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Guest WiFi Celebrates 20 Years Part 2

June 3rd, 2019 by

Part 1 of this blog series recounted the early days of hotel guest WiFi. Part 2 will examine network advancements as WiFi moved from being a novelty to a staple of guest expectancy and where we believe the industry is heading.

Guest WiFi Celebrates 20 Years in hospitality

Wireless becomes free to guests

The single largest factor of accelerated WiFi utilization in hotels is the decision to offer the service “Free to Guest” in the guest room. Early on, the industry enjoyed revenue from the meeting space and from high-speed connectivity originating in the guest room. There were some early adopter chains who recognized the occupancy benefits of offering free guest broadband, but the majority offered connectivity for a fee. Major chains held on to this charging model as long as they could, however the popularity and usage of WiFi continued to increase as hoteliers replaced their wired connectivity with WiFi. Competitive pressures for more occupancy drove all brands to offer it for free at some level. As decisions were made to integrate “Free to Guest” into the basic room rates, take rates spiked upward.

To drive value and maintain revenue streams, variations of the “Free to Guest” model surfaced. Many hotel brands developed a “tiered model” which charged a premium fee for a higher level of bandwidth. Another strategy was to use WiFi as a CRM tool, requiring enrollment in a rewards program to gain free access.

Networks become versatile

Given the lack of bandwidth and questionable reliability of many of the early WiFi network offerings, it was not surprising that the initial designs for these networks were singular in purpose. Early networks were installed solely to carry guest, meeting, and front-of-the-house traffic. Typical designs consisted of a single VLAN segment which carried all traffic. These “flat” networks had limited capacity or network intelligence to segment different applications and types of traffic. As Ethernet switching, wireless equipment and managed network software became more advanced, multi-segment networks started to emerge. Integrators became more sophisticated and began to build higher quality networks. Terms such as “triple play” or the combined delivery of voice/video/data to a guest room and convergence, translated as the migration of multiple applications onto one network, were used to describe the versatility of these networks. In most modern networks, guest WiFi is considered one of the applications in an engineered Ethernet transport system, versus the early days when it was the sole reason the network was being built.

The 5 Ghz frequency and rise of mobile OS

By 2010, consumer device manufacturers started to create another dynamic in the evolution of guest WiFi. WiFi-enabled mobile devices such as the iPhone and iPad were becoming standard equipment for the travelling consumer. Traditional wireless designs for guest rooms, which ensured coverage was available at the work desk, now had new coverage requirements. Guests needed more ubiquitous coverage, including four corners of the guest room, the lobby and wherever there was guest dwell time on property.

WiFi access points were traditionally produced with a single, 2.4 GHz frequency. Many of the new mobile OS devices primarily emitted signals on the 5 GHz frequency. Wireless AP manufacturers had to adapt and build radios that accommodated “dual‑band” signaling. The higher cycling frequency (5GHz) would not travel as far or penetrate as well as the lower cycling frequency (2.4GHz), so the designs for these networks became denser, requiring more access points, switching, and infrastructure cabling. The industry yet again was being called on to invest further in these network buildouts.

Today’s hotel WiFi

In 2019, no one is challenging the importance of a good wireless guest experience. Take rates routinely equal 3 times occupancy. Most of the major hotel brands now have tightly controlled standards and work with a select group of vendors who fulfill and scale to their campaigns. Rated cabling (i.e., Category 6 copper or SM/MM Fiber) are table stakes for a network design. At the WAN level, bandwidth continues to spike, as the appetite for guest bandwidth increases.

The current level of security with any visitor-based network, whether at your local coffee shop or at a 5-star resort, is most likely equally rated as fair to poor. There is a balance between areas of concern and opportunity for the hotelier related to the security of the network. Vulnerabilities of the infrastructure, defined network segmentation, and stateful packet inspection are all areas for review.  Additionally, a technically-adept support partner who can recognize and manage security breaches is increasing in importance. Hotel owners will need to look at services like proactive network security audits and the additional budgeting costs required to complete them as a cost of doing business.

What’s in store for the future?

Since inception, there have been 5 versions of the IEEE WiFi standards, including 802.11a, b, g, n, and ac. WiFi 6 (IEEE 802.11ax) is starting to be commercially introduced and carries some hospitality-friendly advancements.

  • Advanced MIMO (Multiple Input/Multiple Output) capabilities will afford a better experience for highly dense areas, such as meeting rooms or trade shows floors at school room capacity.
  • As 4K video content finds its way into the guest room, the added bandwidth capacity realized by by WiFi 6 will allow streaming 4K video content delivery with minimal latency.
  • Power-saving capabilities that won’t drain batteries as quickly will be particularly important for guest’s mobile OS and the property’s IoT devices.

The future of public WiFi security is in a standard called WPA3, which is a replacement for the existing WPA2 standard. WPA3 will resolve many of the issues by encrypting the data between the device and access point, which typically is the most vulnerable segment of the connection. This level of cryptography should become a security game‑changer for public wireless networks.

Lastly, there is a notion that cellular data services, such as LTE and 5G, will supplant the need for public WiFi networks. The appetite for managed and secure WiFi bandwidth has been on a steady increase for the past 20 years, showing no signs of slowing down. For example, new virtualized gaming services will require minimum connections at 40 MBPS per device. These connections speeds will continue to out-strip current standards and apply additional pressure on public venues such as hotels to stay ahead of the curve.

Many are turning to well-versed hospitality partners to help improve guest interactions with the latest in data, communications, networking and security technology. Windstream Enterprise just so happens to be one of them. Our hospitality experts will be at HITEC June 18-20. Stop by booth #2932 with any questions and learn more about our offerings.

Celebrating 20 Years of Guest WiFi Part 1

May 1st, 2019 by

In 1999, a trade organization based in Austin, Texas (later to be known as the WiFi Alliance) searched for a name for a new network protocol that extended Ethernet LAN connectivity wirelessly. A committee was formed, and coined the phrase “Wireless Fidelity”, patterned after the term “High Fidelity” used in a stereo system. Wireless fidelity, or WiFi, then became the term for this new technology, and connectivity to the internet has never been the same.

As we look back at the past 20 years, let’s review some of the most notable moments and developments and their impact on the hospitality industry.

Guest Wifi in hotels and the hospitality industry

Wired to the guest room and wireless in the lobby

Many of the first installations of WiFi in hotel properties limited the wireless connectivity to the lobby, while wired connectivity was the primary broadband delivery method to guest and meeting rooms. The use of branded, desktop ports or face plates were the latest trend as guests brought along their patch cords to plug into the public Internet jack in their room. Adoption rates for WiFi started very slowly, as most laptops did not have the capability to connect wirelessly.

PCMCIA cards and wireless access in guest’s rooms

As take rates for public hospitality broadband continued to increase, the traveling consumer started to realize that the flexibility and freedom of “cutting the cord and catching the wave” made WiFi an extremely attractive alternative to plugging in a patch cord and staying tethered to a desk. Wireless Ethernet cards that connected into the PCMCIA slot of the laptop made it easier for the guest’s laptop to connect to the WiFi being offered, and many of the early adopter’s wireless hotel properties would rent these cards to guests eager to try this new access method. For the hotelier, wireless to the guest room provided a cost-effective method to get high-speed Internet access to the guest floors without having to install rated cabling in every room. So, early adopter hotels were eager to deploy.

Is bad WiFi better than none at all?

As guest WiFi started to become a necessity in a hotel instead of a nice surprise, the race intensified among hotel brands, owners and management companies to light up every guest room. Young companies, desperate for market share and to increase the number of guest rooms in service, offered questionable technology, business models, and RF designs to attract, scale and strive for consistent growth. The industry was anxious to deploy, and of course, migrated to the most attractive business technology models offered, typically with the least amount of risk and cost.

When you combined these market factors with an increasing base of guests using the service, with quickly escalating requirements for additional coverage and bandwidth, it left many operators with networks that were obsolete at the time of installation, which very quickly became a source of guest dissatisfaction. Over the years, it is not uncommon to find an existing hotel property required to retrofit the guest WiFI three or four times.

The world of WiFi

While the hotel industry embraced WiFi early on, residential broadband suppliers eventually started to offer integrated routers and cable modems that carried WiFi signals. Additionally, public venues such as airports, coffee shops and restaurants also started to recognize the value of offering WiFi as a way to attract customers. Visitor‑based, wireless networks drove increased revenue and dwell time in these locations. One famous fast‑food chain went on record stating “We are using WiFi to sell more hamburgers.” Municipalities and local communities soon started to follow by building city‑wide wireless metro area networks to enable WiFi anywhere in town. The rise in popularity for outfitting WiFi at home, where you shop and eat, in your community, and where you travel, placed additional pressure on the hotel industry to ensure good connectivity was available. As the public’s appetite for wireless bandwidth grew, “Follow-Me” wireless started to take shape, and this access method, which started out as a way to extend a private LAN where no cables existed, was quickly becoming viewed as a utility.

The early days of hotel WiFi were filled with fits and starts, low usage, questionable technology and business models, and saw other industries take steps toward creating public WiFi networks wherever and whenever a customer had extended dwell time. Stay tuned for the second part of this series to understand the business drivers that moved hospitality wireless broadband into high gear and established it as a required guest amenity in any lodging asset; rivalling cleanliness, location, and comfortable beds as key decision drivers for booking a room. We’ll also examine modern-day hotel WiFi and where we believe the industry, networks, and technology are headed.

Hospitality and the Impacts of Network Technology

March 18th, 2019 by

One of the biggest challenges the hospitality industry faces is how to best leverage the ever-evolving technology services available. Tech-focused efforts to create brand differentiation and yield greater value are significant and ongoing, as hospitality companies compete for additional wallet share from travelling consumers.

Hotel guest staying at a hotel using guest wi-fi and hotel network

While hospitality brands continue to investigate and evaluate the latest trends—drawing primarily from the residential market to re-create or surpass an “at-home” experience—hotel management is assessing the impacts of these technologies by asking two key questions:

  • Will this technology contribute to a positive guest experience?
  • Will this technology improve employee productivity?

With different perspectives on which investments will maximize returns—corporate brand leadership, franchise owners and site managers may have differing goals and objectives for the same property.

A typical hotel has multiple IT platforms to support operations and guest experience, spanning from property management systems to the guest Wi-Fi. Hotel technologists are becoming increasingly dependent on migrating—and potentially outsourcing—these systems to the cloud, as it becomes cost-prohibitive to continue staffing resources to manage on-site infrastructure.

Below are five factors influencing decision makers in the hospitality space.

  1. Security. Having ample high-speed bandwidth has become table stakes for most operators so the focus has shifted to security. Providing guests with an unsecure public Internet connection while on property is akin to offering a guest a room without door locks. Hospitality network administrators must look for both physical and logical network vulnerabilities—something as simple as installing secure, lockable data racks in a telecom infrastructure closet can make a big difference. Operators must also separate traffic for “front of house” and “back of house” connectivity and apply the appropriate security measures as cost-effectively as possible. Intrusion detection has become an ever-growing challenge due to network complexity and hacker sophistication. The good news is, there are plenty of managed security services—from DDoS mitigation to firewalls and compliance services—that can alleviate maintenance and ensure the hotelier always has the most current version and policy in place.
  1. Mobile connectivity. Mobile connectivity enables new demands based on guests’ behavior, and that demand is now dictating the way networks are designed and built. In 2019, being constantly connected is part of the expectation while travelling. Gone are the days when “good enough” wireless coverage in the guest’s room will earn a positive guest satisfaction score. When guests arrive, they want to be greeted by robust Wi-Fi in the porte-cochère, before they even get to the lobby. Wherever there is guest dwell time, guests will expect to be connected. Not to mention, employees serving those guests require pervasive wireless connectivity to ensure guest needs are met. 
  1. Redundancy. As hoteliers move applications to the cloud with diverse connection types, they need to retain the reliability realized when moving their applications to a controlled data center environment. Diverse connections can also increase aggregate WAN bandwidth while adding redundancy to improve uptime and performance. Today’s hospitality IT professional has options to choose from, including specialized “over‑the‑top” services such as SD-WAN. 
  1. Personal area networking. For extended-stay properties, the concept of “at home” connectivity takes on extra meaning. Families or groups staying in larger spaces for longer periods of time are more likely to bring additional network devices (laptops, gaming stations, casting devices, etc.) to re‑create their at home network. A personal area network (PAN) allows guests to securely create their own personal local area network (LAN) by adding devices to a unique virtual LAN (VLAN) assigned specifically to them. 
  1. IOT. Internet of things (IOT) devices are rapidly being introduced in the hospitality space to enable automation. Enhanced voice capabilities focused on AI, IP video surveillance, and access control are three main areas where IOT devices are being deployed. With this, networks need to account for increasing bandwidth and security needs. Physical cable plant extensions, coverage placements, and logical network segmentation in a converged setting are necessary to ensure uninterrupted packet delivery.

While these five factors are not an all-inclusive list—they help to define next‑generation network requirements in the hospitality industry. IT communities and lodging companies who leverage these technologies in their deployment plans—for both new-build properties as well as retrofits—will be well prepared to reap the rewards from these investments, to the benefit of guests and staff alike.

Hotel Phone Systems: Is It Time to Upgrade Your Phones?

June 18th, 2018 by

Today’s guests have high expectations. They demand a frictionless guest experience in exchange for their loyalty. The booking process is an early and significant aspect of the guest experience. Guests are looking to quickly and easily book their stay – and they want to do it via their preferred communication channel.

Many hotels still rely on a “phone system” to power the reservations contact center. The basic function of taking a call, processing a reservation and posting to PMS are no longer cutting it. Plus, peak periods can leave your “phone system” lagging behind, not being able to keep up with the demand. In order to leave a lasting impression during this initial guest encounter, you need to provide a simple and unique booking experience with no glitches. Remember, the guest experience begins now, not when the guest arrives on-property.

Hospitality digital transformation

The hospitality industry must move past primarily communicating via voice or email. Guests now expect real-time communication that is available over a host of channels (voice, email, chat, text, etc.). Many properties find themselves band-aiding together multiple cumbersome applications in an effort to meet these communications demands. It feels disjointed to your staff, and it ultimately feels disjointed to the guest as well.

Delivering guest interactions that are simple and mobile friendly require a digital transformation strategy.  This may be as simple as providing a “Contact Us” button on your website that allows guests to interface with your property via voice, email, chat or SMS text, or it may be as “new-age” as interacting with them on social media platforms.

To maintain the loyalty of customers and gain the loyalty of new guests, we must not only allow guests to communicate via their preferred channel, but also be privy to the path they took to get there. Have they communicated with your call center before? What channel did they use? Were their questions answered or issues resolved? What are their loyalty program preferences and purchasing tendencies? Having this background information available to your reservations team personalizes the booking experience and leaves a favorable impression with the guest.

Empowering your staff and delivering a multi-channel guest journey can be accomplished with relative ease by deploying cloud-based contact center applications. These applications provide all the tools needed for agents to be knowledgeable and helpful while providing the digital interactions that will suit the preferences of a wide range of guests.

These Contact Center as a Service (CCaaS) options not only satisfy the primary concerns of hotel CROs but improve them significantly:

  • Agent productivity
  • ROI or yield equivalents focused on getting the most REVPAR per guest interaction
  • Fostering a healthy “co-opetition” with the OTAs
  • Harnessing big data and applying the right level of personalization
  • Property-level vs. centralized reservations
  • Integrating mobile apps, social media, live chat and other digital communications into the guest reservation experience
  • Maintaining a CRM distinguishing loyalty tiers

A well-versed hospitality partner like Windstream Enterprise can help you improve your guest interactions with the latest in CCaaS technology. Our Hospitality Contact Center experts will be at HITEC on June 19-20 at booth #1427. Stop by with questions about your contact center and learn more about our for the hospitality industry.

Hotel IT: Hoteliers Must focus on GXaaS (Guest Experience as a Service)

May 29th, 2018 by

To most hotel professionals, operators, and brands, the guest experience is everything. It is the item that is most discussed, measured, shared, and evaluated as the lodging companies compete for their share of the travelling consumer’s dollar. Hotel, time-share, and resort companies strive every day to raise the bar of their staying experiences to create that unexpected delight in their guest’s eyes. The great memory of that experience, while elusive, is the target for most in the business. The focus of all in hospitality should be elevating and transforming the guest experience.

Elevating your brand with improved service loyalties

More specifically at the brand level, the promise of consistent and excellent service creates loyalties at the brand level. There is comfort in the sameness and knowing what to expect when you step into a branded hotel property. Travelers rely on this and reciprocate by participating in brand loyalty programs and the like.

Improve booking experience

An often-overlooked aspect of the guest experience is the entire booking process. Frequent travelers are looking for quickness and convenience, event shoppers may be looking for price or location. Hoteliers who have mastered delivering a reservation with the right mix of guest demographics and personal attention can win favorable attention with the guest before they ever set foot in the lobby.

Improving the guest experience with the Power of One

Windstream Enterprise’s compelling Power of One program aligns very tightly with transforming the overall guest experience. Quite simply, The Power of One is defined as our suite of vertically aligned and cloud-based network solutions that can assist the Hotelier across the entire spectrum of the guest experience, essentially what we term as GXaaS (Guest Experience as a Service). The Power of One simplifies the guess work of elevating the guest experience by providing the network infrastructure and tools to assist in reaching for that 5 star level of guest satisfaction. Here are some examples which can be bundled through the Power of One or obtained separately.

  • SD -WAN – As you move your business to the cloud, the network becomes the critical link. Windstream Enterprise’s SD-WAN provides that level of highly reliable and diverse connectivity to make your path to the cloud more secure, highly available, and with bandwidth to spare.
  • Hospitality’s Virtual PBX – This is your cloud-based answer to the conundrum of what to do with aging PBX equipment in an existing property, or a fantastic converged application for a new build property. This purpose-built hospitality voice system is a complete, highly flexible system to process and all voice traffic originating from the property. Shift management and performance of the phone system to the cloud.
  • Industry Leading Wi-Fi – Windstream Enterprise’s fast-growing HSIA and converged network solutions practice is adding properties daily. Our experienced sales engineering, service delivery, and support teams build and support guest-pleasing networks, in what is fast becoming known as the 4th Utility in a Hotel.
  • Contact Center Practice – The guest experience doesn’t begin at arrival. It begins when they get on the phone and call for reservations or speak to someone about their accommodations. Windstream Enterprise’s stable of premise-based and cloud solutions for Contact Center, along with an entire team focused on optimizing this critical first guest interaction, can help you to set the stage for a great, REVPAR-enhancing guest visit.

WE at HITEC

In a hotel, many times the secret to the guest experience are the details of the service delivery. There is “devil” in the details, but there is also excellence. WE urge you to stop by our HITEC booth 1427 and talk to us about your specific challenges. You will quickly find that our team of hospitality ninjas will establish themselves as partners to focus on your most pressing needs to really elevate and transform not only your guest or staff experience, but your entire network platform, whether at a property, sales office, or corporate office location.

Hotel IT: 3 Ways to Improve Hotel Networks

May 1st, 2018 by

It’s a known fact many hotel owners and management companies prefer to capitalize their purchases and expenses. Paying for products and services as a budgeted capital expense allows goodies like depreciation of the asset and scheduling those cost allocations. “One-timing” the purchase also allows the property to increase or conserve that precious NOI (Net Operating Income), a key factor in increasing the value of the real estate/lodging asset (remember playing Monopoly as a kid?). Many hotel management companies negotiate their management fees and incentives around increasing this key NOI metric.

Conversely, most SaaS, UCaaS, and virtualized equipment models are built with a focus on the monthly service fees; i.e., a fixed pay-as-you-go, with an emphasis on rolling the installation, equipment, software licensing, support, etc. into the monthly payment, with the capital buried somewhere into the monthly operational charges. Managed network services, such as Windstream’s Virtual PBX for Hospitality solution, also use this model. Many other virtualized services, and the companies that distribute them, are focused on increasing the monthly recurring revenue (MRR) as more clients sign up and engage.

Moving to virtualized services in a capex focused environment

So how does today’s hotel IT manager, who likes the flexibility, centralized management, high availability, and reduced equipment footprint on-property that a centralized, hosted/cloud-based platform provides, take advantage of these services when it appears many of the commercial business models are setup in the exact opposite direction of how they prefer to buy?

Following are three primary options for making it happen:

1) Build Your Own – By creating your own server farm, the IT manager can capitalize most of the elements of equipment purchase, software licensing fees, applications running on it, installation, etc. This also allows the IT manager to completely customize the offering from the ground-up. It’s key to remember that there is typically a high level of expertise, effort, and resources needed to be able build your own hosted platform.

2) Prepaid Services – Another, and quite possibly less labor intensive route, would be to negotiate pre-paying (or perhaps annualizing) for the monthly service fees associated with the service. While you would need to consult a tax advisor on how to treat this expense for items such as depreciation, one could certainly shift this into a “one-time” expense/budget allocation for predictable annual and/or TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) budgeting.

3) Hybrid – If there are certain elements of the virtualized services, such as infrastructure hardware costs, cabling, or installation fees, negotiate with your integrator to capitalize as much of those fees as possible. Maximizing any of the elements of the capital purchase while still paying for any hosted subscription fees could create a win/win.

While there’s no single right answer for the above, we believe that hotel IT managers and the integrators who partner with them should stay flexible and look for solutions based upon their property’s particular fiscal objectives. In doing so, they will ultimately conquer this conundrum and be successful in their IT transformation initiatives by deploying their own stable of above property solutions.

With hotel networks, one size does not fit all

Even within a single hotel owner’s portfolio there may not be one single direction that is a fit for all properties. Hotel owners may have assets they want to move out of their portfolio and the investment decision for that property will differ from the investment decision for a property that the owner plans to maintain for the long term.

While there has been a shift in the technology, owners still rely on fundamentals like TCO, ROI, and the current tax code when making a buying decision. Furthermore, many of the owners are publicly traded equity REIT’s that have the added focus on corporate governance and increasing shareholder value.

Let’s connect at HITEC Houston

The Windstream Hospitality Team will be at HITEC this year in Houston, June 18-21. We’re going to be at booth 1427 if you want to make a note in your smart phone to stop by and discuss how to improve your network and manage your costs effectively. By working together with a knowledgeable network provider – one that offers a broad range of options that can be tailored to your needs – you will be sure to design the best possible solution for your unique goals and needs.

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