Fancy a hotel room which lets you control everything from lighting to the TV via the remote control? It's entirely possible to do that now, as hotel technology expert Scot Campbell explains to Lifehacker.
Campbell is the senior VP and chief information officer for US hotel giant MGM Mirage. One of the company's most recent showcase projects is the pictured CityCenter, a Las Vegas destination which incorporates some serious technology in the Aria hotel. Campbell is visiting Australia next week to give the keynote address at the Hotel Operations Technology Conference, which is taking place as part of the Hotel Hospitality + Design exhibition in Melbourne from May 24-26. Ahead of that appearance, he spoke to Lifehacker to discuss how technology can be used to enhance the hotel experience for travellers.
What do you see as the most notable technology innovations you've introduced into CityCenter? I want to talk about three of them. The first one is that you have to build the right kind of plumbing. We ran fibre to every guest room to enable a gigabit network to every room. We had to get a really tight, very strong, heavy-duty network to every room, and then we can start playing with things in that network.
Then we started to look at the other things people are going to experience here. We came across this room automation system from a company called Control4 that automates everything in the room. Our customers are just absolutely raving about it. It was a risk going in the door, but now people are blogging and talking and saying 'it's the coolest technology we've ever seen'. It takes us back to a hotel room experience that's actually better than your house.
And then the third one is we put in our own antenna system as a nervous system for the building and we're running all of the mobile carriers on our antennas. When you're building a steel or concrete or glass building, you have to put your own antenna in. No matter where you go, you have five bars of reception on your phone. For the future, if you look five to ten years down the road, we now have an infrastructure where we can communicate with our customers.
How do you strike a balance between adding automation features to a room and making sure people can easily operate them? We built a room in a warehouse out in the desert and we had it up for eight or nine months. We put all the furnishings and beds in and then we walked through scenarios of everything we could think of that someone would do in a guest room. It was very much like "this is how I would do that and how my dad would do that". We'd put a light switch on the wall for my dad, and then a system on the TV for a geekier person like me. It kind of makes you feel at ease. If you don't feel comfort with the technology, you can still turn out the lights.
But we're finding people start to experiment with the software on the remote, and they're getting a kick out of it. The wake up theme — turn on TV, ramping the lights and opening the curtains — that's the high-tech alarm clock. People just rave about it.
How important is it to allow people to integrate their own portable technologies — such as phones and laptops and MP3 players — into the room experience? It's a real key consideration. In the old days, when mobile phones first became prevalent, all the usage of the phone in the room went away and we stood there and watched it and didn't understand what was happening. And now we're seeing shrinking video-on-demand needs because people bring their own movies as well. But that's a given, you have to work with it. We're putting control panels in so you can plug in your devices — your phone or your laptop or whatever you bought with you — you might want to plug in and access the content via your TV set.
Does making rooms more high-tech increase the cost and frequency of maintenance? All the devices we looked at, we were real careful not to put moving parts in the room. Anything that had a spinning hard drive in it we threw out. The set-top box for the video-on-demand doesn't have a drive. Control4 is a Linux-based system which helps, but we think that the maintenance is going to be reduced based on the fact we don't have a lot of spinning parts. We are going to see a small incremental increase, but not too much.
Are these kind of features going to be rolled out to other properties within the MGM Mirage group, and do you expect to see them in rival chains? I think before the economic conditions we live in today arrived, all of our properties were just ready. But with economic conditions as they are today, we'll probably roll this out a lot slower on the strip, just from the fact of capital investment being so tight.
But if you were building something greenfields, you would have to include this kind of technology. You're going to see it as standard. In a luxury brand, it might well be worth retro-fitting.
What are the most common technology mistakes you've seen in hotel room design and implementation while working on this project? I think we started trying to migrate a lot of our stuff to the telephone. The reason behind it was we were trying to figure out how to get some telephone revenue back, so automation via touch-screen phones was a common goal. We looked at that, and before we found the home automation stuff, we were going down that road. But a TV remote is better as the hub. With a remote though I can lay there and switch the lights off or do stuff without having something on the phone. There's some value in having some cool presentation on the phone, but we'll be doing less of that.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman would be dramatically more likely to use his hotel room TV remote if it controlled more than just the TV. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.