The Wi-Fi Maids

By Jeanette James

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While Wi-Fi hotspots have yet to prove profitable, there are effective niche applications with promise. Palm Hospitality Technologies' use of Wi-Fi technology for boosting hotel-staff efficiency seems all the more clever today, in light of the Wi-Fi market's recent struggles to monetize public wireless networks.

To be sure, 2004 has not been kind to many Wi-Fi initiatives that were the technology-market darlings of 2003. In May, for example, Intel-backed Cometa threw in the towel after failing either to expand beyond its one municipal market or to raise new investments.

As Forrester Research writes in a recent report, "The demise of Cometa Networks as a WLAN hotspot provider sends a chill through the global WLAN [wireless local-area network] hotspot market segment because the company had both deep pockets and the support of industry giants AT&T, IBM, and Intel."

When Wi-Fi burst on to the scene at the end of 2002, many start-ups and more established players hoped to install Wi-Fi networks and charge business travelers on-the-go for minutes spent online. A host of national Wi-Fi networks sprung up in public places such as cafes, airports and hotels.

But prices have been too high, networks have been too sparse and free Wi-Fi networks too prevalent to make the market as lucrative as hoped. At hotels, for example, Wi-Fi initiatives that initially charged guests for access began to look on Wi-Fi more like soap -- an amenity to be included with the price of a room -- rather than a revenue generator.

None of this has eased demand for Wi-Fi, however, as more and more business travelers are equipping their laptops with Wi-Fi network cards. As Forrester notes, "The fact that many municipalities, as well as convention centers and hotels, are beginning to offer free hotspots means that corporate users will demand hotspot access but will be less willing to pay for such services."

As a result, hotels have sought other ways to pay for the technology their guests are demanding. The Just in-time Housekeeping Integrated solution (JiHi) from Palm Hospitality Technologies -- one of a group of companies run by V-Link Hospitality Technologies -- is one way for hotels recoup the cost of their Wi-Fi network through an efficiency boost in hotel management.

Ever since hotels have stood more than one story tall, hotel managers have struggled to keep track of housekeeping staff. When guests want extra pillows or want to check into their room early, inevitably the housekeeping staff is working in the hotel's furthest corner and can't be located to make a delivery or clean a requested room, explains Michel Picard, vice president of Technologies at V-Link.

Walkie-talkies have provided some help but have proved unreliable and difficult for many housekeepers who don't speak English.

Palm Hospitality's JiHi system, on the other hand, equips maids with Wi-Fi-enabled PDAs that connect into the hotel's Wi-Fi network. Then, work assignments are sent to the maid's hand-held while the maid ticks off room-cleaning progress as she completes each task and transmits the information directly and continually back to the front desk.

The system allows for lots of efficiencies. With the PDA, for example, a maid can instantly send a note to the maintenance department to repair the leaky faucet on the fifth floor, rather than waiting until her rounds are done at the end of the day.

If a demanding guest in room 704 wants his mini-bar restocked (and who doesn't?), the maid working on the seventh floor can get a message on her PDA in a matter of minutes -- rather than checking in with the front desk hours later to see what else needs to be done back up on seven.

A few hotels throughout North America have already installed JiHi and are enjoying its benefits.

"JiHi gets rid of all the paperwork for housekeeping and maintenance" says Joey Thiffault, general manager of the Best Western Centerville in Quebec City. "At first I didn't believe it at all -- giving computers to maids. But now all the maids have a PocketPC bolted to their cart. We know where each maid is, how long they've been cleaning a room, and when they are done."

Better still, at hotels where some maids struggle with English -- such as the Pacific Terrace in San Diego -- JiHi again uses technology to help a long-standing hotel-industry challenge: the housekeeping manager at the hotel front desk can make assignments, set schedules and monitor maid progress in English from her PC while requests and daily instructions appear in Spanish on the maid's PDAs.

In the midst of the current Wi-Fi market crisis, such common-sense solutions go a long way with hotel owners. At the Best Western, the front desk now knows throughout the day what rooms have been cleaned and can better accommodate requests to check in early or leave late.

"Maintenance is more effective, house keeping is more effective," says Thiffault. He won't reveal what he invested in his Wi-Fi network or the JiHi system but does say "I could have a pay-back in less than two years."