Digital personal assistants, like Amazon’s Echo, are gaining popularity in guestrooms but will they ever replace the guestroom telephone? Many phone experts say they won’t but the technology is definitely changing the evolution of the phone.
“Imagine walking into a hotel room that had no phone,” said Chad Collins, VP of sales, Americas for VTech Communications. “While millennials and gen X guests are quite comfortable with emerging technologies and may not notice, the baby boomers and [the general public] are generally more comfortable with technologies that they are familiar with (i.e. guestroom telephone) and would consider it a fail to not have a phone in their rooms. This will remain the case for many years.”
To some extent, the hotel room is intended to include selected products and services that consumers already use in the home, so the adoption of speech-enabled devices in the guestroom likely will follow the pattern of adoption by homeowners, said John Grubb, SVP of marketing for Cetis. “The perceived security risks of speech-enabled devices, however, is currently a stumbling block for some consumers at this time, so hoteliers will also proceed at their own risk with decisions to replace the security and dependability of existing landline phones in the room.”
Security is a primary concern. By contrast, present-day landline phones have a proven record of reliability, Grubb said. They serve as an emergency lifeline for guests, whether the phones are installed in the guestroom, lobby, common area or pool. In fact, a phone plugged into an RJ11/RJ14/RJ45 jack inside the guestroom or common area is a more reliable guest emergency location device than a mobile phone. Why?
“Because the traditional phone identifies the exact location of the guest for emergency responders, rather than just an estimate of location available with mobile network and Wi-Fi devices,” he said. “Emergency phones, as well as standard room phones equipped with dedicated SOS or guest-service keys may be programmed through the hotel [private branch exchange] phone system to direct-dial 911 or a selected emergency number located on the hotel property.”
Since guests are primarily using guestroom phones to communicate with hotel staff, the interaction with the phone can change with an Alexa in the room, said Joe Zhang, president of Bittel Americas. While Zhang doesn’t believe the landline will ever be replaced due to life-safety issues, he does believe guests will be using Alexa for common things like contacting roomservice and the front desk.
Bittel recently introduced a new phone that is moving toward guestroom digital assistants: a sleek, handset-less phone. “When you get rid of the handset, you change the design of the phone completely,” Zhang said. “We’re taking a modular approach in the design. We’re not aiming to compete with Alexas but those devices complement what we’re doing.”
The technology that improves the guestroom phone likely will replace the telephone with an Alexa/Siri-like device that will be used to meet guest service requests by voice—without picking up the phone, according to Phonesuite President Frank Melville.
“We believe they will be replaced by these devices, over time of course,” Melville said. “We need to meet the needs and expectations of the entire traveling public so until virtually all travelers are comfortable with making requests to an [artificial-intelligence]-based voice-response device, the phone will likely remain present.”
How soon will this be? “Not sooner than five years, probably not more than 10,” he said.
Over time, emerging technologies will incorporate and partially replace some functionalities of the guestroom telephone. When that time comes, hotels will start to adopt devices that contain all technologies in one spot, Collins said. “Having said that, let's not forget there are still 5 million hotel rooms in the U.S. with existing phones that would need to be replaced,” he said. “Some hotels will be on the front end of throwing out the phone for a new technology, but others will be slow to adopt. This will in great part be driven by guest preferences and demands, and generationally there are still millions of travelers who expect a phone in their room.”
Why more hotels are moving to VoIP
While voice over internet protocol is not new to hospitality, it is becoming more used in hotels. In some form or fashion, be it the entire hotel or only the administration areas or back-of-the-house via IP private-branch-exchange systems or cloud-based systems, VoIP is used by the majority of new-build hotels today, said Collins. “The installed base is also switching to IP-based systems when their legacy analog/digital PBX has reached the end of its life,” he said.
The primary driver of VoIP is cost savings, Zhang said. “Whether using cloud-based PBX or on-premises PBX, hotels are saving on cabling costs,” he said.
The adoption pattern of VoIP within hospitality continues to lag behind the general business marketplace, Grubb said. “With the advent of new secure cloud hospitality phone systems and devices that project Ethernet and power four to six times the reach of traditional switches, VoIP telephony is positioned to grow while supporting devices and applications at farther distances and helping save on infrastructure costs,” he continued.
While most current new construction as well as replacement phone systems are VoIP based, the majority still feature analog interfaces to the guestroom, according to Melville. “Nearly 90 percent of the systems we ship and install are still analog to the guestroom even though the system itself is VoIP,” he said.
For hotels that prefer a traditional analog hotel phone, analog telephone adapters connect traditional analog landline phones to an internet router or modem, allowing the hotel to connect via the internet to achieve similar VoIP networking advantages.
But since VoIP requires one cable to each room, that doesn’t always save the hotel as much as they would like, Zhang said. The hotel uses that one cable for data, phone, television or other necessary items. “The location of the cable isn’t selected based on the phone—it’s often into the closet or under the desk,” Zhang said. “It’s prioritized to the data side of the guestroom while the phone is often on the nightstand.”
Hotels often then run a secondary cable from the primary cable to allow the phone to be located on the nightstand. But with newer-model telephones, they don’t need that cable directly to the phone, wherever in the room it is, Zhang said.
Top must-have features in a hotel phone system
We asked the telephone experts what they believe the top five must-have features that hoteliers should look for in a hotel phone system. While the answers varied, there will some universal themes that they believe would make life easier for the guest and the hotel.
Joe Zhang, president of Bittel Americas:
• Ease of use for the phone and system itself.
• Stylish design. “The style-improved room doesn’t need to have a ’90s-style phone in it,” he said.
• A guest-services button.
• Wireless charging for a guest’s mobile device.
John Grubb, SVP of marketing for Cetis:
• A secure analog or voice over internet protocol landline connection.
• Programmable guest-service keys.
• Built-in USB guest smart device charging ports.
• One-touch voicemail retrieval.
Frank Melville, president of Phonesuite:
• Simplified features for guests yet a normal and full business feature set.
• Simple access to guest services.
• Approved property management system interfaces.
• Call billing with automatic posting to guests folio.
• Integration with other communication systems as well.
Chad Collins, VP of sales, Americas for VTech Communications:
• Cordless handsets and speakerphones, which give guests more freedom to move about their rooms.
• Smaller phone footprints, which allow for easy placement and more space on the nightstand.
• USB charging port, making it easy for guests to charge smartphones and other electronic devices.
• Antibacterial plastic, tested to inhibit 99.99 percent of bacteria growth, to protect guests and housekeeping staff from germs.