IT USED TO BE THAT BACKUP technology for off-site meetings consisted of an extra slide projector. In those days, the most important consideration for business travelers was a comfortable bed, and a copy machine at the front desk was a real bonus.
That was then. This is now -- today's wired world, where road-warrior technology can make a bottom-line difference in the competitive hospitality industry. Plainly put, business travelers want the same capabilities on the road that they have in their offices. And hotel and resort properties are scrambling to meet their demands.
"Everyone is trying to catch up to the standards," says Tia Gordon, spokeswoman for the American Hotel and Motel Association, "and these days the standards are Internet access, computer and laptop rentals when you check in, and faxes in the rooms."
Only about 7% of hotels across the country offer in-room faxes, but like much of the new technology, that figure is increasing steadily. A few short years ago, travelers were hard-pressed to find a room where they could plug in their laptops; today nearly half of the hotels surveyed by the AHMA offer data-ports. And more sophisticated in-room Internet access is coming -- fast -- in all flavors: wireless, broadband and cable.
Corporate travelers are clearly basing their lodging and meeting choices on available technology. "It used to be a benefit. Now, today it's an expectation," says Nancy Devine, sales manager for the Bend area Sunriver Resort, which recently completed an extensive face--lift with heavy technology features.
Bill Ihle, Bear Creek Corp.'s director of communications, is the consummate road warrior, logging more than 130,000 miles last year on United Airlines alone. In order to keep up with all of his daily work -- "My goal is to come back and have nothing in my 'In' basket," Ihle says -- he has to have the right lodging environment.
To that end, he makes sure all of the hotels on his itinerary meet his needs -- a dataport, printer, fax, swivel chair and "really great lighting."
Portland meeting planner Dian Lindsay thinks hotels are playing a game of catch-up. "They just didn't invest in the infrastructure," she says. "As a meeting planner, I have to stay up to date with my clients. Now hotels are trying to catch up to planners."
Property managers in Oregon beg to differ. "We're way ahead of the curve," says the Portland Hilton's Brian O'Neill, who estimates that only 10% to 15% of guests use the property's in-room Internet access channels.
The Hilton recently rolled out a pair of cutting-edge services. Guests can go online either through a dedicated T1 line into the room, or via the television from an infrared keyboard. Meeting rooms offer super-fast T1 access through hard-wired wall jacks or wireless infrared sensors.
"Most meeting planners these days expect Internet access," O'Neill says, "and we offer state-of-the-art connectivity."
At the Governor Hotel in Portland, corporate guests can forward office calls to an on-site receptionist. Demand is not yet high. "We've actually had the ability to do that for a couple years," says sales manager Sydney Mead. "But as clients become more sophisticated anti realize they can do it, the demand for the service goes up."
Pleasing today's discriminating traveler is especially challenging for older, historic properties like the Governor, built in 1909. The rooms are up to date; besides a comfortably elegant feel, each one offers dataports and two- or three-line phones.
And the hotel's six-person Executive Business Center offers all the comforts of the office, including computers and printers, high-speed Internet access, videoconferencing access, computer troubleshooting and scanning capabilities.
But the hotel faces special challenges when hosting corporate functions. "Our meeting spaces come under the National Historic Register," Mead explains, "so we can't touch the structure." Sometimes that means generators running in the back room to meet the power requirements for all the presentation equipment.
"It also means we have a sound system that is separate and standalone, not built into the structure," Mead says.
Sunriver Resort faced a similar challenge -- updating its infrastructure without destroying its personality -- with an ambitious remodeling project started about three years ago. "We wanted to keep the very upscale, Northwest feel but also make sure technology was part of the plan," says marketing director Nancy Devine.
The resort's Great Hall Conference Center was expanded and rewired for full telecommunications. High-speed data lines mean guests can transfer voice, data and images between meeting rooms or to and from their home offices. "We've had people come in here and launch their entire conference on the World Wide Web," Devine says.
About 65% of Sunriver's visitors come from outside Oregon, a fact that Devine attributes to the resort's uniqueness. "Someone can come here and get that very upscale, rustic Northwest feel," she explains, "but still conduct their business as if they were in the downtown Chicago conference center."
The new River Lodges addition, for example, features rooms with full computer systems and televisions with surround-sound stereo. The rooms connect to one of three "galleries," complete with computers, printers, faxes, a board table that seats 12 and a full kitchen.
Sunriver also has an on-site audiovisual department with technicians available 24 hours a day.
Properties with that capability earn high marks from Dian Lindsay, the Portland meeting planner. "The whole AV technology question has come up a lot more in the last few months," she says. "It used to be speakers needed a slide projector and overhead. Now it's like, I want this XGA special high-tech thing for my presentation. They have that technology and they expect everyone else to have it, too."
"I'm impressed with the increase in knowledge that people have," says Denise Sproul, president of the Governor Hotel's Executive Business Center. "It used to be that no one knew anything except the secretaries. Now we have attorneys who come in and pound out their own documents."
What will be the next technology toy sought by today's road warriors? Whatever it is, it may ultimately pale next to the tried-and-true amenities provided by the most popular properties.
Sunriver's high-tech makeover, for example, was constrained by the desire to provide a very "residential" experience. Cordless phones and cappuccino makers share equal billing with state-of-the-art cabling technology.
"The challenge for any hotel is to really decide what their guests want," says Mead, who started her career at the Governor as concierge. "Do they make their decision based on rooms having e-mail or high-speed Internet access? Not necessarily.
"We've found that good breakfasts and other amenities in the room really do tend to bring the traveler back."