Let Freedom Ring Part 3: Free WiFi – A Final Word for 2012

I’ve written two articles in 2011 (‘Let Freedom Ring: Free WiFi is a Basic Right not a Profit Center‘ and ‘Let Freedom Ring Part 2: Reasons and Solutions for Free WiFi in Hotel Rooms‘) about the imperative need to offer free WiFi within the confines of your property.  But, no matter how hard I preach, real change is often slow.  Capital-intensive projects take time. So, for all those who agreed or disagreed with me in the past, and have long since moved on, let me restore your memories with some fresh thoughts on the matter.

First, let’s discuss the difference between an expectation and a value-added service.  The former is one you meet in order to keep your guests content.  The latter is one that actually makes them happy.  In this day and age with the dirge of OTAs always ready to offer up your competition, only meeting expectations will not suffice.  Time conquers all though, and what is nowadays perceived as additive will soon regress to an assumed service.

Jumping back to the mid 1990s when the World Wide Web had yet to reach maturity, Internet access at a hotel was value-added.  It wasn’t anywhere near the norm, and thus, it was sure to impress, even when offered at a hefty daily surcharge.  Within a decade, however, urban properties without basic lobby Internet exuded an archaic stench while in-room access and wireless became the new paid-for extras.

Now that it’s 2012, both these ‘extras’ have segued into expectations.  That’s the speed of the world we now live in.  To help me compute all this pandemonium, I like to apply the banal Spanish expression, “Mi casa es su casa.”  Whatever the average middle-class suburbanite presumes as standard living amenities is what you must provide for free.  Twenty years ago, that laundry list would include heating, air conditioning, basic cable and a functional bathroom, but now, wireless is on it as well.

Moreover, as we’ve seen with the resounding uproar against SOPA and PIPA of recent, the Internet has a nagging way of demanding freedom of speech as well as freedom of cost.  Charging $15 (or more) per day for Internet access is outright insulting.  You can argue all day and night about how you’ve been ensnared by a lawyer-proof legacy contact, but do you honestly think the customer gives an iota about all this behind-the-curtains nonsense?  Frankly, your costs (or contracts) have nothing to do with your rates. Remember it is market factors that dictate a successful rate structure.

Guests expect free Internet and they’re going to get it whether you have it or not.  So, you have two options.  Adapt and keep your guests satisfied.  Or, ignore all this, and then let your guests wander down the street to the neighborhood Starbucks.  In the second case, not only do you look bad for lacking quality service, but your F&B will suffer.  And it’s not just Starbucks that’s doing it right, but other major food chains, trains and airport lounges – all conforming with this new standard.

In order for hotels to fully get in line, there needs to be a fundamental change in outlook.  There have been many studies published over the past year that have highlighted how important free WiFi is for guest satisfaction.  Whenever I read these papers, I see the phrase, “The majority of hoteliers now realize that free WiFi a great feature for business travelers,” or, “Hoteliers now believe the Internet is most important feature to offer leisure guests.” Your spa and gym are features, but the Internet is a necessity.  If you recognize WiFi as such, then the issue becomes a non sequitar and you’ll have no problem adapting to any future technological upgrades.

I cannot stress how important this mindset shift really is, particularly when considering the next generation of travelers.  I’m talking about the Millennials – the kids who have been ushered into a world without knowing what it was like before wireless connectivity.  As sad as it may seem, the baby boomers (myself included) can only dictate the market for so long.  You need to grow your popularity amongst the next generation if you are to stay afloat long-term.  To many teens and young adults, a lack of free Internet is the equivalent to lambasting their religion – certainly not a loyalty builder.

One more note on loyalty programs, many already offer free in-room Internet connectivity as a part of their package.  But why would someone new join a loyalty program if your hotel hasn’t made a good impression with their essential services?  Is heating and air conditioning a part of your loyalty program, too?  Guests will not purchase your loyalty program just for access to your Internet connection with the inflated daily fees.  They’ll buy into it because they are impressed by your basic service offerings, which just so happens to include free in-room WiFi.

But enough of my fatidic diatribe; let’s look to solutions.  When it comes to legacy contracts, it’s best to rip the BandAid off fast and clean.  Scan through the original agreement and you’re sure to find some sort of buyout fee.  Bite the bullet and prevent yourself from slow loss of all your customers over such a trivial matter.  The beauty here is that if you do this now, there’s still time to advertise that you are now offering free WiFi.  But this window is rapidly closing and you finally sneak out of your legacy contract two years from now and try to advertise such a feat, no doubt you’ll be hearing snide laughter from all around.

(Article by Larry Mogelonsky, published oneHotelier on February 15, 2012)

Larry MogelonskyLet Freedom Ring Part 3: Free WiFi – A Final Word for 2012