The Brancatelli File



November 11, 1996 -- The by-the-book, research wonks at Marriott knew something kinky was going on when business travelers rejected spacious accommodations in king-bedded rooms and instead requested the comparatively cramped quarters of rooms outfitted with two double beds.

What, Marriott wondered, could lonely business travelers be doing with two beds?

"They told us they used one bed to sleep on and the other bed as a desk," says Gordon Lambourne, a Marriott executive assigned to the development team that cracked the mystery. "They let us know that our rooms didn't have a good place to work, so they needed that extra bed to spread out their papers and get themselves organized."

Armed with that startlingly obvious revelation--that business travelers actually do conduct business in their rooms--Marriott and several other hotel chains have rushed to create special guest rooms stocked with all manner of business amenities: space-age desks, ergonomically correct chairs, fancy lighting, fax machines, computer printers and copy machines. And just in case business travelers don't get the message, hotels have slapped a full spread of painfully cute brand names on the high-tech havens: The Room that Works (Marriott), The Guest Office (Westin), The Business Plan (Hyatt), and even the instinctively prosaic Business Class Room (Loews).

Every business traveler who's ever been nicked for $20 to send a 5-page fax by a rapacious hotel business center will appreciate an in-room fax. Any laptop-toting executive who's crawled on all fours in search of a power plug or a telephone jack will love the desks that feature built-in power outlets and dataports. And frequent travelers like cable consultant Israel Switzer, who flies with his own supply of 100-watt bulbs because he finds standard hotel lighting inadequate, will be elated by the swiveling, adjustable task lamps.

But business-oriented guest rooms also raise a confounding list of questions. Do business travelers want their sleeping chambers cluttered with the minutia of their business day? Can hotels, which have trouble managing free-standing business centers, intelligently transform guest rooms into guest offices? Should business travelers be forced to pay a premium room rate for all the gadgets and gimmicks? And will any of this matter a few years from now, when we all may be traveling with a fully functional office-in-a-computer no larger than our palm?

Not surprising for an industry that can't agree on where to put the power switch on a table lamp--Have you ever been in two rooms where the lamps turn on the same way?--hotels can't agree on the answer to any of those questions. And the result of that chaos is, well, chaos. Each chain's business-room concept offers different styles of desks, different types of office equipment and different amenities. They all charge different prices and each cites conflicting research to support their particular approach.

One faction of the hotel industry, for example, insists that business travelers want and need nothing more in their rooms than a comfortable place to work. So they're installing better desks, chairs, and lighting, but eschewing the in-room fax machines, printers and other computerized wizardry.

Marriott's Room that Works, for instance, features a large console table and a rolling writing desk. The rigid, old-style hotel desk chair has been replaced by a tilting ergonomic chair with an adjustable seat. A special glare-free desk lamp has a swiveling arm and sits atop a base outfitted with two power outlets and a dataport. Best of all, the in-room work station is free; Marriott charges no premium for booking a Room That Works.

"Travelers are self-contained when it comes to the technology. They don't want the faxes and printers in their rooms," claims Bob Dirks, senior vice president of marketing of Hilton. After testing an in-room computerized office center, Dirks has committed Hilton to a "basics" approach that imitates the Marriott arrangement. "Our customer is telling us that they don't really need a fax machine in the room because they have faxing capacity in their laptop and E-mail is replacing faxing anyway."

Yet the flaw in Dirks' argument is obvious: without in-room technology similar to what's available back at the office, business travelers are forced to rely on notoriously unreliable hotel business centers, where prices are high, hours are limited and it is socially incorrect to wander around in your boxer shorts while knocking out a few last-minute photocopies. Even occasional business travelers have a business-center horror story--the crucial fax that was never delivered or the printer that crashed their laptop's hard drive--and many frequent flyers can't help but remember when the Marriott hotel at Newark Airport posted a sign in the lobby to warn guests about the outlandish fax fees charged by the hotel's business center.

Led by Westin, Hyatt and Sheraton, another faction of hoteliers have gone ahead and built mini-business centers in each guest room. One example: Westin's Guest Office concept. Besides boasting a Marriott-style work station, each room comes loaded with a combination laser printer, fax machine and copier; Wintel- and Macintosh-compatible printer cables; a surge protector; a speakerphone; and a rasher of office supplies.

"I don't need my customers to tell me this is the right idea because this stuff fits my own travel lifestyle" says Thomas F. O'Toole, vice president of marketing at Hyatt. "One morning, in my robe and with a pot of coffee, I sat down at the desk in a Business Plan room. Thirty minutes later, I had sent four faxes to three different countries. You can't beat the utility value of that."

Maybe not, but the in-room technology doesn't come free--Hyatt charges a $15-a-night fee for a Business Plan room and other chains impose even higher premiums--and it doesn't last forever. Chuck Brown, Westin's operations project manager, admits each in-room office costs $2,000 per unit yet will be outdated within three years, a steep obsolescence curve for an industry that only replaces bedding every ten years. Even worse, in-room offices aren't particularly attractive additions to a hotel guest room. "Nobody," says Loews executive vice president Charlotte St. Martin, "wants to sleep in their office."

Of course, there are a few concepts that all hotel chains have incorporated into their business rooms. Coffee makers, irons and ironing boards are low-tech gadgets all chains offer. Free continental breakfast is usually part of the package, too. Most guests booking business rooms are also spared the annoying surcharges hotel impose on credit-card calls and incoming faxes. And virtually all hotels have installed easy-to-use voice-mail systems in their business rooms.

Unfortunately, the long-term prospect of any further standardization of business rooms or an agreement on pricing seem dim. In fact, says Hyatt's O'Toole, the confusion will get worse in the years to come.

"Technological literacy isn't spread out equally among business travelers," he contends. "Some travelers want and need more than others. Some travelers will carry their offices with them, others will demand to have it waiting in their rooms, and still others will be content to go to the business center. There won't be just one 'room of the future,' but several levels of rooms based on a business traveler's particular degree of sophistication."

Pretty scary talk when it comes from a bunch of guys who can't even get together on the location of the power switch on a guest-room lamp.

WHO: Hilton Hotels
WHERE: 25% of rooms at U.S. hotels by end of 1997
COST: no charge
WHAT: Work desk and chair; task lighting; 2-line phone; surge protector at desk level

WHO: Hyatt Hotels Business Plan
WHERE: 5% of rooms at 78 hotels
COST: $15 a night
WHAT: fax machine; large desk; continental breakfast; coffee maker; iron/ironing board; access to copier, printer, and office supplies

WHO: Loews Hotels Business Class
WHERE 25% of rooms at 12 hotels
COST: $10-$20 a night
WHAT: fax machine; coffee maker; iron/ironing board; access to office supplies

WHO: Marriott Hotels Room That Works
WHERE: 20% of rooms in 120 hotels; 280 hotels by early 1997
COST: no charge
WHAT: console table; rolling writing desk; task lamp with dataport and 2 power outlets; coffee maker; adjustable desk chair; 20 photocopies

WHO: Sheraton Hotels Corporate Club Room
WHERE: 2000 rooms in 20 hotels by early 1997
COST: $15-$20 a night
WHAT: fax/copier/printer; console table; rolling writing desk; iron/ironing board; continental breakfast; coffee maker

WHO: Westin Guest Office
WHERE: 7% of rooms at 37 hotels
COST: $20 a night
WHAT: fax/copier/printer; speakerphone; office supplies; adjustable desk chair; coffeemaker task lamp; surge protector

WHO: Wyndham Way
WHERE: all rooms at 66 hotels by the end of 1996
COST: no charge
WHAT: large desk; task lighting 2 phones or phone with long cord; iron/ironing board; coffee maker

*Most rooms include dataports and voice mail; guests are usually not subject to surcharges on credit-card calls or on incoming faxes.

This column originally appeared in Fortune magazine.

Copyright 1993-2005 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.