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In-room entertainment: What offerings, at what price?

By Steve Mollman
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(CNN) -- Business travel can wear anyone down.

For Phillip Meyer, who works for Costco in the United Kingdom, it was watching a "Dr. Who" episode while lying in his hotel bed in Scotland that made a recent evening "a little more bearable." For Conor Greene, managing director for Hong Kong legal recruiter Law Alliance, it was music that helped him unwind in his hotel room on recent trips around Asia.

Hotels know that providing compelling in-room entertainment is an effective way to lure in guests -- and make extra revenue. In the cases above, though, it wasn't the hotels providing the entertainment. It was the iPods carried by the guests themselves -- hooked up to the audio-visual equipment in the room.

"I always plug into the back of the TV or hijack the stereo with my iPod," says Greene. One piece of gear in the hotel room he doesn't touch: the phone. If he wants to reach friends in town, he inserts a local prepaid SIM card into his cell phone and then calls or texts them. For chatting with overseas friends, he tends to use Skype on his laptop computer.

This sort of behavior presents a challenge for hotels, who would prefer that guests be captive to their offerings: When guests can easily satisfy their own entertainment and communication needs by going online or grabbing their gadgets or laptops, what should be offered in-room, and at what price?

With gadgets ever more capable and online offerings ever more compelling, "there is simply no question that we are in the middle of a major paradigm shift," says Jeffrey Catrett, dean of the Les Roches School of Hospitality Management at Kendall College in Chicago.

So far, the industry's response has been ... confused.

For instance, you'll get 'Net access for free at the Westin in Beijing or the Radisson SAS in Amsterdam -- but you'll fork over about $15 for 24 hours at most Mandarin Oriental hotels (they insist it's necessary to ensure quality service). At the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York, you can borrow an iPod for free (and plug it into the docking station in the room) for the entire length of your stay. Until recently, the Sheraton Delfina in Santa Monica, California, charged $15 per hour after the first two free hours; they have now changed to free iPod service during the entire stay.

Renting out iPods, says Catrett, smacks of the industry's confused initial response to cell phones, which were also rented out for a while: the main problem, he says, is that people want their own content, be it songs and contact information.

Savvy hotels, he says, are learning the right goal is this: enhance the mobile and online solutions already carried by increasingly empowered guests.

He points to the ability of guests at the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong and New York to enjoy their own content -- whether it's on iPods, laptops, or online -- with the room's flat-screen TV and surround-sound systems. (An auxiliary panel on the room's desk -- -- has sockets for accepting an array of adaptors, which the hotel also provides.)

The benefit of such a system -- whether it's used for video-chatting, watching downloaded movies, or just blasting tunes -- is that it enables enhanced enjoyment of users' own content.

Renting out iPods, says Nick Price, CIO/CTO of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, is "not as popular as you might think" among guests. "The fundamental reason for the iPod's massive success," he notes, "is it allows you [to] carry your own content around."

As for online access, he says, "hotels are generally moving away from giving it for free." Providing fast, reliable connectivity requires money, he notes, and bad connections "are completely inappropriate for the kind of things that guests want to do."

But guests at budget or mid-level hotels, of course, are more price-sensitive, and "decisions in the very large gray area between Mandarin Oriental and Motel 6 are the toughest," notes Catrett.

Undeniably, consumers of all stripes long for free Internet access. Greene, who stays in Mandarin Orientals and other upscale hotels, says he usually has to pay for Net access. But, he adds, "I resent it."

Even Price admits that while he's been infuriated by bad but expensive 'Net connections at some hotels, he's been delighted by bad but free connections anywhere. "The Internet connects you with your life," he says.

The key "is giving the customer what he wants when he wants it, and a method of delivery of his choosing," says Stowe Shoemaker, a professor at the Conrad N. Hilton College at the University of Houston. "As we move out into the future, hotels are becoming more about customization."

Shoemaker (who makes calls from hotel rooms via Skype on his laptop) relates a recent conversation he had with another business traveler:

"He explained to me that it wasn't just having Internet in the room, it was having wireless in the room -- because then he could watch movies or surf the 'Net in bed."


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