Virtual concierge opens doors to business

A virtual concierge contained on a Pocket PC is a neat perk to offer regular hotel guests, but Fairmont Hotels is hoping a pilot project with Hewlett-Packard will lay the ground work for what might mean increased revenue possibilities down the road.

Last month Fairmont hotels rolled out wireless-enabled

HP iPaq Pocket PCs to its president’s club members for use during business and leisure stays. The project is being extended to 41 of the chain’s hotels around the world, with 20 locations in Canada. Users can access restaurant reviews, information on attractions, retrieve personal e-mail and surf the Web.

The project builds on the high-speed infrastructure already in place at Fairmont properties, says Tim Aubrey, senior vice-president of finance and technology.

“”It’s the first time we had expanded beyond Tier 1 network infrastructure,”” says Aubrey. “”Today we service the wired and wireless side but most of the use we see still comes on the wired side. Most travellers still use a wired connection. But this is the first time we’ve expanded into device support so while it’s smaller in scope, it sets us up for some bigger opportunities. It’s kind of walk before you run.””

The challenge for Fairmont was that devices such as the Pocket PC pose another format to support and that meant reformatting Web content and tuning the infrastructure for device support.

“”It’s about ‘Can you control and manage it remotely across all your portfolio?'”” says Aubrey. “”For us, supporting devices in the hotels can be difficult. How do you scrub them, how do you make sure client data is protected, how do you manage it remotely, there are tonnes of issues like that.””

Fairmont is using the pilot as a means to test the device for use in its operation with employees and customers. He says the chain currently has about two per cent of travellers using the wireless systems, but can foresee a day when it’s not just the individual user the hotel must support.

“”Right now, the take rate is really low on some of this stuff,”” he says. “”We have hotspots in all the hotels and you would think travellers would be the perfect target for this, but how do you create awareness that they are ‘in the zone?’ And where do you put support numbers?””

The Fairmont central IT team supports both the guest and the internal operation, so if the hotel supports both, when the company starts rolling out devices, they can be used anywhere across the infrastructure.

While the devices could also be used for things such as guest check in, Aubrey says more immediate customer uses include groups that attend at Fairmont hotels for convention business.

“”When groups come into our hotels they want to do a lot of different things, from controlling their conferences to communicating to one another to finding out what is happening where, to changing agendas. It’s an area of interest to us,”” Aubrey says.

The reality is the one-off business traveler won’t be long-time users of the Pocket PC device. Fairmont is interested in getting feedback on the project and then ramping up for different types of offerings for convention business over multiple days or management retreats.

Today you see information for conventions and similar events made available through televisions in-room or by word of mouth to session attendees.

Fairmont worked with HP to determine which applications would be attractive to guests.

“”What interests HP is they (Fairmont) are using a form of wireless technology as a differentiator,”” says Ken Price, marketing director personal system for Hewlett Packard Canada. “”From our point of view you look at the relevance of the things you invent and how people end up using those technologies and here’s Fairmont saying we think we can differentiate by providing information to customers in public areas in a wireless way and what we’d like to do is show people how easy it is and we’d like to do that in a handheld.

“”I think what we’re going to see a lot of is institutions implementing wireless on some productivity ROI and try to figure out how to do wireless outside of that. That’s a very popular model in office buildings and why 802.11 is becoming popular because it’s something that is building-centric rather than trying to provide geographical coverage. So when you’re in the building give everyone in the office tower wireless access and create a bubble, sell a public service and help pay for this infrastructure and this is the model we are seeing come up.””

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