Chamber of Commerce is purchasing electronic concierges for two hotels

Kiosks will direct visitors to points of interest

May 14, 2001|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

There is no concierge in many Howard County hotels to sing the praises of local restaurants, point visitors to the best shopping, or connect travelers with cabs, airport shuttles or rental cars. So the Howard County Chamber of Commerce decided to play the part.

The chamber is purchasing two kiosks - electronic concierges - to place in two county hotels this summer that will guide visitors to the stores, restaurants, religious services, entertainment and transportation of businesses that buy advertising on the devices.

The kiosks will provide one-touch connections to county businesses' Web pages and provide visitors with maps, directions, menus and a telephone connection to make reservations.

"This provides another opportunity for us to market Howard County, another area for us to provide a way for businesses to promote their services," said chamber President Ken Williams, who is spearheading the campaign. "If we're driving traffic from these hotels to Savage Mill and Columbia Mall and historic Ellicott City, then we're supporting these areas. We want to help the merchants by directing people to them."

The project, two units and the software that has to be developed for them, will cost the chamber about $30,000 to implement, but the cost will be subsidized by advertising, Williams said. The chamber is soliciting businesses locally and in Baltimore to sell space from now until mid-June. The devices will be at the Sheraton Columbia Hotel and the Staybridge Suites extended-stay hotel, also in Columbia.

The units, which are about the size of an automated teller machine, have touch screens that direct users to the services they need when they touch a company name or a category. The units can print directions or menus, and have a telephone handset so that users can call a business directly with questions, and it will be able to connect users to the chamber Web site.

Chamber members will pay $999 for a yearlong advertisement to appear on the main screen on both devices, and $799 for ads to appear under the category subheadings. There will be about 40 ads on the main screen, Williams said.

If sales go well, the devices will be in hotels by August, he said.

Although the electronic concierge is not a new idea - Williams started working on the program after having seen chambers of commerce in other parts of the country conduct similar programs - it is working in other areas. Concierges at a few Baltimore hotels that have offered the kiosks for their customers said they found the units helpful.

"We use them a lot, too, because there's a lot of information that's updated," said Marc Sutton, a concierge at the Hyatt Regency Baltimore at the Inner Harbor. "It's a real big help when you're busy, because people don't like to wait. They want information right here and right now."

Darnell Haskins, head concierge at the Sheraton Inner Harbor, said he uses the machine to help customers with information about religious services - the information he does not readily remember. He said that although the machine is a secondary resource for customers, the unit in his hotel is used frequently.

"Whenever I walk past, I see a family in front of it, or a couple of kids touching the screen," he said.

If all goes well with the initial machines, Williams said, he would like to expand the program.

"Our [plan] is to have them in hotels throughout the county," he said. "If we're successful, we'll have them at Holiday Inns and Turf Valley and everyone who'd be willing to have them."

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