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Free hotel WiFi: an open letter to hoteliers.

by Rajul on November 11, 2009

Below we present a wake-up call for the hotel industry: but will it continue to sleep through it?

Our open letter is intended as a sharp wake-up call for the hotel business

I was blown away by the incredible reaction to the launch of the London Hotels Insight “Free the WiFi” campaign a few days ago, when we published a list of the best London hotels with free WiFi.

In just two days, it became this blog’s all-time most popular article, illustrating the strength of feeling behind this issue.  The article was also widely retweeted on Twitter all over the world within minutes.

For the latest leg of my campaign, I’ve written a hard-hitting open letter to hoteliers with the rationale for “setting WiFi free”.  I’ve pulled no punches and apologise in advance if my letter causes offence.  Here it is in full:

Dear hotelier,

You have a complex business to run and need to satisfy a wide body of stakeholders.  I recognise that this includes your shareholders, employees and investors as well as your guests.

It’s tough to find the right balance and I also acknowledge that “you can’t please all the people all the time”.

However, you can no longer ignore the compelling case to provide free WiFi to all your hotel guests.  Here are 8 big reasons why:

1. WiFi is now a “necessity” in every possible sense.

Demand has been fuelled by the growth of mobile devices like new mobile phones and netbooks as well as the traditional laptop.

Nobody minds paying for genuine luxury (a gorgeous bed, well-trained staff, a decent bottle of wine, etc.).  But all of us feel cheated if charged for “necessities” like the use of lifts or towels.

WiFi is now very much in the latter category.  It looks at best strange and at worst greedy if you charge for it.

Hotel guests put WiFi on a par with water and electricity: and there's nothing hoteliers can do to change this perception

Hotel guests put WiFi on a par with drinking water and electricity: there's nothing hoteliers can now do to change this perception

I have no problem about buying an overpriced espresso in your lobby.  My espresso is an indulgence which I choose to enjoy at a transparent price.

But if you imposed an “electricity surcharge” for my being there, you’d be going too far.  Also, if I’m paying your hotel room rate then I assume electricity to be included – as well as WiFi.

2. The cost of sourcing WiFi is very low.

You may already have WiFi in your hotel anyway to allow staff to do their jobs.  So the marginal cost of allowing your guests to use it is usually low.  Moreover, your guests are fully aware that WiFi is cheap to source.

The hotel business has historically been set up to maximise the value obtained from each guest.  “Upselling” is OK if it’s done subtly and delivers genuine value to the customer.

But charging for WiFi does not offer value.  Moreover, there is very little transparency on WiFi fees (see below).

It could perhaps be justified if your hotel were in an isolated location and had to invest in its own satellite dish, but this is surely a very rare case.

Charging for WiFi makes your brand look like a dinosaur

Charging for WiFi makes your brand look like a dinosaur

3. Charging for WiFi devalues your hotel brand.

A hotel charging for WiFi is like a grubby market trader putting up a street stall, yelling “Roll up – fresh tap water!  £10 a glass!”  Do you want to drag your brand down to the level where you look this desperate?

WiFi fees simply make your company look out of touch and won’t help attract the young customer profile vital to any brand’s long-term growth.

4. WiFi charges make your guests angry.

Hotel WiFi charges are always a “nasty surprise” because the whys and wherefores are rarely clear.  Everyone knows only that the hotel is hugely marking up the cost of a basic necessity and ripping them off.

Moreover, the charging method is often complex (some hotels charge in time blocks, others for data and some also discriminate between “wired” and “wireless” internet access).  Nobody has time to figure this out.

Then there’s the hassle imposed on guests in registering, paying and ensuring they stay within the paid-for deadlines and terms.  No wonder that hotels charging for WiFi hardly ever mention it on their websites.

Charging for WiFi simply advertises to the world that you don’t truly empathise with your customers nor understand their lifestyle.

Business guests are increasingly turning to hotels that provide hassle-free and cost-free WiFi

Business guests increasingly reject hotels that charge for WiFi

5. Charging for WiFi drives away corporate guests.

Imagine you’re a meeting planner.  Will you choose a hotel that gives you a fixed, transparent budget or one that considers WiFi an “optional extra” (thereby demonstrating that the hotel’s management have no real understanding of modern business)?

WiFi is a particular necessity for business guests who run small firms.

Charging business people for WiFi is like charging for use of the public lavatory in your hotel…it’s just plain tacky.

6. Charging for WiFi is a PR disaster waiting to happen.

The most influential opinion leaders use Twitter and other social media.  You ignore at your peril the fact that they’re the “early adopters”.

And most users of Twitter are vehemently against WiFi charges.

If your hotel charges for WiFi, the news will spread rapidly.  Moreover, the profile of people who use hotel WiFi is similar to those who write online reviews on sites like TripAdvisor (see below).

By charging for WiFi, your hotel is alienating the world’s most influential online community.  It’s not just me saying this.  Here is a small selection of the many prominent bloggers firmly against WiFi fees (with links to articles):

James Ellis

James has launched a free hotel WiFi campaign and asked some of the major hotel groups to justify their WiFi charges.  Their often defensive responses make for a fascinating read.

Keith Jenkins: Velvet Escape and Velvet Connect blogs

Keith Jenkins is one of the most respected travel bloggers around.  He has thousands of Twitter followers hanging on his every word.  He also dislikes hotel WiFi charges with a passion, as he explained in a recent blog post.

Gadling

The highly-respected Gadling travel blog has more than 5,000 Twitter followers.  It also carried an eloquent recent piece in favour of free WiFi.

The world's leading bloggers are dead set against hotel WiFi charges and can spread the message "for" or "against" your hotel within seconds

The world's leading bloggers are against hotel WiFi charges and can spread the message "for" or "against" your hotel within seconds

Karen Bryan

Karen Bryan is a leading travel blogger who runs the Europe a la Carte blog.  Her sphere of influence extends even further as she also runs Top Travel Content Europe (which syndicates content from leading travel blogs including this one).  Here’s her view on hotel WiFi:

“In my opinion complimentary WiFi access should be included in the room rate.  If potential guests shun hotel groups which charge for WiFi this should compel others to include the service.”

The above are all influential travel bloggers.

The question you should ask as a hotelier is: do you want them batting for your hotel brand or against it?

7. Free WiFi will enhance your hotel’s reputation

The converse of the arguments above is that you’ll enhance your reputation by providing free WiFi.  All else being equal, this will ultimately be reflected in a higher TripAdvisor ranking (though it’s clearly not the only factor).

Consider these facts for London which I’m sure apply to other major destinations.  On 10th November 2009, 7 out of the top 10 London hotels on TripAdvisor’s rankings provided free WiFi.

Research by London Hotels Insight also showed that 13 out of the top 20 hotels on TripAdvisor on 10th November 2009 had free WiFi.

The 7 that charge for WiFi (I personally phoned most of them to check) were often a bit defensive in explaining their charges.  There are few hotels that dare to clearly state on their website “we charge £x for WiFi”.

Even for hotels that charge for WiFi which are still doing well on TripAdvisor, the few negative comments often relate to WiFi: guests are genuinely shocked that an otherwise great hotel takes such a backward stance.

I urge you to read some guest reviews to verify my findings for yourself.

Hoteliers should try to swim against the tide of technology and the way people live, work and play today

Hoteliers should not try to swim against the tide of technology and the way people want to live, work and play today

8. Free WiFi is coming whether your hotel supports it or not

You cannot reverse a technology trend (the growing use of internet-connected devices) nor can you swim against an irresistible consumer tide.

I’m convinced that universal free hotel WiFi is inevitable and it’s only a question of “when”.  Do you want to be the last hotel left standing, letting your competitors reap all the benefits to the detriment of your reputation?

I hope the above reasons are compelling enough for you to sell the idea of “free WiFi” internally within your hotel company.

Here are some further suggestions to make it more palatable:

•       Increase your room rates and offer free WiFi.  Taking this stance is much more transparent, though given the low delivery cost of WiFi it’s not clear to me why you’d need to increase room rates at all.

•       Get rid of costly extras that guests don’t need…and give them free WiFi instead!  I’ll leave the last word to James Ellis (mentioned above) who wrote a beautifully-succinct tweet on this very issue:

“Keep the choc on the pillow and just get me online.  It’s 2010 (nearly).”

Yours sincerely,

Rajul

London Hotels Insight

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