Checked in and plugged in

Lodging "Technology butlers' and other aids signal a new era for business travelers



Convinced that business travelers these days need much more than a complimentary breakfast and a refrigerator stuffed with snacks, a growing number of hotels are offering everything from rapid Internet connections to "technology butlers." "Ten years ago ... USA Today was delivered to your room along with coffee and that was a business room," said Kathryn Potter, of the American Hotel and Motel Association in Washington. "Now you have high-speed Internet access and chairs that are ergonomically correct and the whole nine yards."

Over the past year, Hyatt International, Choice Hotels International, Hilton Hotels Corp., Wingate Inns International, Marriott International and other well-known lodging chains have announced a range of technological goodies to assist their corporate clientele. It's not difficult to see why. About 30 percent of all hotel stays are business-related, according to data compiled by the hotel association. And many of those customers have come to rely on high-tech gear to help them do their jobs while on the road, which is evident from several surveys made public late last year:

* The Travel Association of America found that one of every five business travelers had lugged a laptop computer during a recent trip and 6 percent had brought a hand-held personal digital assistant.

* Computer and Internet use among seasoned road warriors is even greater, according to a poll by Frequent Flyer Magazine. Among business travelers and others who fly regularly, it found, 70 percent carry a laptop and 47 percent use the Internet while on a trip.

* Of all business travelers queried by Opinion Research Corporation International, 59 percent said their top priority was Internet access and a computer printer in their hotel room. That preference was especially strong among businesswomen, with 68 percent listing those items as their biggest needs.

These days, even some truck stops have pay-per-use Internet terminals. So it's hardly surprising that the lodging industry is getting into the act, too.

Most places don't have it yet

Still, anyone expecting high-speed Internet access in their hotel or motel room stands a good chance of being disappointed -- at least for the near future. Most places don't offer it. And what high-tech services are available vary substantially from one lodging to another.

Take the idea of the technology butlers, which the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain came up with last fall. These computer specialists help guests at the firm's three dozen hotels with such things as connecting to the Internet, sending e-mail, setting up fax machines and sorting out software problems.

A similar concept was announced last year by the Hyatt International chain of 80 hotels and resorts, which dubbed its version of the concept "technology concierges." That chain also has announced plans to equip its hotels with high-speed laptop connections and a system to let guests surf the Internet and correspond via e-mail through a multifunctional television.

Hyatt spokeswoman Katrin Lieberwirth said it's all aimed largely at business travelers, adding, "It makes us look good, and they see that we recognize their needs."

But don't look for technology concierges at Hyatt's hotels in this country. "It's not something the domestic hotels are doing," said Gary Ross of Hyatt Hotels Corporation, which is a separate business entity with 115 hotels in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean. "Being able to use your guest room as an office is something that is important to a lot of our customers," Ross conceded. But aside from experimenting with high-speed Internet connections at two hotels in Washington state and Texas, Hyatt hotels here limit their help to renting out laptops and providing rooms with fax machines.

Some hotels have rooms equipped with personal computers, cameras for video conferences and floppy discs stored in the minibar. A few are even setting up wireless Internet hookups in their cocktail lounges, restaurants and meeting rooms. And while many hotels still lack a simple data port for plugging in a computer, that inconvenience is rapidly becoming the exception in major metropolitan areas.

Last month, the Dallas-based Wyndham International Inc. hotel chain announced that it planned to provide super-quick Internet links in 50,000 of its rooms in the U.S., Caribbean and Canada by the middle of this year. And that's just one company. Noting that the Cavanaugh Hotel chain will equip its 19 hotels with speedy Internet access by this spring, company spokesman Stephen Barbieri predicted that "five or 10 years down the road, all hotels are going to have this type of access."

Some business travelers have a few suggestions for things hotels should address right now, including the need for color printers in hotel rooms -- so they wouldn't have to go to places like Kinko's to get hard copies of reports and charts. Others wish hotels wouldn't charge so much for such services as sending faxes.

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