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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston
 

Properties Hope Wireless Access Connects With Their Customers

31 August 2004

The latest offering to spread across the Strip isn't as sexy as a nightclub or a swanky lounge but may become just as important to Las Vegas' image as an upscale resort destination. And it costs only about $15 per day.

Several hotels in the past few months have begun introducing high-speed wireless Internet access, a relatively new technology that has in many ways surpassed its wired counterparts in speed and quality.

"Most business professionals now carry laptops" with wireless capabilities, Tropicana Hotel Manager Dennis Gradillas said. The property last month installed wireless service in its pool area and convention and meeting rooms in part to attract business groups and individuals who might have gone elsewhere for easier Internet access.

The Stardust also went wireless last month. The property's wireless service extends to 90 percent of the rooms as well as the pools, common areas and meeting and convention areas.

The first meeting to take advantage of the technology last month was Lifestyles, an annual swingers convention that has been hosted at a variety of Nevada hotels over the years. The group has signed on with the Stardust for 2005 and 2006 in part because of its wireless access.

"The service was just stellar," said said Bruce Kinnee, director of information technology for Lifestyles. At least 20 percent of the 6,000 or so people who attended used wireless devices during their stay, while vendors and management used the service to display products and conduct business, he said.

A few older hotels on the Strip are using the advent of wireless technology as an opportunity to leapfrog ahead of newer competitors that may not even have high-speed Internet access in rooms or other areas.

Wireless systems are easier and cheaper to deploy than wired Internet access because they involve setting up mini communications towers throughout the property. On the other hand, retrofitting hotels with wired high-speed access is cost-prohibitive and would involve punching through walls and running miles of cable through rooms, experts say.

The Tropicana paid a few hundred thousand dollars to install its wireless service, Gradillas said. That's less than the millions of dollars likely involved in wiring a major resort, experts say.

Tom Gonzales, chief executive of Business Center Solutions, said his company installed the Stardust's wireless system "for virtually nothing and it took our crew under six weeks to get the building done." The four-year-old company also operates the pre-existing business center for the Stardust, where guests can pick up copies of documents they print from their laptops.

"We've got access points that are six inches square and unobtrusive," Gonzales said. "If the building is ever torn down we can take the equipment with us."

Hotel Wireless Inc., a two-year-old company from Calabasas, Calif., that installed wireless as well as wired high-speed Internet access at the Imperial Palace, also recently installed similar systems for three aging Reno hotel-casinos -- John Ascuaga's Nugget, Circus Circus and the Eldorado.

"Wireless has made the next leap into reliability," said Gary Patrick, president of Hotel Wireless. "It's actually a better offering, but just wasn't available before. It's going to be something people are going to expect to have."

The Imperial Palace's wireless service, which went live in July, is virtually propertywide and includes rooms, convention space, the pool area, restaurants and public areas.

These older properties aren't considered technology innovators. Previously guests could only plug computer devices into telephone jacks in their rooms to receive dial-up Internet access. At great expense, conventions and smaller business groups could obtain high-speed Internet through telephone lines by ordering ahead of time. In some cases, guests could plug in their electronic devices at hotel business centers or could access a few Internet terminals there.

While some newer hotels appear to be slower to adopt wireless technology, installers say properties now under construction also are going wireless.

The Renaissance Las Vegas hotel, a Marriott brand, is scheduled to open early next year with high-speed wired access as well as wireless service.

Wired service can be installed at minimal cost because workers already are pulling through telephone lines during construction, said Mike Henderson, vice president of marketing for Atlanta-based StayOnline, a five-year-old company that is one of the nation's largest wireless service companies for hotels. Wired Internet access isn't just for surfing the Web, Henderson said.

"There's all kinds of enhanced services that are coming, such as minibar inventories, video on demand systems, enhanced phone services, and until you have (high speed) infrastructure, you can't play with them," he said.

Wireless -- which also is cost-effective to install at about $110 to $160 per room -- is just as important because "people are going to go where that is," he said.

The Venetian, similar to some other newer resorts, offers wired high-speed Internet access for a fee and can work with business groups to obtain any form of short-term Internet service.

The property sparked a convention renaissance in Las Vegas by selling most of its midweek rooms to convention-goers at higher-than-typical prices. It also opened its hotel with high-speed Internet access and was one of the first in town to offer a combination fax machine, printer and copier in each room.

The tech-savvy property still doesn't have wireless in its rooms. The Venetian has begun experimenting with wireless "hotspots" -- specific areas where people can use wireless devices -- around convention and meeting areas. But the property hasn't made a commitment yet, Venetian spokesman Ron Reese said.

Mandalay Bay was retrofitted for wired Internet access around the first of the year but the property's second hotel tower, which is marketed as a business hotel, opened with wired, high-speed access. The new tower also features a fax, printer and copier in each room.

The property's convention area is offering wireless service on an as-needed basis along with any available combination of Internet services, Mandalay Bay spokesman Gordon Absher said.

However, demand is such that the convention area may become permanently outfitted for wireless within a year, he said.

"If technology leads us in that direction, we are going to lead the way," Absher said. "When we built Mandalay Bay in 1999, high-speed Internet access was not a priority. In the five years we've been open technology has changed and we have hurried to provide that technology to our guests."

As with any new technology, wireless companies are answering lots of questions about the security of their systems. Hackers have been known to drive around town seeking and stealing wireless service, acts that could lead to bigger security breaches down the road. While these concerns don't appear to be keeping anyone from adopting wireless, they are part of an extensive orientation process for hotels that may have other pressing needs, experts say.

Wireless systems may only be as safe as buying something over the Internet, they say. In both cases it's a secure transaction that requires a password and transmits encrypted information that can be difficult or relatively easy to tap depending on how the hotel sets up its system. Hotels also say the Web pages that people see when they sign up and access wireless services are completely separate from the internal hotel operations Web sites where confidential or financial information is stored.

"Security has been a very big issue" for all types of Internet access, said Ronald Shaul, director of technology development at Smart City Networks. The Las Vegas company has contracts to configure Internet technology for the Las Vegas Convention Center and about 14 other convention centers nationwide. The company is close to having wireless access available at all of its locations.

"It's all about being aware of what you're doing and where you're doing it," Shaul said. "When I'm not using special encryption, I'm not going to transmit sensitive information. When you're with a group of strangers, you're not going to shout out your credit card information and expiration date."

The Las Vegas Convention Center often posts fliers and posters throughout the property notifying convention-goers and other visitors about wireless access and 800-numbers for technical support. But that support can get expensive if people aren't familiar with wireless setup procedures, Shaul said. During a major technology convention such as the Las Vegas Convention Center's Consumer Electronics Show, thousands of wireless devices are communicating with one another at the same time, creating a significant amount of interference that can make Internet access spotty at best, he said.