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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

Beneath its skin, Fontainebleau has something extra for guests' gadgets

19 January 2009

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- While some resort operators sweat over plans for the next hot nightclub, celebrity chef restaurant or pool lounge, tech geeks at the under-construction Fontainebleau Las Vegas are abuzz over their kind of eye candy.

The $2.9 billion resort, which opens in October with 3,815 rooms, will have eclectic restaurants and night life as well as a futuristic, Miami Beach-like vibe. But in the luxury resort arms race under way on the Strip, the Fontainebleau Las Vegas' secret weapon lies in wait, behind sealed walls. It's a distributed antenna system, basically a giant antenna, that will provide wireless coverage from cell phone carriers and wireless Internet access, as well as police and fire emergency systems and the two-way radios employees will use.

This doesn't sound too sexy — unless, perhaps, you're among those who have experienced dropped calls or spotty Internet access. Fontainebleau is expected to be free of dead zones that are common in big hotels, where steel columns and layers of concrete can interfere with wireless signals.

Although many smaller hotels in major cities have completely wired their properties, Las Vegas resorts generally have vast areas that are left unwired, which can be problematic for customers attempting to carry on a long conversation from, say, the parking garage to a convention hall to a hotel room, says Tim Rod, Fontainebleau's chief information officer.

For technophiles, the better eye candy will appear in every Fontainebleau hotel room, where iMac computers will replace the well-worn information binders found in most hotels. Besides surfing the Internet, guests will be able to use the computers to order room service, set up wake-up calls, talk to a concierge and create travel itineraries. Members of groups staying in the hotel will be able to communicate with one another over the system.

Fontainebleau also will offer large touch-screen displays throughout the property offering information and directions.

"We are building the Fontainebleau brand around technology and the customer's experience with the technology," said Rod, a former chief information officer for Hyatt's gaming division who owned a technology consulting firm before joining Fontainebleau in 2007.

Last year, Rod, who worked for Apple Computer in the early 1990s, put iMacs in the 1,504 rooms of the company's sister Fontainebleau resort in Miami Beach, Fla. — the largest rollout of Macintosh computers in the hotel industry.

Many casinos have distributed antenna systems in public spaces such as lobbies but not in their hotel towers. Wiring an entire hotel is expensive without offering much upfront profit potential. That's because the major wireless network providers, at least before the recession, helped pay the cost of wiring a hotel's public space in exchange for a hoped-for increase in cell phone service in that hotel. Because guests tend to use their cell phones less in their rooms than in public areas, many hotel rooms remain unwired, resulting in spotty service, Rod said.

Although wireless carriers have been reluctant to contribute toward the wiring of hotel rooms, they are willing to pay rent to access such customers in public areas, which in turn helps to offset the cost to the hotel of installing the antenna systems there, he said.

The hotel's MobileAccess Universal Wireless Network, which has also been deployed in various football stadiums hosting the Super Bowl, will allow customers to communicate uninterrupted on cell phones, PDAs or even laptops that are carried throughout the property, balanced in one hand with a cocktail or stack of casino chips in the other.

How much this technological outlay will return in profit seems uncertain in a business where carefully crafted profit margins are expected for various business segments.

"We're investing many millions of dollars so that customers will have a better experience at the property," Rod said. "You can't put a dollar amount on that."

He knows that customers in town for a relaxing getaway or heavy partying may not care that their phones will ring in the garage. He also knows that many others, especially those in town for business or attending conventions, will care.

The stakes are higher for new resorts, now that developers who would have preferred to wait out the recession are forced to open expensive properties amid unprecedented economic decline.

Rod expects that a powerful antenna will become a bigger selling point in future years as older networks offered by hotels that don't upgrade won't be able to keep up with faster wireless services offered by cellular carriers. More of those customers' calls will be dropped, he said.

For now, the tech geeks are happy.

The hotel won't be unfurling banners labeled "more than 10 million square feet of coverage" throughout the property, or out front. But Rod expects word-of-mouth about the technology to spread.

"When we sell a convention, it will be a differentiator," he said.