for a fax are over. We need access to information, and we need it instantly.”

The industry has responded by dramatically increasing the availability of in-room Internet access. A report by Smith Travel Research and the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) estimates that 89% of hotels now offer it, compared with 50% in 2004. And wireless Internet is in place at 82% of hotels surveyed, vs. 35% in 2004. But while in-room Internet is well on its way to becoming ubiquitous, there is no pricing standard: some properties offer free access or lump it into room rates, some bill it as a separate charge, and others require a credit card number. It’s an inconsistency that annoys travelers. “You never know if you’re going to be paying or not,” says Ameche. “It’s irritating.”

Mark Johnson, CEO of SFO Media, the company that owns the popular website, adds that it’s the higher-end chains that are likely to charge for Internet access. “We’ve heard of some luxury properties charging up to $20 a day,” he says. AHLA data confirms that 75% of “luxury” and “upper upscale” properties charge for access, vs. 18% of those in the economy category. Joseph McInerney, President and CEO of AHLA, says that the inconsistency is market driven. “Customers at higher end hotels are more willing to pay for this service,” he says. “Guest at economy chains won’t.”

Lack of power outlets in older properties is another thorn in the side for business travelers. “I can always tell when I’m in a hotel that was built during the Gordon Gecko era [ Reference to the film “Wall Street” – too obscure?] because there isn’t even an outlet near the desk,” says Johnson. “You end up working in a corner somewhere just get plugged in.” He says that as hotels are renovated, rooms are generally updated with power outlets embedded into lamps or desks.

Ameche complains that hotels haven’t done enough to streamline check in. “Why aren’t there kiosks in every lobby?” she asks. “If the airlines can manage to make it work, hotels certainly can.” But Johnson says that where self-serve check in has been tested, reception has been lukewarm. “We have pictures on our site of totally deserted kiosks,” he says. “Customers just haven’t embraced it yet.” McInerney disagrees, saying that several big chains are increasing kiosk penetration at their properties.

Safety and security is a concern, especially for woman travelers. “I can’t tell you how many times a front desk clerk has handed me my key and announced my room number so that everyone in line could hear it,” Ameche says. “This is a problem.” She adds that some women feel uncomfortable visiting a hotel gym alone, and wishes that more properties would provide in-room exercise equipment. But Mcinerney sees a potential downside. “Suppose someone falls off a piece of equipment and gets hurt?” he asks. “Who will help them if they’re alone in their room?”

Then there is the industry’s tendency add fees anywhere it can, a practice Elliott refers to as nickeling and diming. “Package delivery fees, concierge fees, a fee to print your boarding pass. You name it,” he says. Johnson adds that hotels usually charge to send or receive faxes, and often manage to tack on an additional Internet fees. “If you’re paying by the day and go even a minute over the 24-hour mark, you’ll on the hook for another whole day.”
These types of unanticipated charges do little to engender guest loyalty. “Instead of looking for every opportunity to maximize revenues by inventing new surcharges, (hotels) need to realize that nickeling and diming doesn’t go over well,” Elliott says. “They need to take a long view of business travelers.”

Johnson sees a new type of hybrid business traveler emerging, one who is more likely to combine business and leisure travel. “More travelers are finishing their work on Friday and staying for the weekend,” he says. “And sometimes bringing their families along. Johnson says that for these travelers, free Wi-Fi and a business center aren’t enough.
“If hotels want to build their brands, a friendly, accessible staff is key,” he says. “The aloofness you find at some boutique properties won’t play well with this group.” Ameche applauds those hotels that create detailed guest profiles. “They can anticipate my needs because they know exactly what I like.”

Johnson says that during a recent hotel stay, he spilled something on his shirt before a meeting. An hour later, it was dry cleaned and waiting in his room.
“This is the direction that things need to move in,” he says. “To keep customers coming back, hotels need to deliver this level of service every day.”

* 2006 figures from the AHLA’s “2007 Lodging Industry Profile”
** 2006 figures based on surveys of 45 countries. Courtesy of the AHLA Information Center

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