While I have been wondering for years why it is taking so long for hotels to offer free in-room Wi-Fi, my last post about this was nearly a year ago. Since then, there has been much improvement toward opening up free Wi-Fi to all hotel guests.
The first major move for free in-room Wi-Fi actually began with InterContinental Hotel Group. Back in March, 2013, the giant hotel chain announced they would offer free in-room internet access to all Rewards Club members worldwide beginning this year. This opened up their higher end properties like Crowne Plaza and InterContinental to virtually everyone, joining free Wi-Fi programs of smaller chains like Omni, Loews, Fairmont, Dubai-based Jumeirah, and Kimpton which was recently acquired by IHG.
A couple months ago, Marriott joined the free Wi-Fi movement by announcing that in-room Wi-Fi would be free for all Marriott Rewards (MR) members beginning January 15, 2015. This doesn’t require any elite status, just sign up for a MR account. Premium Wi-Fi, where available, is also free to MR Gold and Platinum elites.
However, Marriott did add one wrinkle that has been upsetting to some. To receive this free Wi-Fi, the booking must be done through their direct booking channel. Also check out this same link for Marriott properties that do not participate in the Marriott Rewards program or offer free Wi-Fi. While the list is not extensive, it will nevertheless be disappointing to any guest staying at these properties. It would be nice if Marriott makes it clear on the booking page which hotels are excluded – before making a reservation – but I wouldn’t count on it, at least not until they receive multiple complaints.
A couple weeks ago, Starwood announced they will be offering free Wi-Fi beginning February 2, 2015. Similar to the others, you must be a member of Starwood’s SPG Preferred Guest program and reservations must be made through Starwood’s “digital channels” including their app and their SPG Pro program. Also, it will only be available at “all participating hotels” but they do not mention specifically which hotels are not participating. To their credit, Starwood also began implementation of their keyless room entry system this year.
In the grandest gesture of all, Hyatt became the leader of the pack, saying last week that they will offer free Wi-Fi to all hotel guests beginning in February, 2015. Unlike the other chains, you don’t need to book directly through the hotel or their website. In fact, you don’t even have to sign up for their Gold Plus program (though I don’t know why you wouldn’t). Even better, this applies to an unlimited number of devices, something the other chains didn’t mention. Moreover, their press release said it would be “free Wi-Fi at all Hyatt properties worldwide.” In other words, there should be no non-participating hotels. In addition, Platinum and Diamond elite program members will receive a free upgrade to premium Wi-Fi if it is available at the particular property.
In fairness to the hotels, offering free Wi-Fi can be an expensive proposition. It can cost anywhere from thousands to many thousands of dollars to build out their networks for each property. On the other hand, let’s be fair to the guests, too. Hotels have been enjoying banner times with high occupancy and ever rising rates. As properties typically use some of their profits to enhance their offerings, certainly the one most treasured by guests should be at the top of the list. Given that it is not unusual for the higher end hotels to spend $2-20 million on improvements, the cost for adding improved Wi-Fi is relatively small.
Of course, this also begs the question about the speed of this free Wi-Fi. If everyone has it – and if most hotel guests log on at the most popular times, which will happen – just how fast will this W-Fi be? That, of course, will be up to each individual hotel property. No doubt many will be offering tiered internet with the free connections limited to things like checking email and Facebook. For those who desire video (think Netflix, Hulu, ESPN sports, etc.), there will be a premium charge for most guests.
One popular way to test your hotel internet speed is with Ookla’s Speedtest. It might not be perfect but it is free and offers upload and download speeds. I will not be surprised to see more hotel reviews in the future include internet connection speeds. While most guests are probably not savvy about how to do this now, the learning curve will increase over time. For some hotel properties, this may be a make-or-break decision by some of their future guests.
Okay, so where does this leave Hilton? Sadly, bringing up a lonely rear. Notwithstanding their lower end properties which already include free Wi-Fi, there is otherwise no mention of any Wi-Fi even when you look at their member benefits page. You won’t find any free Wi-Fi until you go to their elite Gold level benefits page. Even then, Hilton notes that it may not be complimentary at resort properties. Same is true for their higher tier Diamond level. And unlike the other chains, all Hilton offers to their most frequent and loyal guests is just basic internet, not premium Wi-Fi. As I said, it’s a lonely rear.
In the current hospitality environment, Hilton is an outlier in the industry, a pox on Conrad Hilton’s legacy and a drain on future profits as guests learn they can get free Wi-Fi elsewhere at higher end properties. Their current position also will not be popular with their Gold and Diamond elites who will quickly find out comparable status at all of the other major chains would earn them premium Wi-Fi, not simply a low-end connection. Finally, I got a feeling this won’t sit too well with their stockholders either.
So will Hilton join the 21st Century and offer free Wi-Fi? Yes, grudgingly. Besides being shamed into it, they have to offer free Wi-Fi to guests simply because all their competitors do. I expect Hilton to announce this enhancement sometime in the first quarter of 2015 – probably sooner rather than later – adding that the reason for their delay was to allow their contractors to increase bandwidth at their properties, or something like that. The longer they wait, the greater the risk of losing some very loyal guests.