A colleague and I were bemoaning the difficulty with modern customer service, and the fact that so many tech support numbers are no longer offered as toll free unless it is someone like HP or Dell. Per usual, I fanatically inject my own experiences into the situation, and muse about the long and wild road of in-room phones at hotels… specifically the way technological innovation and advancement has, constantly, caught our industry unaware to the point that we shoot ourselves in the foot.

It isn’t right not to have access to free phone tech for a product, but it is the way modern business is happening. Telephony has altered greatly (understatement) in the last two decades…and property level we are still calling them “PBX”. What’s more is that the IT guys at hotels are well versed enough to know just to ignore it.  I have seen one or two try to explain.. “Well the PBX doesn’t really exist anymore”, the GM will point to the operator, and then the IT guy capitulates with a shrug.

We hotels used to gouge consumers for phone calls because they had no choice, and it was a BRILLIANT revenue stream. Then came calling cards, and hotels started losing lots of revenue… and per our typical furrowed brow, it took us a couple years to figure out why. Even dial-up modems for AOL and prodigy services were a complexity to us… which is why we started charging people to call out to 800 numbers. Of course this garnered more distrust from guests about our call accounting, but it also got the enraged guest at the desk who had left AOL connected for 3 days and owed the hotel $5545 for a 2910 minute phone call to an 800 number.  I had at least 3 of those that I can remember… and those people were all completely, and totally, hysterical.  Not the funny kind, either.

By the time we admitted to ourselves that the revenue stream was lost and started charging enough simply to cover costs… hotel guests had already decided to never trust in-room phones ever again. Calling cards were used almost exclusively, and guests now have cell phones that simply makes in room telephones, for all extensive purposes… obsolete. This has been patently obvious in the last 5 years…. in-room phones are nothing more than an intercom now, which is why telephony solution providers are trying to make them into a marketing gimmick with big LCD colour touch screens, etc. What’s more is that anyone silly enough to install payphones on property has them regularly taken back out within 3-5 months because it simply isn’t profitable for the companies to maintain them.

By the way – that might be my only professional advice in this post, along side the historical ramble…. stay away from that “slick” nonsense.  LCD screen phones are nothing more than an annoyingly bright & pricey business card for in house outlets where guests are already likely to contribute incremental revenue. These phones are a gimmick, and they are part of the technological in-between period of telephony companies trying to generate need and create a new niche for them while everything swirls up in the air.  These “hubs” will become something incredibly powerful, and useful… but the new tech coupled with cost and lack of dynamic functionality (beyond being flashy) makes them a poor investment for the time being.  For now, think of in-room guest phones as IP “intercoms” for your next project, and you will save a lot of money. Heck… you may start having guests order room service online before calling on the room phone…or they may plan travel without even considering a voice call – like GPS enabled hotel booking apps, or basically just making an app to make every department available by PDA as seen at the Malibu Beach Inn. Even Choice Hotels has an incredible mobile app that not only sells their brand, but it enables an entire community of brand endorsers.

So in this panic of the phone industry changing, everyone has been hit… robots handle call volumes of humans, 800 numbers are incredibly expensive, and customer service has tanked in general because of it. In 20 years we went from fully staffed calling centers with live operators to a computer voice that handles the volume of 20 employees’ worth of labour. With cell phones all but destroying traditional landlines, they have also made the 800 number obsolete. When it is used, it is strictly for high end marketing, because no one else can afford it. It usually only goes to the departments that generate revenue (SALES) and the guys doing all the real work have the fun of not having one, then fielding complaints from already unhappy consumers that have just been further inconvenienced.

As we continue forward, I think the traditional phone will die, but rise a bit like a Pheonix – the same thing existing in a different form.  It will not only take on the traditional rolls, but also a hotel intercom, then soon to be an internet hub… and slowly integrating with other guest room controls and being not unlike the new Verizon Hub, which demonstrates that you can have a phone that is highly adaptable and functional.  Think of it as the Looney Tune cartoon “House of the Future” where panels & buttons on the wall call outside, surf the web, program the house settings, washes, cools, power management, etc.  The only thing is that we are a long way off from that kind of functionality…. and for now spend as little as possible on both ends.  As for 800 numbers, if the department’s revenue can’t cover it without impacting business, it simply isn’t a wise choice.

In the future, however, someone in your hotel will also have grown up playing around with making apps, and you will have your first person on staff managing the 2.0 of your hotel.  I like to think this would be a salaried position from a truly innovative management company, but I am aware this starts with property level people engaged with the brand that have extra time and know how.  As for the salaried position, we shall see.  I know we are all looking down the road at Concierge 2.o, and few of us might have thought that could be possible. Now with IP, Google Voice, and even browser enabled chat sessions… there is an exciting future of unending real time communication with brand advocates (returning guests) and potential clients.

These conversations about archaic forms of communication will fall to the wayside during the tremendous fervour for hotels’ future comm abilities, where we will have to adopt a more pro-active and less wary view of technology, so the hospitality industry can be carried forward by technology and the advent of 2.0 – at the intersection of commerce and the community that is selling your brand.

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