A Step-By-Step Guide to Great Hotel WiFi

20th Oct 2017

Ground Zero: what do you want?

Do you want to provide WiFi Hotspot or bedroom coverage? A lot of hoteliers come to us in the belief that they want to deploy hotspot WiFi but after considering what their guest will want, quickly reconsider.

Hotel guests want to do their browsing in private – given the choice, most would prefer to access the web in the comfort of their rooms as opposed to battling for space and bandwidth in a potentially cramped communal area.

One of our techies found that, on a recent holiday to the Dominican Republic, his hotel’s WiFi hotspot was serving up-to 200 clients at peak times – needless to say, the experience wasn’t great. There aren’t many access points out there that will cope under this kind of pressure, not unless you have a spare £1700 for an Aruba 335.

Consumer appetite for WiFi may well have already spelled the end of WiFi hotspots as a workable solution, at least in medium to large hotels.

Stage One: WiFi Survey

Investment in hotel WiFi is all about user experience. Whether justified or not, hotel guests have come to expect the same, or similar, performance from hotel WiFi as they do from their domestic setups. This means that contemporary hotel networks must be designed with this kind of coverage and performance in mind and a WiFi survey is the only way to guarantee this from the get-go. More about WiFi surveys here.

What a WiFi survey does – among many other things – is to ensure that hotels avoid the scenario described at the top of this article; overloading access points. Of course, this is pretty unlikely as the walls of the hotel rooms will cause wireless attenuation, reducing the possibility of over-accessing. However, simply placing access points in hotel corridors is not a fool-proof method, as buildings can be wide-ranging in size and shape, making a uniform design ineffective.

In summary - good design is key… as is the size of ‘the pipe’…

Free Network Health Check

Stage Two: The ‘Pipe’

It’s a bit of an obscure phrase – the ‘Pipe’ – but what we are actually referring to is the connectivity to the building. The size of the Broadband ‘pipe’ will ultimately determine the throughput available to a hotel and its guests and is really the main pillar to determining the kind of WiFi experience which can be achieved.

What we see quite often – all too often in fact – are sign’s, banners and webpages promoting guest WiFi which, although aren’t totally false - in that a wireless network is present - provides next-to-nothing in terms of user experience.

For instance, we see WiFi being advertised on all manner of public transport these days, but the reality is that, whilst in transit, we are all sharing a 4G uplink, which is no better than what your smartphone can do. Other than banking some data, there is very little advantage.

In short – make sure the Internet ‘pipe’ to your hotel premises is of a decent size. If not, there are a number of connectivity upgrades available.

If you’re on FTTC (Fibre to the Cabinet or Fibre Broadband) and you have reached your limit, then an EFM (Ethernet in the First Mile) or leased line upgrade may be a necessary option. Of course, there are cost challenges to consider.

For hotels in rural areas, perhaps running a standard ADSL circuit, wishing to provide robust WiFi to 100 guests or more, the connectivity challenges could well be too much. In this scenario the only really workable option is to find a wireless bridge to a location with better connectivity and ‘beam’ it across. This is more than achievable, but does come at a cost and there are certain permissions required with kit mounting and bandwidth sharing. 

Stage Three: Guest Expectations

The next question to ask is: What kind of WiFi experience do you want to offer your hotel guests?

Now, this may sound like a strange question to ask but there are levels of WiFi access, coverage and experience which can be determined at the design stage. For instance, we have a number of hotel customers who provide guest wireless but do not allow streaming for the simple reason that ‘bandwidth hogging’ can be a real problem, with multiple users connecting more than one device.

The other option, should ‘hogging’ be a concern, is to apply bandwidth throttling which, although adds a layer of complexity to the network, is the best way to ensure a consistent guest WiFi experience.

Do you want your hotel guests to pay for your WiFi?

At this stage of a hotel WiFi project, payment methods should be a core consideration. The trend amongst premium hotel chains, such as the Four Seasons, is not to charge guests for WiFi access. Although not indicative of the sector as a whole, this may well become the rule as time passes and consumers begin to expect ‘free’ access.

In implementing a charge for WiFi usage, usually opt for one of two hoteliers methods. The first is to include the ‘cost’ of the WiFi in the price of the room (£1 per room, per night, for instance). This way, a return on the wireless investment is achieved and hotel guests receive, for all intents and purposes, WiFi access which is ‘free’ at the point of use.

Alternatively, and perhaps a little more complex, is to charge guests for WiFi access. We are sure you are familiar with the ‘payment-at-the-front-desk’ option, where cash can be exchanged for passwords. This can and does work, even though it can be a little restrictive and inconvenient for the modern guest.

If this is an unattractive method, hoteliers can easily capture guest details at the point of log-in and enforce a payment gateway through customisable portals. This way is certainly more dynamic and can enable many other exciting ways to use WiFi to engage with guests on a far deeper and mutually beneficial level.

Which leads us to the next hotel WiFi consideration; data!

Stage Four: Data & Revenue Generation

We live in the age of Big Data, which sounds great but the reality can be somewhat overwhelming. However, this is not to say that hotels – and all other businesses for that matter - cannot leverage WiFi data to enhance the user experience and to create evergreen and meaningful relationships with their customers.

Contemporary WiFi solutions enable hoteliers to gather all manner of guest data, which can inform on-premises and future, off-premises, communications to grow revenues, advocacy and loyalty. Push notifications, which detail additional services and promotions, can help to increase guest spend during their stay and facilitate the sale of advertising space to other local businesses or attractions can also be incredibly effective. 

Of course, managing and acting-upon this data requires time and resource, both of which can be in short supply to the hospitality sector. What hotel owners must decide is whether or not the overall benefit of intelligent guest WiFi analytics and revenue generation are viable options and, above all, how well their clientele will receive them.

The headline here should be that the data is only a valuable as the ways in which it is intelligently applied and integrated with the broad strategic goals of the business.

In terms of using hotel WiFi as a revenue generation tool, the possibilities are increasing and many hoteliers are keen to explore ways in which to recoup the costs of wireless infrastructure investments. Talk to us about revenue generation.

We can think of revenue generation existing in two streams…

1.    Direct Revenue Generation – This involves (as mentioned above) charging hotel guests for WiFi usage via a customisable portal
2.    Marketing-led Revenue Generation – Achieved through collecting customer data and enhancing upselling, cross-selling and promotional activities via email and push notifications

Hotels at the premium end of the market are already using marketing-led revenue generation to great effect through downloadable apps. Once a guest is checked-in, the app can be used to notify them of offers and promotions, which can even be tailored to their specific preferences based on historic data stored in the system.

As above, though, the complex implementation of these kinds of solutions and the resources required to make them profitable should not be overlooked.

Stage Five: Network Security

Stages three and four are very much about using WiFi to enhance the guest experience. Although, these should be a high priority for any hotel WiFi design, the security of the resulting network is of paramount importance.

It is clear that a great deal of opportunity exists within the hospitality industry to gather data and to add previously unimaginable layers of experience and intelligence with wireless networks.  That said, the integrity of these networks can be weak without the proper network security considerations.

If hoteliers choose to do one thing, and one thing only, to protect their networks, segmentation should be it.

There are two reasons why a hotel might want to separate their corporate and guest networks.

1.    Most obviously, for the maintenance of security. Ensuring that would-be-criminals ‘posing’ as hotel guests seeking to access private, business-related servers and files are kept completely segregated.
2.    Protecting and ensuring hotel network bandwidth. Sharing guest and corporate networks can negatively impact upon business functions for staff members serving guests on connected devices as well as a host of critical business functions, which could be slowed or halted by bandwidth-hogging patrons.

Business-grade technology from the likes of Aruba HPE, Ruckus Wireless and RG Nets facilitates dynamic VLANs (Virtual Local Area Networks) which give hotels and their staff the benefit of multiple private networks and the highest levels of network security.

In addition to this, the management of data flows can also be controlled through bandwidth controls on business-grade wireless access points, enabling hotels to guarantee the performance of their networks for business and guest usage. By setting network usage ‘rules’, hoteliers can control excessive data flows, mitigating any negative effects on corporate usage.

With the sophistication of network segmentation technology developing all of the time, this is most certainly our ‘number 1’ recommendation for securing your hotel wireless. Read more about hotel WiFi segementation here.

Stage Six: Psychical Installation

We have completed a great deal of network installations over the years, across many different industry sectors and within a broad range of working environments, and it is safe to say that hotels have a very particular set of challenges.

From irregular building shapes and sizes to a vast array of building materials, highly protected aesthetics, access point placement and cable installations, hotel installations ‘done right’, are most certainly not for the inexperienced.

First and foremost: be prepared for a degree of disruption. The majority of hotels will ensure that this kind of work is carried out during their off-season so as to avoid disrupting guests. A fairly dull observation, but well worth an acknowledgement.

Secondly: consider the aesthetics of your building prior to installation. Many hotels have a particular theme or are decorated in a deliberate or thought-out manner and the addition of wireless hardware, no matter how discreet, should be thought-through. There are a number of ways in which the impact of access points and other hardware can be reduced, such as vinyl wrapping to match décor or creating false structures to hide them altogether.

Stage Seven: Payment Methods

Admittedly, not directly associated to the creation of ‘great hotel WiFi’ but, as the complexity of hotel networks increases, achieving the kind of solution you require without breaking the bank becomes a core consideration.

We have been working within the hospitality sector for long enough to understand that large investments, particularly in technology, can be a hassle and are difficult to prioritise over investments in décor, beds, furniture, or anything else on the ‘upgrade’ list.

With this in mind, it is important to remember that capital-expenditure (Cap-Ex) is not the only way to invest in new technology. We understand that a one-off investment, possibly in the tens-of-thousands, may not be viable and have created alternative payment methods specifically for the hotel sector.

Wireless as a Service (WaaS) is a popular method of payment for hotels as it eliminates any upfront costs and spreads the investment evenly across the year. What this means is that we provide your hotel with a fully managed and supported service in exchange for a monthly fee. Under this model, not only do hoteliers benefit from a significant reduction in cap-ex but are relieved of the IT burden and operational costs.

In much the same ways as lease deals have taken over as the preferred payment method in the automotive industry, leasing hotel WiFi has all the same benefits. Leasing WiFi lowers the barriers of entry to business-grade solutions for those with budgetary restrictions whilst ensuring the ongoing performance, through our hardware warranty, and future-proofing the network with upgrades available at annual intervals.

What Next?

For advice on designing or upgrading your hotel WiFi network and associated systems, to the deployment of security solutions like Next Generation Firewalls and Endpoint Network Security, please contact Ensign Communications for a chat with our technical team.