Mr. Davis

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The Hotel Readiness Test: Mega Events and the Connected Guest

By Jon Davis, Vice President, Business Development, Indoor Networks, ExteNet Systems Inc.

2012 has been the year of the mega events--from the Summer Olympics to the G8, the NATO Summit and multiple political conventions. For hotels, these mega events have directly collided with expectations of the new "connected guest". This guest has dramatically changing expectations and needs for wireless services in and around hotel properties and hospitality venues.

In many ways, 2012 has been an incubation test for countless hotels located in areas where mega events took place. It's no doubt that when these events occur, drawing potentially thousands of "connected guests" to hotel properties in the vicinity, hotel executives are left to wonder: will the wireless infrastructure in place meet the changing needs and expectations of these connected guests? Equally important is the future impact. Would the guest experience, relative to their wireless needs, affect their decision to stay at the property in the future? Additionally, were the wireless needs of mega event organizers-and their ability to draw crowds - affected in any way that might influence their destination, location, venue choices for future mega events?

Big Stakes Rest on Changing Perceptions

Not surprisingly, the technology profile of hotel guests has been changing rapidly for years. No longer can hotels simply provide wireless services to support laptop connections and mobile phone use. Today hotel guests expect a seamless wireless experience-no dropped mobile calls or data connectivity - from the moment they leave the taxi, through the hotel lobby, up the elevator and into a private room. These expectations exist because guests are experiencing changing wireless environments wherever they go.

For example, countless sports and entertainment facilities have stepped up their commercial wireless solutions. Fans are using their mobile devices to talk, text, download, view the game wirelessly while watching it live, and even ordering snacks and merchandise while they sit in the stands. Likewise, the consumer's wireless experience is changing in similar ways in commercial office buildings, shopping facilities, universities and even healthcare facilities, which have all aggressively pursued significant wireless upgrades. Even some high-end hotel properties are doing their part to change consumer wireless expectations. Some are presenting their guests with a media rich experience from the moment they enter their room. This might include everything from a device such as tablet available for guests to use and to order media rich applications, or to interact with concierge services and to place orders from room service.

Clearly, the environment is changing and this is affecting guest expectations. For hotels to capitalize on future business-including being in the running for future mega events, the hotel wireless infrastructure must be primed and ready. Given the mega events that took place in 2012, we wondered: is there anything hotel executives can learn or take away from hotels that experienced the connected guest and mega events in 2012? The answer is yes.

"Keys" to Moving Forward

2012 has been a turning point. If a hotel executive has not yet developed a plan to address their wireless infrastructure, more than keys are at stake. They could be putting their hotel at risk of losing critical repeat guest business, and be knocked out of the running to attract major, future events. The challenge of course is figuring out how to move from old, latent, out of date approaches to a new wireless solution that will meet hotel needs today and into the future. The issue is more than coverage. The pertinent issue today is capacity. This begs the question, what did hotels that experienced mega events in 2012 do right and how did they successfully prepare?

The Omni Severin is a great example. Located in the heart of downtown Indianapolis Indiana, the property sits in close proximity to Lucas Oil Stadium where Super Bowl XLVI took place, drawing more than 150,000 visitors. The property spans more than 425,000 square feet of newly renovated guest rooms and adjacent outdoor areas. Understanding the impact that a mega event such as the Super Bowl would have, Omni hotel executives prepared in advance. Their goal was to provide guests and visitors with access to seamless cellular service throughout the property, with an eye toward maintaining coverage especially during peak event times-such as the Super Bowl.

Relative to wireless technology, the Omni chose a distributed antenna system (DAS), also known as a distributed network, to ensure high quality signal coverage and to address capacity concerns. The objective was to ensure fewer dropped calls and enable high speed, reliable broadband wireless connections to support guest desires to stream video, text message, use social media and the like throughout the property and as they walked to the big game.

Critical to the Omni's success was engaging a neutral host provider with enough technology and market expertise that they could work closely with potential wireless carriers to resolve any issues in advance of the system deployment. This helped to ensure that the system would meet both the hotel needs relative to physical and aesthetic issues, in addition to carrier equipment needs. Likewise, the Omni was able to save time moving from decision to final deployment, by completing multiple tasks in parallel. For example, site assessment followed by network design were simultaneously conducted during contract negotiations, which industry estimates say can typically take anywhere from 30-60 days. Lastly, after careful consideration and review of many alternatives, the Omni also chose an end-to-end solution provider. One that required no capital outlay or ownership, and offered a long-term service agreement for deployment, operation and management of the new wireless distributed network. For the Omni this approach worked well because it removed any risks associated with owning, operating and maintaining the system.

Preparing for the Connected Guest

Whether your connected guests arrive individually armed with high wireless expectations, or in an onslaught as part of a mega event, it is critical that your hotel property is prepared with a wireless infrastructure that will meet their needs today and into the future.

The days of PBX revenue are far behind us as most guests transition away from using landlines. Likewise, although Wi-Fi is a part of the solution, most recognize that Wi- Fi alone will not address guest's needs for seamless wireless service throughout a hotel facility or rising capacity issues. Most experts today recognize that a commercial cellular network is required to address performance improvements including stronger signals, fewer dropped calls, less static, improved sound quality, seamless mobility, and quicker transmission of media rich content.

The following are a snapshot of the technology, financial and process management considerations to keep in mind as you and your IT team traverse the myriad of decisions to consider.

Wireless Infrastructure Considerations

• Are you starting the process soon enough? Dependent upon the property size, expert opinions on average concur that it can take 90-150 days to implement and fully optimize a new wireless infrastructure, assuming all carrier equipment is in place. In addition, front-end contract negotiations can add another 30-90 days.

• Do you have the capital or financing needed and have you determined who will pay for the infrastructure and the installation? Additionally, have you determined if it is more economically feasible to have multiple carriers share a single infrastructure? Many options exist, from no up-front cost, multi-carrier networks owned, managed and maintained by a neutral host, to single carrier networks paid for by the carrier, and multi-carrier networks owned, managed and financed by the hotel. The right solution for your property will depend on expense, assessing your in-house technical expertise, and clearly understanding the carrier issues in your area.

• Does your IT staff have the vertical wireless industry expertise to successfully manage, maintain and operate the network in addition to manage third party relationships? Commercial wireless network technology and carrier approaches are constantly changing. Ensuring the best solution for your property today and into the future requires deep industry knowledge and the ability to stay up to date on changing technology options and requirements.

• Have you confirmed which wireless carriers will be on the indoor network and what their technology needs and expectations are? Be aware that managing these issues can be highly complex. It is crucial that all issues are heard and understood. Likewise, your IT team should have the capacity to manage and reconcile the potentially disparate needs of different wireless carriers.

• Careful consideration needs to be given to site design, which should be both creative and strategic. For example, can the network be designed to cover both indoor spaces and the surrounding outdoor spaces such as parking garages, recreational areas and gardens? Related to this, have carrier and technology space requirements been reconciled with any physical space limitations and aesthetic considerations? Is there basement, rooftop or garage space available to house equipment if needed? These should be addressed with strategies to ensure that the system design will work within the properties physical limitations e.g. lower ceiling heights which being aesthetically pleasing.

• From a technology point of view, will the wireless network be compatible and adaptable to operate with today's standard technologies such as CDMA, GSM, UMTS, 3G, LTE and 4G? Is there a plan in place and expertise available for keeping the network up to speed with future technology advances?

Successfully preparing your wireless infrastructure for a mega event and the connected guests that arrive requires significant attention, dedication, planning and potentially capital. Beyond the basic considerations mentioned, it is important to carefully consider speed to market and available expertise needed. Unfortunately, there is not a cookie cutter approach that will work for every hotel. Instead, the unique needs of each facility need to be carefully considered. Although it is a considerable effort, the pay-off is the ability to market your property with best in class wireless connectivity, which will pay dividends in attracting future events and meeting the wireless expectations of guests for years to come.

Jon J. Davis leads ExteNet’s business initiatives in the area of indoor wireless distributed networks. He is a committed leader who has produced tangible results with global teams focused on sales, operations and total customer satisfaction. Before joining ExteNet Systems, Mr. Davis was Vice President of Business Development for Strategic Accounts at Toronto-based Celestica, a global provider of electronic manufacturing services. Mr. Davis has held many executive positions, including Vice President, Business Development for Flextronics International. Mr. Davis can be contacted at 630-505-3806 or jdavis@extenetsystems.com Extended Bio...

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