Resorts invest in technology to draw business travelers

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by Elizabeth Cooper

Ten or 15 years ago — when LCD (liquid crystal display) wasn’t even part of the business vernacular — travelers were satisfied if a hotel provided computer linkups and a fax machine. In today’s high-tech world, guests expect much more.  In fact, hotels that compete for business conferences are expected to offer cutting-edge communications.

That’s why properties across the state are adding the latest in videoconferencing, LCD data projectors and high-definition televisions. It’s a must-do investment, say hotel officials, if properties are to remain competitive for both business and leisure travel. 

Consider the venerable Boar’s Head Inn in Charlottesville. It gets about 45 percent of its business from conferences. So when this 43-year-old mountain resort opened a $10 million meeting pavilion last month, it mixed high-tech toys with quaint, historic charm. On the outside, the expansion retains the inn’s feel of a genteel country estate, with a portion of it built from timbers from an abandoned gristmill from the 1800s. Step inside, though, and visitors will find new-world technology. There’s nearly 9,000 square feet of meeting rooms, wireless access and a business center. 

An integrated,  Bose-engineered sound system, video-image projection system and input points for audio and video eliminate the need to run cables in meeting rooms.  In addition, the resort’s in-house tech services offer audio and visual equipment rental and staging. This means meetings need not be dull — not when conferences have access to computer graphics and video/data projection, multi-image staging and on-site tape duplication.

Although the four-diamond resort typically attracts the convention trade, Boar’s Head now is poised to draw more business travelers seeking modern accoutrements.  “It’s just demand,” says Pat Burnette, the inn’s marketing and communications manager. “… It’s just a matter of keeping our facility on the cutting edge.”

The resort’s 170 guest rooms also have joined the high-tech age by switching to flat-screen TVs. “That’s what people are looking for,” says Burnette.  “People have them in their homes. You just have a much crisper picture, and it takes up less space in the hotel room.” The new TVs have not led to increased room rates, which currently average $219 for a deluxe room to $345 for a suite.

Conference center paid off
Opening a modern conference center has paid off for the Hotel Roanoke and Conference Center. The hotel built a 63,000-square-foot center in 1995 as part of a $27.5 million package to reopen the facility after it had been closed for several years. Today, it hosts about 500 conferences and meetings annually. There’s a full menu of on-site audiovisual services as well as LCD projectors, an Internet kiosk and videoconferencing, where meeting attendees can confer with colleagues at another site through the computerized transmission of video and audio.

Placing the information superhighway at guests’ fingertips has helped the hotel make a name for itself as a place for business gatherings.  “When people are looking for a place to go for a conference, it’s these types of perks that get them to come to the hotel,” says Michael Quonce, public relations and advertising manager. “Not being in the D.C. or Richmond area, it’s very important for us to have this to get people to come to the mountains.”

The hotel also recently completed a $6.5 million renovation of its guest rooms and corridors. Flat-panel TVs were installed in 180 of the hotel’s 331 rooms, and all rooms offer high-speed Internet access and data ports. “It’s what our customers are expecting,” adds Quonce.

Upgrades at The Jefferson
The Hotel Roanoke is not the only 19th-century-era property moving into the information age. Last year, The Jefferson Hotel in Richmond spent about $50,000 to upgrade the sound system in its main meeting rooms, adding top-of-the-line speakers and a high-tech amplification system. The hotel also offers teleconferencing, allowing a telephone call to be merged into the speaker sound system. Videoconferencing is another option. “Some people view a historical hotel as older, but it’s important to let people know we stay up to date,” says Rick Butts, director of sales and marketing.

Business travelers, who make up about 65 percent of the hotel’s guests, expect such amenities, adds Butts. The hotel’s executive board rooms feature flat-screen TVs with a built-in connection for laptops to be plugged into the screen. “The normal business day requires people to be connected,” he says. “A lot of our customers have important high-level meetings here. You can’t afford to have anything go wrong.”

Like many hotels, The Jefferson provides complimentary wireless Internet service in guest rooms and public spaces. Plans call for upgrading guest rooms with flat-screen, high-definition televisions by the end of the year. “People appreciate it and know what the high-definition experience is,” says Butts. Although the upgrades have not yet generated new corporate business, he believes customers appreciate the emphasis on technology. “When they come in, they have all the tools they need from a technological and audiovisual standpoint. Not only can they stay at a luxurious hotel, but they can conduct meetings with 21st-century technology.” Winter rates at The Jefferson range from $195 to $395 per night. 

Other hotels are including upgrades in technology as part of their renovations. The Renaissance Portsmouth Hotel and Waterfront Conference Center is in the midst of a $3.5 million makeover of guest rooms and public spaces. A large part of the project involves expanding the lobby to create different zones to meet guests’ business and social needs. A “social-mingling zone” will have a huge media wall, flat-screen TVs, cocktail cubicles, an Espresso kiosk during the day and a martini bar in the evening. An “individual zone” will give travelers a quiet place to work while an “at-your-service zone” will offer a self check-in kiosk.

“We’re changing the concept of how lobbies are designed and used,” says Rob Sanders, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing. “People work differently than they did even five years ago.”

Appealing to the senses
Not to be ignored are a guest’s audio and olfactory senses. The Renaissance lobby’s sound system soon will feature a music play list that changes daily. And once visitors enter the hotel’s main rotunda, they’ll be able to detect the scent of white tea.  “Scent is a key driver,” notes Sanders. “All of our guests are very tactile. Scent adds to their experience.”

The hotel’s 249 guest rooms, priced from $129 to $209 per night, are scheduled for updates with flat-screen high-definition TVs. Guests also will also be able to connect their laptop computers, iPods, cameras, Nintendo Wii and X-Box components to the TV through an electronic connectivity panel known as a jack-pack system. “The Renaissance brand has really pioneered a lot of that,”  says Sanders. “That’s what our clients are asking for. They can choose to stay at a hotel where it’s business as usual, or for the same money, choose something that has more technology and is more

Although built back in the 1970s, the National Conference Center in Lansdowne has kept pace with today’s technology. With 265,000 square feet of meeting space, 250 meeting rooms and 917 guest rooms, the facility hosts training for government and corporate groups. The center recently made several investments: $300,000 to update information technology infrastructure to support Internet requirements in meeting rooms, $1.6 million to install a new telephone system in guest rooms and about $1 million to equip the rooms with flat-screen TVs.

Next up is a half million dollar project to make the entire facility wireless. “It’s difficult to stay up with the newest technology and trends, but we’re trying to make sure we have what is expected,” says Eric Whitson, sales and marketing director. “We have yet to have a group that has a need that goes beyond our capability in bandwidth.” Despite such high-tech advancements, some guests still cling to tradition when it comes to some tasks. “Especially in training, business people still use a lot of flip charts,” notes Whitson. “In some ways, the essence of communicating with people in a conference room hasn’t changed that much in 20 years. It’s still flip charts with magic markers.”

Outside the room, though, guests make a beeline for their cell phones, laptops and BlackBerries — tuning into the busy world people once tried to escape while staying at a resort.


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