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Cisco Systems paraded its vision of the networked hotel of the future last week with the official launch of the first hotel in Ireland to offer premium IP-telephony based services.

The four star Crowne Plaza in Dublin has invested in a unified infrastructure for voice, data and video based on a single IP network to deliver services like unified messaging, high-speed wireless Net access and streaming video.

The idea is that hotels can recoup the increased costs of deploying more advanced technology (IP phones, for example, typically cost £150 and up) by generating extra revenue. Cisco has come up with a package of services for the hospitality industry, also launched last week, marking its entry into a sector which is traditionally conservative in its approach to IT.

Josephine Burdon, business development manager for hospitality at Cisco Systems, said that technology has become a means for hotels to sustain a competitive advantage. Cisco has timed its push to coincide with a projected upturn in hotel occupancy after a tough couple of years. Last year's SARS epidemic and the war in Iraq, compounded by a slowdown in the economy, hit the travel and hospitality industries particularly hard.

US four and five star hotels will soon need to provide high-speed Net access as a matter of course. Cisco argues this could be the starting point for hotels refurbishing their networks for the 21st century and so replacing a number of proprietary systems with a single system built around a common IP-based platform.

Cisco’s Burdon notes that hotels go through a refurbishment cycle of between five to seven years and are not early adopters of technology. But she makes a decent case that hotels can boost their revenue per room by plumbing money into networking kit.

That vision thang

Cisco reckons that hotels could use networking technology to create a more flexible environment to tailor room services to a guest's personal preference, such as a personalised phone directory with speed dials. Guest preferences submitted through reward card schemes could be applied more easily each time they visit a hotel in a particular chain.

Ideas like that along with more cost effective security system and electronic check-in are more for the future. Some value added services are deliverable today.

Beyond the networked fridge...
Most large hotels offer video services which generate substantial revenues; but they could generate more. By using a flexible Cisco IP infrastructure the existing manual process is eliminated and hotels can offer a wider choice of entertainment services, including digital movies on demand and an interactive portal supplying guest services.

In the case of Crowne Plaza only six movies were on offer during our overnight stay last week. So there's no greater choice for guests although they do have the option of starting and pausing movies at any time that is absent from traditional systems. IP telephones in guest rooms give rather more extras -not least a convenient Ethernet port to use with a laptop.

The screen on the phone can be used to display ads for local restaurants and its software programmed to provide rapid dials to those outlets. Guests can set wake-up calls, either through their phone or TV. A networked fridge automatically records purchases when a guest takes out an item and remains locked when a guest is outside a room. Maids can record when a room is cleaned on the IP phone so there's operational efficiencies there too.

Cisco's system lets hotel guests access the Net through set-top boxes and their TV, but Crowne Plaza's system stops short at providing that kind of access. Wi-Fi access is available only in the five storey hotel's ground floor. Crowne Plaza has a 2Mbps pipe to the Net delivered over the kinds of long-range Ethernet technology Cisco's partners (e.g. FastWeb in Italy and Sweden's Bredbandsbolgat) have used to provide ultra-high speed Net access to residential blocks in European cities like Milan.

Profitable occupancy

Crowne Plaza is arguably not using its network to its maximum potential, but financial director John O'Connor reckons the system will pay for itself within three years ,through "more profitable occupancy". After successfully pioneering advanced networking tech at Crown Plaza, O'Connor is extending the technology to other hotels.

Clontarf Castle, a twelfth-century Hotel in North County Dublin, will implement a Cisco IP Communications system which will make wireless and high speed Internet access available to all its guests from the end of March 2004.

Other chains will follow suit, says O'Connor. "Customer service expectations have gone up. Business people want Net access so they can increase their productivity when they are out of the office." ®

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