WiFi: Free, Of Course?

I am well aware that the concept of free WiFi Internet in hotel rooms is an aspiration of every hotel manager.  However, many hoteliers are reluctant to do so for several reasons:

– A legacy system, purchased years ago, means a direct cost is levied every time Internet is accessed. Thus, they have a cost that logically demands revenue offset.
– Your physical plant is such that the installation of wireless repeaters and other electronic paraphernalia is truly cost prohibitive.
– You, or your owners are eager to extract every single dollar from your guests. This is what I call the “Innkeeper Syndrome” in honor of that famous song from the musical Les Miserables.
I don’t believe that such managers truly grasp how fundamental it is to provide this service. Two personal experiences underscore the fundamental nonsense of “extra cost” or even “wired versus WiFi” substitute service.
Two-Tier WiFi Pricing
I recently stayed at one of Beverly Hills finest properties. Nothing could be finer. The service levels were exceptional and the décor flawless. At six hundred bucks a night for their standard type room (their lowest price), you would expect a high degree of perfection. So, what do you think the WiFi performance would be like? The answer: two-tier. Management’s approach in acquiescing to the free WiFi demand is to offer a low-level complimentary service and real WiFi at $19.95 per day. Certainly the free WiFI offered enough bandwidth to undertake text email, but any web site was rendered in slow motion.
Upon reflection, I felt this compromise to be inconsistent with 5-star/5-diamond service level. If the true test of service is anticipating guest needs and ensuring that these needs are fulfilled, this stop-gap effort leaves a negative impression.
Wired Internet: An Alternative?
Now in Toronto, I get a room at a upper tier chain property in midtown.  When I arrive, everything is in order.  It’s clean, chicly decorated with a business desk, ergonomic chair, plasma TV, comfy bed and reading chair.  My plan was to unwind and answer emails until my eyes caved in.  Problem: there’s no WiFi.  So now I have the options of going down to the lobby and using their free wireless, or sitting upright at the desk and plugging in their Ethernet cable (which doesn’t reach the bed mind you, and even then, my MacAir doesn’t even have Ethernet).  Now, I note that the in-room Internet is nearly $15 per day, and seeing as how I only had about an hour’s worth of memos in me, that would make it the costliest hour of web surfing since the days of Internet Cafés circa 1998-2001.
It’s not the actual cost that annoys me.  A sum of $15 is paltry.  But the mere fact that they would force an additional payment is, frankly, insulting.  I’m in the business world, and in case you’ve been living under a rock for past decade, all of my brethren use a little thing called the World Wide Web.  Fairly often too.  In fact, most of us can’t live without it these days.  It’s an essential business service.  So, to me, a fee for in-room Internet is the equivalent of charging a bottle of water to a dehydrated Bedouin after emerging from a month-long trek in the desert.
Weary and unkempt, I changed back out of my PJs, threw on some street clothes and marched down to the lobby for some good ol’ free WiFi.  A note here is that the lobby’s WiFi was password protected, which I liked for two reasons.  First, a password implies a basic level of security, giving me partial relief that my computer won’t be hacked.  Second, to obtain the password, I had to visit the front desk, which I deemed the perfect opportunity to instruct the hotel staff about the towering significance of having free WiFi in every room.
“We’re looking into it,” the front desk manager retorted.  Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but looking into it isn’t going to cut it nowadays.  As a traveler primarily for business, I am adamant about having wireless service in my room for the simple reason that it makes me more effective at my job.  It lets me relax my feet and work right up until I nod off.  The room was superbly furbished, but the lack of free in-room WiFi is a deal breaker.  Would I recommend this property to my business colleagues? Until this qualm is rectified – doubtful.
It’s Rarely Technology that is the Roadblock
Truth be told, I find this to be a rather bogus situation because free WiFi is a straightforward issue to fix.  I say straightforward and not easy because there is nothing easy about installing secured server access into 600 suites or more all at once.  But it is straightforward nonetheless.  It’s not like the hotel management has been tasked with executing a long-run rebranding strategy.  For IT upgrades like this, I’d wager there’s a well-defined procedure to follow.  And whatever costs are incurred will be effortlessly recovered through heightened customer loyalty.
You go to Starbucks and pay $5 for a designer coffee and you get Free WiFi.  You go to a luxury hotel room and pay $300+ for a designer room and you get a bill for 15 bucks.  What’s wrong with this picture?  Does this mean that Starbucks knows more about guest service than you do?
I am not naïve to enter this diatribe without knowing all too well about the legacy Internet contracts that have many hotels in a stranglehold.  Too often was the case where hotel management agreed to usage surcharges that would now be deemed archaic, goaded into binding long-term agreements by lucratively cheap installation fees.  But this is a cost that properties must eat, not forward to the consumer as a method to ensure short-term profitability.  By comparison, you have metered contracts with the local utilities.  Does this mean you charge guests for electricity and water separately?  It’s 2012; start thinking of Internet the same way.
A 2011 United Nations report has deemed that disconnecting people from the Internet is a violation of human rights and a breach of international law. I believe that the UN was referring to access limitations in countries such as China or the Middle East. However, I ask the question:  is it going too far to suggest that any property that fails to provide complimentary WiFi is in violation of guests’ rights?
The Millennials
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 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.
In retrospect, I do not feel angry at a property for their failure to provide this essential business service.  I feel sorry for them and because I am certain they are losing customers every day over this curable grievance.  And if your property doesn’t have free WiFi in every room, then I feel sorry for you too.
(Article by Larry Mogelonsky, published in HotelBusinessReview on April 30, 2012)

Larry MogelonskyWiFi: Free, Of Course?