[ny times] FOR business travelers like her, a Wi-Fi connection in a hotel is nonnegotiable.
“Reliable Wi-Fi service is absolutely critical for me. I have come to expect it as naturally as a telephone in the room,” said Ms. Smadja, the president of Smadja & Associates USA, part of a Geneva-based family firm that manages worldwide economic seminars.
The demand for Wi-Fi was never more insistent than last month, when volcanic ash caused a six-day shutdown of air service in Europe and affected millions of business travelers around the world. Many of them, like Ms. Smadja, who was in Asia trying to get to Switzerland, used their hotel rooms as a base while they scrambled online to make alternate travel arrangements.
The days when business travelers routinely fretted about the availability of Internet connections in hotels are gone, or rapidly fading. Even business travelers who are bereft of Internet access know that Wi-Fi hot spots can be easily found on sites like the WiFi Alliance’s hot spot finder (wi-fi.jiwire.com), which lists tens of thousands of free and pay access locations around the world.
If a hotel connection is unsatisfactory or unavailable, and finding a nearby hot spot isn’t feasible, there are other options. Business travelers going by car — as many do on shorter trips — can usually find high-speed connections for around $10 at Interstate truck stops, which often provide desktop work spaces as well.
Also, growing numbers of travelers carry smartphones that can use either Wi-Fi or cellular connections to reach the Internet. Others carry an AirCard, a small modem that can link laptops to the Internet using cellular networks and fills in when standard Wi-Fi isn’t available. (Many cellular providers charge $40 to $60 for AirCard service plans.)
Still, in recent years, most hotels have heeded the message that business travelers require Wi-Fi access — no excuses accepted. While many convention and luxury hotels still impose a daily charge for access, most midlevel hotels and even many budget-price hotels now provide it free. And corporate travel managers are pushing hard for all hotels to provide free access, pointing out that customers, especially younger ones, live in a world where free Wi-Fi is expected.
Moreover, despite the mild travel recovery under way, hotels no longer have the degree of pricing power that they had in years immediately preceding the recession. Corporate travel managers are in a strong bargaining position, even with big four-star-level convention hotels that have always charged for Wi-Fi access.
“When the recession occurred, it appeared that convention hotels were still dug in, seeing Wi-Fi charges as a continuing source of revenue,” said Carl Schneider, the founder of GuestRights, an online membership program providing customer-service feedback for hotel managers. “They seemed to feel they had a captive audience, that business travelers definitely needed the Wi-Fi and would pay for it in addition to the room rate for corporate meetings and conventions.”
That’s changing. In an online survey in late April by the Association of Corporate Travel Executives, 80 percent of travel managers said that Wi-Fi availability was a “deal-maker/breaker” in deciding which hotels to select.
Long gone are the days when a business hotel could shrug off a shaky, or even nonexistent, connection. “Providing Wi-Fi isn’t an option, it’s a requirement,” said Richard Crum, the president of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives. Mr. Crum predicted that as the current travel recovery gained traction, convention and luxury hotels would bow to pressure and start dropping the fees.
It isn’t just the extra $10 or $12 a day, he said. It’s also a cultural shift in expectations. “I mean, you can walk into a McDonald’s and get it free,” he said. “It’s also the hassle factor associated with paying per day, with having to get on your mobile device and put in your room number and code. You just want Wi-Fi that works and is ready to go.”
Marriott International, whose 3,400 worldwide properties include the midlevel Courtyard and the luxury Ritz-Carlton brands, has a major corporate initiative under way to re-evaluate Wi-Fi supply and demand, by way of anticipating future requirements from an ever-expanding array of devices, whether laptops, Wi-Fi smartphones, Kindles or big Wi-Fi video systems for meetings.
Bandwidth is the mantra. “You can’t ignore your bandwidth anymore,” said Page Petry, a senior vice president for Marriott’s information technology. Hotel owners “can’t just say, ‘Oh, we upgraded our bandwidth yesterday and now we don’t have to worry about it.’ You always have to be proactively planning so you don’t get yourself in a situation again where you have a lot of congestion and you’re trying to play catch-up.”
Traditionally, she said, a hotel “built out a network whenever they had a different type of device that needed to be accommodated, whether it was a telephone, a TV or a PC.” The result was a “multitude of networks” at work in most hotels. Marriott is working to converge those into a unified network in which demand can be managed hour by hour, especially as people tend to remain online for longer periods, gobbling up bandwidth.
The proliferation of personal devices like smartphones that can use both Wi-Fi and cellular connections probably won’t reduce bandwidth demand. In hotels, those users often opt for Wi-Fi. “Many of these mobile devices work more effectively and burn less battery life on Wi-Fi, where they’re usually able to access sites that are higher in graphic intensity,” Mr. Crum said.
In making arrangements for an annual conference this month in Chicago, planners required that the hotel guaranteed free Wi-Fi access throughout the building, not in just rooms and public spaces, but in meeting spaces too. They also worked with cellular providers to improve signals in meeting areas, were cellular coverage was typically weaker.
“You know how they ask you to turn off mobile devices in most meetings? Well, not here,” Mr. Crum said. “I want people posting to Twitter and Facebook, communicating, using social networks, setting up meetings. I want full connectivity.”
At Hotels, Making Wi-Fi as Standard as a Bed