Miércoles 18 de Julio de 2007, Ip nº 199

Getting Your Shows on the Road
Por Susan Stellin

One of the perks of travel used to be enjoying amenities you did not have at home: watching HBO in your hotel room, for instance, or catching an in-flight movie before there was such a thing as VCRs.

But sometime during the digital revolution, consumers’ home entertainment technology began making the travel industry look as if it were stuck in an analog era, with most airlines showing bland films on tough-to-view overhead screens and hotels’ television lineups disappointing guests accustomed to TiVo.

While it is too early to say that the offerings have significantly changed, some companies are starting to compete with — or at least cater to — the average consumer’s entertainment arsenal. In the hotel business, the race is on to upgrade guest rooms with high-definition flat-screen TVs, iPod docking stations and a wider selection of programming (preferably, available on demand). And some carriers are introducing personal entertainment systems that feature more movies, music and games, although these devices are offered mainly to business and first-class customers.

Analysts and executives say these improvements are part of a larger industry trend of making life on the road seem less alienated from life at home, particularly for business travelers.

“All of this goes back to recognizing that customers want more control,” said Henry H. Harteveldt, a vice president and travel analyst with Forrester Research, citing the expectations fostered by gadgets like iPods. “At home, I have all this stuff created just the way I like it. Why should I have to sacrifice that when I’m on the road?”

In the hotel industry, Mr. Harteveldt said, the competition to appeal to guest preferences has moved from bedding to technology, a necessary upgrade in an era of rising rates.

“These days, I’m surprised when I walk into four- or five-star hotels and see traditional types of TVs,” he said. “If you’re paying several hundred dollars a night, the expectation is that there should be a flat-screen TV in the room.”

To some degree, various hotel chains have created that expectation by announcing plans to install newer televisions or better programming. But these upgrades can take years to introduce.

For instance, Marriott International announced in February that it planned to offer 32-inch high-definition L.C.D. televisions in all guest rooms in the United States and Canada at three of its brands: Marriott, JW Marriott and Renaissance. So far, the new sets are available at 56 hotels and the installation will not be complete until the end of 2009.

The new televisions come with at least 45 channels (up from 28 on current sets) and a connectivity panel so guests can plug in a music player, laptop or other device and work or play on the larger screen — recognizing that that most everyone relies on technology to unwind.

“Twenty years ago, business travel was all about ‘get there, get the work done and get out,’ ” said John Wolf, a Marriott spokesman. “What we’re seeing is a paradigm shift more toward the ‘lifestyle traveler.’ ”

According to industry research, the new breed of traveler is more likely to enjoy the benefits of business travel, like trying out new restaurants, but also more inclined to desire the comforts of home — like 450-thread-count sheets or the ability to catch a favorite TV show at any time.

Toward that end, Hilton recently opened a limited number of “Sight and Sound” rooms at two of its hotels, the Hilton Chicago O’Hare and the Hilton San Francisco. The rooms, which cost $20 more than regular rates, feature 42-inch high-definition TVs, a digital surround-sound system and a connectivity panel for other devices, as well as on-demand programming that includes sports packages and popular television shows.

“Say you get back to your room at 10:05 and you missed ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ ” said Kendra Walker, a Hilton spokeswoman. “You can view that programming on demand literally a minute or two after it ends.”

Hilton is also in the process of installing flat-screen TVs in all of its North American guest rooms, and it introduced a new clock in 2005 featuring an easy-to-set alarm and a connection cable for a portable music player.

Often at the forefront of technology trends, W Hotels promises all of its rooms will have iPod docking stations by September and flat-screen TVs by the end of the year (80 percent of W’s rooms currently have the newer televisions).

Scott Petersen, chief executive of LodgeNet, which provides technology services to hotels, said the industry was moving toward offering guests a broader lineup of programming, movies sooner after their release and more on-demand options like the company’s Hotel SportsNet service.

“If you’re a Yankees fan and you’re in Florida, you can watch the Yankees games as they’re being broadcast,” Mr. Petersen said. The sports service costs guests about $10 to $20 a day; pay-per-view movies are typically $11.

While cash-short American airlines are generally not investing as much in entertainment technology, a few carriers are introducing in-flight systems, partly to keep up with their foreign competitors.

For instance, Delta is introducing a new seatback system, Delta on Demand, that features 24 channels of live television, up to 28 films, 12 video games, more than 1,600 songs and 45 hours of HBO programming, including episodes of popular television shows. The system is now on 100 aircraft, including economy class on some planes. The live TV and games are free throughout the aircraft, although there are charges for some programs in coach.

“Our goal is that by the summer of 2008, anytime you get on a Delta airplane where the flight is more than four hours long you’ll have this programming,” said Joan Vincenz, Delta’s managing director for global product development.

Singapore Airlines, which operates some of the longest commercial flights, is introducing a free entertainment system featuring 1,004 on-demand music and video options, as well a suite of office applications that enable passengers to plug in a portable flash drive and work on their documents. James Boyd, a spokesman for the airline, said the goal was to give passengers the control they were used to on the ground.

“The more opportunity you have to start, stop or rewind the entertainment at your seat, the more of a sense of control you have over your experience, and our surveys show that creates a more satisfied passenger over all,” he said.

Rob Brookler, spokesman for the World Airline Entertainment Association, said more carriers are installing these types of on-demand systems, either at the seatback or as a stand-alone device, like the portable player American Airlines offers on some flights (albeit, primarily in first and business class).

“What passengers seem to want is choice, a wide selection and control over the system,” he said.

The other thing passengers want — connectivity — may be on the horizon, although sooner on foreign carriers. “What we’re seeing is that data, meaning using your cellphone or P.D.A. for messaging, is moving along fairly quickly,” Mr. Brookler said. “The voice option is where there are regulatory issues — and social ones.”


  10/07/2007. HeraldTribune.com.