Hospitality offering ‘promising’ business for AV integrators
Hotels increasingly see AV as key for differentiating their guest experiences and maximising revenue. Tim Kridel explores the opportunities.
As one of the world’s fastest- growing cities, Shenzhen, China, keeps sprouting skyscrapers. Many of them are hotels, some of which have a feature that highlights a promising trend in hospitality AV.
“Looking out my window right now, there’s a dozen buildings that are giant video screens,” says Bradley Drummond, the Shenzhen-based hospitality solutions director for Harman Professional Solutions. “In Asia, there’s a massive trend toward media façades: turning an entire building into a video screen. Combining AV into the architecture is certainly a big way forward.”
Whether they use LEDs or projectors, media façades help hotels stand out—literally—from the competition. As with any other AV technology, the key to ensuring the best results while avoiding cost overruns is for AV to work closely and early with the architect. But as with any other vertical, hotel projects typically don’t bring AV in until the architecture and other construction details are finalised.
Some integrators and vendors say hospitality is starting to break that tradition.
“We’ve definitely seen a big trend in AV being involved a lot earlier,” Drummond says.
“Combining AV into the architecture is certainly a big way forward.”
“What’s become a huge focus for us is working in the early phases of construction and design to incorporate the AV as part of the structure and work it into the whole facility rather than being an afterthought,” says Bill Lally, president of Mode:Green, a US-based integrator specialising in hospitality.
One reason for this change is money: Hotels increasingly recognise the role that AV plays in boosting revenue. An obvious example is conference spaces and ballrooms, where AV’s ability to wow partygoers and enable immersive business events can help integrators get more budget and a greater say prior to construction.
“Almost 15% of their revenue is generated by renting out their ballrooms and meeting rooms, so those are important spaces to them,” Lally says of one major hotel, adding that for another: “They do about US$100 million (approximately €86 million) a year overall: US$60 million in rooms and US$40 million in food and beverage and meeting spaces.”
Media façades and meeting spaces aren’t the only ways that hotels are leveraging AV to help attract guests and other business.
“At some of the W Hotels, they’re installing full recording studios and attracting local and name artists,” says Dave Labuskes, AVIXA CEO, who has moderated panels at several recent hospitality conferences.
W Hotels is just one of the 30 brands owned by Marriott International, which bought Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide in 2015. As chains get bigger, they’re scrounging for new ways to differentiate their brands—not just between one another, but also against the competition, especially boutiques. For hotels that target tech- savvy demographics, AV can be a powerful way to differentiate and reinforce their brand.
“Many of those are investing extensively in AV technology to create a memorable experience, which has two advantages,” Labuskes says. “It means a satisfied customer. Secondly, they’re creating what they’re calling ‘Instagram moments’: When a guest can interact with a large-scale display in the lobby that responds to their actions, that tends to make its way into social media and becomes a very valuable marketing tool for the chain.”
Some hotels are trying to enable memorable experiences by giving guests ways to customise their rooms. For example, at InfoComm earlier this year, Lally did a chat with a Marriott lead architect who discussed how hotels could use virtual reality.
“They were talking about dynamically changing rooms, like you have direct-view LED on walls that if you want to be in the jungle, you push a button,” Lally says. “That’s cool, but it’s tough for me in the integration and implementation world to see where developers are buying off and implementing those sorts of technologies.”
“Almost 15% of [this hotel’s] revenue is generated by renting out their ballrooms and meeting rooms.”
Time will tell whether those concepts become reality. But the fact that hotels are pondering them at all bodes well for AV in terms of getting bigger budgets and a seat at the planning table.
“I’ve been involved in conversations where people talk about completely blank physical spaces that are transformed completely every time a new guest arrives,” Labuskes says.
“If I can customise the ‘canvas’ in any hotel room to be what I want, then how is the hotel property going to differentiate itself? That question couldn’t be asked without an assumption that we’re moving toward more and more strategic installation of AV technology.”
Residential experiences set expectations
At larger hotels, especially those with extensive meeting spaces, AV also can save money. One longstanding example is using digital signage for wayfinding. That helps keep staff levels low because employees don’t have to spend time fielding questions about where ballroom X is.
A more recent example is speech control in guest rooms. In June, Amazon announced Alexa for Hospitality [pictured below], a version of its voice assistant customized for hotel installations, with Marriott as the first announced customer.
Speech control can save money by reducing the amount of staff required to field calls about how to adjust the temperature or operate the shades. It also can be linked to artificial intelligence platforms so guests can say, “I need more towels,” and an alert is automatically sent to housekeeping instead of being filled manually by the front desk. (For a deeper dive into speech control for hospitality applications, see “AI and AV: Rise of the machines” in the January- February 2018 InAVate.)
Of course, the actual savings depends heavily on how many guests understand the concept of speech-powered virtual assistants. If a boutique or chain brand caters to millennials and other tech-savvy demographics, then the savings could be significant.
Speech control also is an example of how hotels see the latest and greatest technologies— including AV such as 4K TVs—as key for meeting guest expectations about what’s possible and preferable.
“Fifteen, twenty years ago, hotel technology definitely was more advanced than in your home,” Drummond says. “Lately it’s gone the opposite. Consumer technology is evolving so quickly. Now you walk into a hotel room, and more often than not, it’s behind the technology you have at home. Guests expect to have what they have in their home, and a lot of that is voice [controlled] now.”
Guests also expect hotel AV systems to work flawlessly, which is a bar too high for some vendors to clear.
“One hotel we work with put smart TVs in 200 rooms,” says Carl-Fredrik Malmgren, Fremlab AB owner. “Every day, in 10-15 rooms, the player box crashed, stopped and the only [fix] was to reset it.
“After six months, they took everything out and put the old analogue system back in. It was just one of those small suppliers promising more than they could cope with.
“There is just one thing that matters: It must work, and it must work easily and every time.
“We have been sniffing into that area, but I see also a lot of challenges.” so I have avoided this area.”
Blending in here, standing out there
Another way AV technology can help save money is by minimising the amount of staff required to field and resolve complaints about noise in hotel rooms, a common complaint.
One example is a TV blaring into adjacent rooms. That’s a problem as old as TV itself, but it’s gotten worse as CRTs gave way to plasmas and LCDs.
“A few months ago, we came out with a soundbar that has a bracket that isolates the speaker from the wall so it doesn’t pass sound through it,” Drummond says.
“TVs are getting so small now that you don’t see speakers on the front. They shoot sound off the back and bounce it off the wall. That can disturb the people next door.”
Because they’re still rare in hotel rooms, soundbars also are an example of how AV gear sometimes needs to be visible in order to help the brand impress customers. “You see the investment,” Drummond says. “It’s a step above what you’d normally get.”
But in other areas, AV gear needs to disappear.
“One big focus we have this year is partnering with companies that are willing to make customised products for us and working [those] in with designs,” Lally says.
One example he offers is getting speaker grills that match up to LED lighting systems so that everything looks linear across the ceiling.
“We are doing a lot of hidden/invisible stuff, [such as] short-throw projectors that are buried in ballroom ceilings so they’re not hanging down [during wedding receptions],” he adds.
Respect for the past
Historic hotels face the challenge of matching the technological amenities that new properties have but without undermining the elderly architecture that helps differentiate them. It’s quick and easy to run fibre or copper when a hotel is under construction. It’s not when it’s a century old and appointed with marble floors, plaster ceilings and walnut panelling.
Hence the appeal of Wi-Fi for applications such as digital signage and surveillance cameras. Some models of access points (APs) can be meshed together wirelessly, reducing the amount of backhaul cable required for a property-wide wireless LAN (WLAN).
If guest rooms already have Cat5/6 cable, another option is to use APs embedded in wall plates, which re-use that cable. Wall plate APs often can cover multiple adjacent rooms, thus reducing or eliminating the expense and architectural impact of installing APs in hallways.
But even with these innovations, Wi-Fi still faces plenty of challenges in both historic and new hotels. For starters, there’s only so much Wi-Fi spectrum available in a given area—and it’s particularly scarce in cities because adjacent buildings’ WLANs compete with the hotel’s.
Guest devices such as laptops also compete with the hotel’s AV systems for Wi-Fi spectrum. In surveys, in-room Wi-Fi often ranks as the top amenity travellers consider when choosing where to stay. And it needs to be fast: One TripAdvisor survey found that nearly 30% are willing to pay more for faster Wi-Fi.
“At some of the W Hotels, they’re installing full recording studios and attracting local and name artists.”That’s why hotels have a vested interest in putting guest devices atop the pecking order, to the point that AV often can’t go wireless.
“Anywhere we can get a wire to, we still pull it especially with regard to room controls and things like that simply because there’s so much wireless traffic,” Lally says. “A lot of the automation and controls we do are ZigBee based, and Wi-Fi just tramples all over that. And a lot of the devices we’re using—[such as] security cameras—are PoE.”
Powersoft Audio sees a similar preference for cables in hospitality applications.
“I think wired networks are still the preferred method to integrate an AV network, with wireless network capabilities now relegated to the mere control of the system,” says Francesco Fanicchi, brand and communication director. “For instance, the remote access, monitoring and diagnostic to our amplifier platforms is available both through standard Cat5 cabled and Wi-Fi. [That way], the user can be just a click away from unleashing its full potential and tweaking parameters, whether via laptop, PC, tablet or smartphone.”