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Marriott's War on Wi-Fi: Hotels Need to Stop Fighting the Future.
By Vikram Singh
Saturday, 10th January 2015
 

Big hotel brands have seen unprecedented growth over the past decade, even when the global financial engines slowed down, they grew exponentially in global markets (ie, Asia, Middle East, Latin America) but unfortunately, they have forgotten what every Stan Lee fan already knows: with great power comes great responsibility.

One of the leaders of the pack – Marriott – has decided to appropriate one of the most important aspects of modern human existence: Wi-Fi.

Let’s start with why Wi-Fi is such an integral part of guest experience in a hotel.

Now, here are your Captain Obvious facts for the day:

  1. Wi-Fi’s impact on hotel bookings: 73% (Yes, it’s beating your location.)
  2. Guests will not come back if they’ve have a bad Wi-Fi experience.
  3. Guests don’t only want Wi-Fi, but they also want it fast. Yes, they, like Tom Cruise in Top Gun, have a need for speed.
  4. Your positive reviews, which have a massive impact on your direct revenue, are directly proportional to the speed of your hotel’s Wi-Fi network.

So that’s why you have to make sure your Wi-Fi is up to your guests’ standards. But what if it’s not, or they just want to use their own? Well, Marriott has a big problem with that.

What Marriott Did

Marriott wants its conference guests to use only their proprietary Wi-Fi network when they are on property. Sounds pretty ridiculous, right? It gets better. At the end of 2014, Marriott Hotels was fined $600,000 dollars by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for blocking Wi-Fi signals at one of its hotels. Basically they were preventing guests from using their own Wi-Fi enabled devices, instead forcing them to use the expensive and unreliable “official” Wi-Fi network installed at their convention center.

Anyone who has ever attended a conference knows how annoying and unreliable open hotel convention center Wi-Fi networks are. That’s why anyone in the Internet trade (myself included) carries a broadband Wi-Fi device for two very specific reasons:

  1. Speed and reliability
  2. Security

Can you imagine giving a product demo or presentation on a hotel’s network? *Shudder* So, how much negative press did this get them? Plenty! The story was covered by the Economist. And CNN. Even Huffington Post took time off from covering celebrity wardrobe malfunctions to write about it.

Here is the FCC’s official take on the investigation.

How They Did It

One word: jammers. Not to be confused with the little known band from Sioux City, “The Jammers.” Wi-Fi jammers areillegal devices that can be bought cheaply online and then used to block Wi-Fi signal.

Here is the full definition of what the FCC considers a jammer. And here’s a quote from FCC’s head of enforcement, Travis LeBlanc: “It is unacceptable for any hotel to intentionally disable personal hotspots while also charging customers and small businesses high fees to use the hotel’s own Wi-Fi network. This practice puts customers in the untenable position of either paying twice for the same service or forgoing Internet access altogether.”

Sore Loser?

So, you’d think Marriott would take this as a (big, flashing) sign of the times; maybe they could work on improving their Wi-Fi policies, and maybe their Wi-Fi service too? No, that would be too easy, and also the right thing to do (two things which rarely go hand in hand).

Instead they recruited the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AH&LA) and have petitioned the FCC asking for a declaratory ruling making Wi-Fi jamming legal. Is this real? Yes! You better believe it. Actually, don’t take my word for it…you can just read the official FCC filing.

Their official reason for doing this is even more ridiculous. Marriott argues that its hotels should be able to block guest Wi-Fi devices in the meeting spaces because their network provides:

  1. Increased reliability (LOL*)
  2. Better “cybersecurity” (LOL x2**)

* Personal Mi-Fi device can kick any convention center Wi-Fi’s behind.

** Cybersecuity is an illusion. If someone really wants something you have stored online, they can get to it no matter how hard you try to prevent it. The world is full of teenagers who hack the Department of Defense because they are bored.

Here is a quote from Marriott: “The question at hand is what measures a network operator can take to detect and contain rogue and imposter Wi-Fi hotspots used in our meeting and conference spaces that pose a security threat.” They are basically planning to use “legalized jammers” only in their meeting spaces…but for our own protection, of course. How thoughtful.

Conclusion

There is no way this is going to end well for Marriott, or any other big hotel brands that want to jump on the “security and reliability” bandwagon. Marriott, here’s the way out:

Step 1. Drop it like it’s hot.
Withdraw your FCC filing, issue a simple apology, and then issue guidelines on securing Wi-Fi connections in your meeting spaces.

Step 2. Give your guests free Wi-Fi.
Think bigger than “ancillary revenue.” Offer free and fast Wi-Fi to everyone, and win hearts and minds.

It’s possible that Marriott will ignore my advice and continue on their current path. But this time they are not going up against small individual owners or investment funds they can crush with their legal teams. This time they’re battling Google and Microsoft, who have deeper pockets, more lawyers, and stronger lobbyists than Marriott.

What other massive obstacle are they up against? Sheer public will. You can quote me here: “Charging for Wi-Fi in any form will soon lead to the quick and decisive decline of any hotel in the court of public opinion.” Think of it like indoor plumbing…hotels need to roll it into the cost of the room. Nobody is going to pay extra for “security and reliability” while using your toilet inside the room they paid for; what makes you think they’ll want pay extra for W-Fi inside the meeting space they paid for?

Marriott: Please get real. Wake up and smell your bulk-purchased, medium-quality coffee. Spending money to petition the US government to change its laws in order to make a few extra nickels is wasteful. Why don’t you spend your money on a worthy cause instead, like marriage equality, medical research, or world hunger?

Even if you miraculously win the legal battle against FCC +Google + Microsoft, you have already lost in the court of public opinion. It’s a #FAIL no matter how you look at it.

If you’re a hospitality business who’s still charging for Wi-Fi:  Stop fighting the future. Internet is almost as essential as plumbing to today’s guest. Don’t hold them hostage and expect them to like you, or to ever return. Be gracious. Meet the future with a smile and some good, blazing fast, free Wi-Fi. It will do wonders for your revenue in the long term.

Original Article

Vikram Singh, co-founder, Madbooker

Vikram is an expert in hotel-specific technology and marketing, with a strong focus on booking engines, search engine marketing, and online distribution strategy. His latest venture, madbooker.com, focuses on the current ecommerce challenges facing the travel and hospitality industry today. His strategies have helped power some of the biggest and most successful hotel equity turnaround deals in the last decade. A thought leader in the hotel/tech realm, Vikram is a frequently requested speaker at industry conferences worldwide. Former hosts include the US Department of Commerce, Travel Distribution World Asia, Arabian Travel Market, and HSMAI. He is a perennial favorite of audience members everywhere because he emphasizes action-oriented strategies. Vikram also writes the popular hotel and travel marketing strategy blog:

www.wordsofvikram.com   

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