Hotels are offering all kinds of high-tech facilities for the frequent business traveller when all these 'road warriors' want is a better standard of service.
Frequent business travellers - those 'road warriors' who stay in more than 20 hotels a year - may find that the hotel of the future will have a radically different look and feel to it. Jim Evans, a senior marketing vice president with Hyatt Hotels which claims to have been the first to coin the term road warrior, believes that ' hotel rooms of today have changed little from what they were 50 years ago'. Yet, he adds, 'Our lives have changed drastically over the past half-century; we all feel under more pressure to perform, to become more productive with our time and resources. Road warriors of today are not only expected to meet their objectives when they travel but also to stay in touch with what's going on back in the office.' The result, perhaps not surprisingly, is that hoteliers are rapidly moving away from perceiving their guest rooms as simply a 'home-away-from-home' and instead are steadily seeking to replicate the office environment. Westin Hotels, for example, has plans for rooms where beds, at the touch of a button, are concealed in a wall compartment and replaced by a couch to give the room a more business-like appearance. Marriott is bringing in the rather curiously named 'Room That Works' concept into its major hotels: these feature a large console table and mobile writing-desk, two power outlets and a PC modem jack mounted into the console top, a movable desk light and an 'ergonomically-designed' chair. According to Marriott's research of over 1,000 frequent business travellers, some 70% said they used their rooms as an office when on business.
But it is technology that is driving the hotel room of the future. A fax machine is a necessity for the executive on the move. And modem points are also considered essential by the four out of every 10 business travellers who say they take their lap-top computer with them when they travel. Some hotels, such as the Churchill Inter-Continental in central London, will provide desktop PCs on request.
By the turn of the century, hoteliers predict that PCs, perhaps with a video-phone facility, will become a standard for executive rooms in the top international chains. 'We recognise that keeping in touch is the key requirement for business travellers now,' says Hyatt's Evans. A number of US hotels are also allocating executive guests their own telephone number in advance which they can give to contacts before they travel; several London hotels provide a dedicated fax number for guests.
Technology is also being used to change the way hotels treat their regular business customers. The biggest complaint hoteliers receive is about delays experienced when checking in and checking out. All the major chains are trying to come to terms with this problem and are experimenting with automatic check-in systems: pre-booked guests can simply 'swipe' their credit card through a machine placed in the hotel lobby to receive an electronic room key that doubles up as a charge card within the hotel.
Check-out systems are more developed, with a number of European hotels now emulating the US system whereby the guest's bill can be accessed via the television set in the room. 'We have now installed interactive televisions in all bedrooms in our 65 hotels which allow guests to check their bills prior to leaving, enabling a speedy departure,' says Peter Stephenson, managing director of the mid-market Posthouse business hotel chain, part of the Forte group. 'These televisions also provide a wide range of convenient services for guests without them ever having to leave their rooms or use the phone - these include an automatic message service which delivers messages on screen directly from reception.' Yet while technology is taking hotels of the future into ever more complex areas, business travellers seem far from impressed. A recent seminar, held by The Times newspaper and Hyatt Hotels on the requirements of business travellers over the next decade, found that most were more concerned with receiving better standards of service than excited by high-tech developments. 'Obviously I want communications from my room to be as good as from my office,' says Barry Bebbington, managing director of Publications International, which produces catalogues for trade exhibitions all over the world. 'But I expect the hotel to be able to provide that. What I care more about is getting good service and less hassle when staying in hotels.' It is a bid to make business travellers feel more special that has prompted hotels to emulate the airlines and develop 'club' floors in many of their city centre hotels. These have several common features. These include a separate check-in desk and escort to the club floor and room; special concierges who can help fix meetings, arrange theatre tickets and restaurant bookings; continental breakfast that can either be taken in the lounge or delivered to the room; and cocktails and canapes which are served every evening from a private bar in the lounge. Guests can usually expect a late check-out facility and often larger rooms. Business facilities are standard in most executive floors with secretarial services, photocopying and fax machines situated on the same floor or close by.
Unlike business class on airlines, a problem with the proliferation of executive floors in hotels is that standards can vary enormously, depending on whether the hotel is new or old and which city it is in. Provincial hotels, for example, often do not have the demand for a separate executive floor and offer special 'business' rooms instead. The price of staying on a business floor can also deter some business travellers or, more accurately, their travel departments. Typically, upgrading to a club floor costs between £25 and £30 extra a night on the normal room rate. But the cost of special treatment can be much higher, ranging from the extra £41 a night at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Arts in Barcelona to £55 at the Sheraton Park Tower in London's Knightsbridge.
Not all hoteliers are convinced that club floors are the best way to offer guest recognition and executive loyalty. Isadore Sharp, chairman of the upmarket Four Seasons hotel group, is dubious of their benefits: 'We work on the policy that we provide the best level of service and amenities for all our guests,' he says. 'Why should they have to pay extra?' Last year the Brussels-based SAS Hotels took its Royal Club executive floors out of two-thirds of its European hotels in favour of upgraded rooms for business travellers. It found that in many cases it was forced to upgrade executives for free to its club floors in a gesture of goodwill which did not justify the extra costs involved.
Upgrades to executive floors can be achieved through membership of hotel loyalty schemes, including Inter-Continental's Six Continents Club or Hyatt's Gold Passport. These clubs are aimed at recognising frequent travellers by offering room upgrades and other special services - such as dedicated check-in facilities - although the key benefit for many business travellers is that they earn mileage points for airline frequent-flyer programmes. Marriott, for example, has just extended its Marriott Miles frequent-flyer scheme which gives 50 BA Air Miles for every stay at one of its hotels, with a bonus of 250 for every fifth visit.
Hoteliers' efforts to woo business travellers through offering airline mileage points reflects a post-recession concern about value-for-money by many companies. Paying £250 or more a night for a room in a major city remains a luxury some companies refuse to pay. 'But there are more than enough top business executives worldwide who want to stay in high-quality accommodation to more than warrant our targeting this sector of the market,' claims Four Seasons' Sharp. Onno Poortier, president of the Hong Kong-based Peninsula Group, agrees: 'If the demand was not there, we would not be able to achieve the rates we require to provide the standard of service expected.' Not all business travel is focused on city centre hotels though. Returning in popularity are the country-house hotels for which companies are prepared to pay a premium to take over for top-level meetings. Robert Carter, managing director of the Wiltshire country-house hotel, Lucknam Park, which is under two hours from London's Heathrow Airport by car, says that 'business has been booming over the past 12 months'. Even a daily premium price of £9,500 plus all room and meal charges does not appear to discourage large companies and organisations from taking their staff away for brainstorming sessions in the countryside.
Yet for all the emphasis on high-tech hotel rooms and wooing the business traveller through enhanced recognition programmes, the most significant change for business hotels is likely to develop from the projected growth in the number of women business travellers. Already women executives account for just over a third of all hotel bookings, according to a recent survey by hotel reservations agency Expotel. By the turn of the century, it predicts that about half of all UK hotel rooms will be filled by women travelling on business.
Yet Expotel, which has launched a scheme called 'Women Aware' for regular women travellers to report poor treatment from hotels, believes that the hotel industry stands to alienate half its customer base unless it takes steps to improve service levels. As with their male colleagues, it is service with a smile that is most in demand from the hotel of the future.