Tomorrow’s guestroom entertainment is all about choice

Hotels are chasing the consumer entertainment experience, but this hasn't always been the case.

Video on demand, once a profit center for the hospitality industry, has gradually receded into a niche product targeted at high-end hotels, luxury resorts and family destinations. While VOD has not gone away, guestroom entertainment has evolved into a varied, ever-changing concept. How are hotels expected to keep up?

Rather than stand still and watch the world change around them a la Blockbuster and Kodak, Ahmad Ouri, CEO of content and connectivity provider Sonifi Solutions, said his company has taken steps to offer more than VOD. According to Ouri, the real guestroom entertainment experience rides along with the guest, and it is up to operators to allow them to take advantage of their own technology. That’s why the company launched StayCast, a streaming tool that interfaces directly with the apps guests are already using.

“The lesson we learned from VOD is that we have to provide the guest and traveler with as many choices as we can,” Ouri said. “What we’re seeing in many cases now where we have VOD and streaming in place is that VOD is steadily declining, but not in double digits. Streaming is not cannibalizing VOD.”

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At the HITEC industry conference, held in Toronto in June 2017, Dish Network unveiled its Evolve product, a device that uses Google’s Chromecast to access guest apps and subscriptions independently from their mobile devices. Alistair Chatwin, director of commercial services for Dish Business, said this is part of a plan to bring travelers’ home entertainment experience on the road, and along the way the company was forced to overcome multiple barriers to information safety and privacy.

“Currently, the Evolve in a guest’s room is the only one they can access,” Chatwin said, referring to the fears many guests have of their personal devices, or their guestroom TV, being hijacked by another guest to display content against their will. “The button in your app corresponds to only one TV, and once you do that you can even turn your phone off and control everything through the TV.” 

Dish Network's Evolve device
One challenge still facing the guestroom entertainment space is a lack of empirical data. Jonas Tanenbaum, VP of sales and marketing at Samsung Electronic America’s hospitality TV division, said VOD usage was easily traceable because it was subscription-based, but many companies are just now rolling out tools to track how guests are using over-the-top content and streaming services in guestrooms.

“Linear content on ESPN, CNN and A&E remains popular, but it’s impossible to say right now just how much more popular streaming and casting are because they are harder to track,” Tanenbaum said. “This is going to change in the near future, but until then we have to plan ahead and anticipate the market.”

There is a lot riding on getting the guestroom entertainment experience right, and Doug Eichler, VP of commercial sales for AT&T, said the benefits to getting ahead of the consumer experience are massive.

“My grandmother used to tell me about how her and my grandfather would go on road trips,” Eichler said. “They used to stay at motels, which had color TV. Later hotels had HBO, which consumers often couldn’t afford. There was a time when hotels provided the best media experience in the country. It took us too long to catch up, but we can be there again if we get this right.”

Through the Wall

The list of challenges facing guestroom entertainment is long and varied, but bandwidth and internal hotel infrastructure are the reigning champs in the discussion. Chatwin said Dish Network’s new products are designed to work with whatever available infrastructure hotels are saddled with, but it remains a limiting factor.

“Hotels and technology providers are paying attention to the infrastructure problem,” he said. “This year we are adding DOCSIS to our tool kit, which will allow us to wire high-speed data into the TV experience for less than $30 a room. We understand some partners have no other way of getting wiring into the room, so making equipment work with the wiring that is there is very important.”

Coaxial cables are already present in nearly every hotel guestroom

DOCSIS, or Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification, is a telecommunications standard that allows for the addition of high-bandwidth data transfer over existing cable TV systems. The main benefit of DOCSIS is that it can be employed over existing coaxial cabled in hotel guestrooms, and as an added benefit can produce Wi-Fi directly in the guestroom as opposed to the guestroom hallway. This closer proximity also produces a stronger signal.

Ouri said his company’s DOCSIS push is also gaining momentum fast as hotels scramble to find lower-cost solutions to their ever-more-pressing bandwidth concerns.

“The reason we went to DOCSIS is that we estimate 70 [percent] to 75 percent of hotel guestrooms don’t have Ethernet or LAN cabling, but close to 100 percent have coax cable connecting to the TV,” Ouri said. “Going through this cable makes the Wi-Fi more robust, faster and accessible.”

Ouri also said that the cost of construction has been a limiting factor leading hotels to invest in DOCSIS. This is because laying new Ethernet wiring can cost anywhere from $250 to $300 per room, and in some cases concrete or asbestos in construction materials makes the process completely unfeasible.

According to Eichler, hotels need to come up with ongoing solutions to bandwidth concerns because they are likely to accelerate in the near future.

“Bandwidth is a huge challenge, and we have more and more consumption coming,” Eichler said. “We are now looking at more 4K-quality titles coming to the consumer space, and then hospitality, and those will only be more demanding. You can make anything work in a lab, but when you deploy something new in a 200-room hotel with plaster walls and microwaves interfering with everything, it may not work the way it’s supposed to.”

Tanenbaum, however, said we’re a little far off from expecting 4K TVs in every guestroom.

“Content providers will decide when 4K content is prevalent, but everything today is scalable,” he said.