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Hands-Free on Turtle Creek

As the hospitality industry grapples with new forms of mobile communications on both the guest side and in the back office, Dallas's luxurious Mansion on Turtle Creek hotel has become one of the first premier hotels in the U.S. to move to an all wireless, voice-activated network for in-house staff communications.

Texas's only five-star, five-diamond hotel, the Mansion on Turtle Creek is about midway through a 60-day trial of the system, supplied by Vocera Communications Inc. and running on a network installed by mobile WiFi provider Wayport Inc. .

"The security personnel, engineering and maintenance, and housekeeping, plus the executive staff are using the system currently," says Don Jensen, channel director for the hospitality industry for Wayport, which has supplied the Turtle Creek property's wireless network since 1998. "Communications among those groups are typically fulfilled with two-way radio systems, and we've replaced that and given them this new hands-free technology."

Running on top of the existing 802.11 network within the hotel, the new system was installed as part of a recent upgrade to expand WiFi coverage to the entire Mansion facility, including all guest rooms and banquet rooms. Wayport installed 67 access points throughout the hotel in that expansion.

The staff uses Vocera badges that recognize basic voice commands to connect with other employees on the property without touching the device. Users say a name or a job function to contact the appropriate person. The system is also integrated with the hotel PBX for seamless communications. The trial includes 50 users and about 30 badges that are picked up when the user checks in for their work shift. The system, says managing director Shane Krige, benefits the hotel's bottom line by improving guest service.

"Our business is based on personal service," says Krige, "and any way we can use technology to provide quicker, better personal service, that's going to be our priority."

Training took one hour, says hotel systems manager Carl Arnold, and the devices were in use that day. The response has been uniformly positive.

"The only comment I've heard came from our executive housekeeper, who said, 'We need 15 more badges so we can put everybody on the system,'" Krige says.

The Mansion at Turtle Creek, Krige claims, is the first hotel in Dallas to install a hands-free WiFi-based network for employee communications.

The Dallas deployment also represents an emerging market for Vocera beyond its core health-care and hospital market. The Turtle Creek deployment comes at a time when luxury hotels are eyeing new technologies including wireless voice-over-IP, WiFi, and WiMax for richer and less-expensive communications for guests and for employees. (See Unwiring Healthcare.)

"Right now we have around 800 [hotel and resort] properties supporting a combination of wired and wireless infrastructures, mainly for guest broadband," says Jensen, "and one thing we've been developing is the introduction of different products and services that will fit onto that infrastructure and create additional value for the hotels, and their staff and guests."

The Vocera system, says Arnold, is a big boost because it extends the capability of the existing WiFi network in the hotel. "It enables us to utilize that infrastructure more," Arnold adds, "otherwise it's just sitting there waiting for laptop users."

The hands-free staff communication system and other leading hotel-industry wireless applications will be on display next week at the annual "Hospitality Industry Technology Exposition and Conference" in Minneapolis.

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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