Road Warriors: Leave Your Laptops at Home

John Burke, vice president of technology at the Seaport Hotel in Boston, is betting that he is at the forefront of an emerging trend in hospitality services: giving guests a reason to leave their laptops at home.

Internet access now is as expected in hotel rooms as soap and shampoo. So to try to set itself apart from its rivals, the Seaport has decided to up the ante and outfit rooms with thin-client systems that have full Internet access.

Burke said the hotel has installed thin clients made by Igel Technology Inc. in 85 of its 426 rooms, with plans calling for the devices to be added to the rest of the rooms over the next 12 months. The thin clients are integrated into 17-in. flat-panel monitors with touch-screen capabilities. There are no moving parts in the Web portals, which run an embedded version of Windows XP, support applications such as Adobe Acrobat and include a wireless keyboard.

Hotel officials see the thin-client system, which they're calling the Seaportal, "as a way to leapfrog the competition" on guest services, Burke said. The Seaport also already offers Wi-Fi connectivity throughout its waterfront property on Boston Harbor.

Burke isn't the first to try the thin-client approach. LodgeNet StayOnline Inc., an Atlanta-based company that offers interactive TV and broadband services in hotels, installed thin-client systems in one national hotel chain's facilities back in 2002. But Mark Henderson, the company's vice president of marketing, said the technology didn't hold up well when used in rooms and wasn't continued.

Henderson thinks hotel guests will continue to rely on their own laptops and, increasingly, cell phones and other handheld devices for Internet connectivity. In addition, he said that IPTV -- television delivered over an IP network -- could serve multiple uses for guests, such as providing them with a larger monitor for their laptops. He sees that as the coming trend, not thin clients.

Bob O'Donnell, an analyst at IDC in Framingham, Mass., said the use of thin clients is an interesting way for a hotel to distinguish itself. But he believes that it will be a niche market, at least for a while, and that the devices will primarily be confined to higher-end hotels such as the Seaport.

Although some hotels offer Web browsing via a standard TV set, the experience isn't very good because of relatively low screen resolution, said O'Donnell. He added, though, that as hotels adopt high-definition televisions and IPTV, the devices may have multiple uses, including Web browsing.

Burke also sees an eventual convergence of devices, with a single entertainment system providing television, computer and phone services. But he said that until those offerings mature, there are immediate benefits to deploying thin clients in guest rooms.

According to Igel, which is headquartered in Germany with U.S. headquarters in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the thin clients that the Seaport is installing cost US$959 each.

Burke said Seaport officials haven't fully calculated a potential return on investment. But, he said, one benefit is the ability to use the thin clients to provide voice-over-IP service via the hotel's existing PBX system. That capability is supported via software developed by BlueNote Networks Inc. in Tewksbury, Mass.

Burke said a guest can make a telephone call by dialing the number via the thin client's touch-screen monitor, which prompts the phone in the room to ring. Once the guest picks up the handset, the call is completed. Burke said that the Seaport may switch over entirely to less-costly VoIP technology in the future if he becomes convinced of its reliability.

There may be other ROI opportunities as well, he said. For example, the hotel will use the thin clients in lieu of publishing a guest services book, and it may also use the devices to offer exhibitors at its convention center a way to keep conference attendees updated.

Burke said he thinks the systems will have low support costs, with his staff handling most services remotely, such as clearing a device's memory once a guest checks out.

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