NATIONAL REPORT—With more and more hotels experimenting with voice-activated devices, questions about the hotel guestroom phone have arisen. It’s no secret that the role of the phone has evolved over the years with the prevalence of mobile phones—but what is its future?
Currently, the room phone is primarily used to connect the guest to hotel services. “Most guests do not use the guestroom phone to call numbers outside of the hotel. The primary focus for the phone in the room is for the guests to reach hotel services and life safety needs,” said Joe Zhang, president, Bittel Americas.
“Guests today are interacting with the in-room phone for items or services that need immediate attention, like requests for a new iron, more towels or car retrieval,” said Chad Collins, VP of sales, Americas, VTech Communications Inc. “By and large, guests no longer use these devices for conference calls or long-distance calls back home.”
Today, guests are looking for simplicity in the guestroom phone—easy to use with quick guest-service keys to reach staff. “Speakerphone makes it even easier with hands-free mode,” Zhang said. “We see the telephones in the future becoming simplified—speakerphone modules equipped with a number of one-touch, guest-service keys, with or without the physical dial pad.”
“Guests still expect to have a clean, easy-to-use room phone with clear faceplate instructions for dialing, accessing voice mail, and communicating outbound, room-to-room, and directly to hotel staff or offsite services,” added John Grubb, SVP of marketing, Cetis Inc. “With the advent of guest smart devices being brought into the room, USB charging ports are being added to the room phone, or available as an add-on sled that fits beneath an existing analog or VoIP phone.”
“Many guestroom devices have already evolved to anticipate future needs of a completely connected room,” Collins said. “For example, VTech just launched small footprint guestroom phones with features like built-in USB charging ports and handset speakerphones. Because people travel with smart devices, they expect accessible charging ports near the nightstand. They also like the convenience of a handset speakerphone, which provides them with mobility and the ability to multitask when requesting simple services.”
How are features like voice-activated devices, texting services and concierge apps affecting the in-room phone?
“The hotel guestroom is the last place on earth where one can find a landline telephone. This relic won’t last much longer,” predicted Dave Berger, CEO of Volara, a voice-based guest engagement software company. “Communications are being integrated into the guest’s room and personal devices. At Volara, we’re turning the guest’s voice into an API call. It’s more efficient for the guest and staff alike. But if an API call is not sufficient to meet the guest’s need, we can instantly connect them live and hands-free to staff of any department within the hotel.”
For his part, Zhang predicted an increase in smart devices. “There are new ways to communicate with the guests in addition to the telephones service. While these new communication channels provide new opportunities for hotels, the telephone voice service remains as a simple and effective communication method that could not be easily replaced,” he said. “We see the smart telephones coming into the market where telephone services are integrated with the new service such as Alexa. There are going to be more smart devices in the guestroom, not less.”
“As these technologies evolve, the reliance on the room phone will no doubt decline,” Collins added. “Demographics will play a role in this as well. While millennials are quite accustomed to emerging technologies, some baby boomers may prefer the familiarity of the in-room phone. There is also the issue of timely responses with emerging technologies. I recently stayed in an upscale hotel in downtown Portland, OR, which offered WhatsApp interaction with the staff. Intrigued, I curiously interacted requesting additional towels for my room. The response took 22 minutes. Maybe this isn’t the norm throughout the industry, but it did raise the question, ‘Would I have waited 22 minutes by simply calling the front desk from my room?’”
Pointing to the growing pains that come with new technology, Grubb noted that not everyone wants to download an app for a one-time stay just to order towels. “Guests are generally familiar with use of the room phone, and there is no need to download an app or find a phone number to text to,” he said. “From requests for wake-up calls or fresh towels, to advice on getting clothes cleaned, guests may pick up the room phone and push a single button to get what they want. It’s a guest convenience that is simple, fast, and—most of all—expected. Information provided to Cetis by a major, full-service Los Angeles hotel reveals that room service orders total as high as 65,000 annually. All were ordered on room phones using single-button pushes. Those 65,000 calls at $20 equal $1.3 million dollars in room-service orders. Some hoteliers also lease guest-service keys to local restaurants for guests to seamlessly one-touch dial for meal delivery via the programmed keys.”
And, of course, security is still a concern for some. “The telephone still is the most effective security and life-safety device in the room,” Zhang said. “There is no easy replacement for such a function right now. The integration of the telephone feature with many other new services and new IoT technology is inevitable. The telephone itself could be a very important piece of the new IoT network in the room. We see more integration, but not replacement, for the telephone in the room.”
“It’s also not clear whether the new smart devices will meet emergency lifeline call standards, or whether guests will have sufficient knowledge to know how to access the device in an emergency,” Grubb added. “Standard room phones already serve as a familiar emergency lifeline for guests. A phone plugged into a jack inside the room is still a more reliable emergency location device than a mobile phone or a voice command device because the room phone identifies the exact location of the guest inside the room. Congress is also reviewing legislation to require multi-line telephone systems to be configured for users to directly dial 911 without having to dial an initial digit.”
So what does the guestroom of the future look like?
“It’s empty,” Berger said. “Interfaces will fade into the background. It’ll be cleaner than the glass on the iPhone or dashboard of a Tesla. And every feature of the room and service of the hotel will be immediately available on command.”
Zhang noted, “Telephones can and should be integrated with the new, more connected room with IoT. Telephones, especially IP phones, natively provide the communication capacity and network connectivity that is required for any connected room. It could be a very important piece in the connected room. We see WiFi-enabled IP phones dramatically reduce the infrastructure cost of deploying VoIP. Therefore, it makes the WiFi-enabled IP phone not only a telephony device, but also a network connectivity hub for many other IoT devices.”
For his part, Collins doesn’t believe the phone will necessarily be part of the connected room. “VTech sells a lot of phones each year. Not one brand has ever asked how we can integrate the room phone into the connected room environment,” Collins noted. “If we agree the usage of phones has decreased over time, hotels would need to invest in an integration plan to connect all of the devices—one of which is seldom used. As technologies continue to evolve, I envision smart speaker devices like the Amazon Echo incorporating an in-room phone component. Then, it may make sense to have an entirely connected room.”
He added, “I believe these technologies will change what type of phone is in the room. I foresee a time when cordless phones will be replaced by very basic phones with a dialpad and nothing else. They will serve as a means to simply call 0 or 911.”
But, he said, “It will be some time until room phones are no longer part of the equation. Hotels are not keen on being on the front end of those types of decisions for the life-safety concerns.” HB