Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Hotels: Time to get some Facelift

Lodging industry as part of Tourism Industry is one of the top 10 industry in US, with about $127B annual sales revenue and $18B pretax profit from Hotels rooms sales alone.

Consider the below figures to understand the dynamics of hotels Industry:
Over 70% rooms has an average rate of $60 or more and over 42% has average rate of $85 or more, the highest room reporting category. Looking at the guests profile, about 40% of guests travel for business reasons with 54% of of them managerial or professional position with an average yearly household income of $116,578.
A typical leisure traveler spends about $105 /night and travel with his/her spouse or family.
Based upon these its safe to assume that a professional business traveler or a leisure family are the two most frequent and most spending guests in upper category hotels.

Yet,  these types of hotels are not keeping up with tremendous technical adaptation going around elsewhere. Not sure if they  are just too complacent in Laissez-faire or the entire management are vacationing at their timeshares at Tahiti but they seems to have missed an entire decade of  technological changes going around everywhere.

If I have to compare my hotels stay from 10 years ago to now, I  will be hard pressed to list even a couple of major significant changes.

Below are some facelifts that the hotels can do at a very low cost to make the stay more  attractive to the new iPad-Facebook generation:

1. Start with Guest Web Page

A good number of guests do create a user's account on hotels site to take advantages of the points system and save their favorite settings like types of rooms, choice of floors, airlines miles etc. These are good settings but it badly needs expansions.

2. Check In Experience

Imagine checking into your hotels, choosing your room and then getting the electronic key on your iPhone while you print your flight boarding card ? How cool is that ?! Not to mention the ease of mind that you will get a room of your choice where you can connect to the internet freely and wouldn't' have to stand up in queue while checking in.

The current check-in system should be revamped to allow a guest to check-in electronically, choose their own room on whatever floor and whatever view or side they prefer in agreement with their purchases. Airlines are doing it since years, no reason hotels couldn't' do it. The hotels can additionally add things like 3D-views, internet and cellphone signals strength etc.  from different floors and alleys  to make the selection more meaningful.

And like an electronic boarding pass, an electronic room key could be sent over to guests smart phone. Some Hilton hotels have an RFID door locks already in place, it just needs to be upgraded to work with iphone key.

And please don't' still add the additional requirement to stop by the lobby. Much more complicated and costly financial transactions happens with faceless electronic verification than a simple hotel check-in Not to mention that the most of the hotels are already equipped surveillance system to cover the additional financial or security risk.

3. Personalize the stay, all the way

The only thing resembling 'personalization'  you can find in hotel stay these days is your choice of pillow, high or low floors or choice between queen or king size beds. These are goods but a lot more can be done to expand the personalization. Few additional areas of personalization are:

TV & Video

Aren't you fed up with turning on the hotel TV, watching the same old access menu which never gives you anything useful to watch. Add to that the excessive costs of movies-on-demand based upon some 20 years old pricing study and the navigational pain with the old IPTV remotes with lacks the basics like programming guides, inline info etc. ?

Things have changed upside down with the advent of iPhone, iPad, the app store and the content delivery network. Its about time the hotel management realizes that and can prioritize these upgrades accordingly. 

By adding a tiny little device like apple TV, or Google TV & integrating its interface with the guest home page, the whole TV and internet world can be personalized, starting from my favorite channels, my favorite apps, last scenes that I watched before I left home, my emails, my Facebook pages, my news sites, my games scores  etc. And as soon as the guest checks out, the customization will revert to default settings waiting for new guests to check in.

For five star and up hotels, adding a Vanity Mirror TV in bathroom, again customized with the above programming and control options will be a nice upgrade. Research shows that the bathrooms are getting more and more used like any other regular room in the house and at least 45% of adult male carry & use smartphone in the bathroom.



Some Chains are already on top of this one. The Data is a premier commodity these days and it costs money. So providing a better speed (or higher data limit) internet and then asking for a surcharge wont' be foreign to the dynamic pricing on internet  going on these days. But please, do provide a higher bandwidth internet with guaranteed speed of 2 mbps or more. Customers wouldn't mind paying for it as they will see the values with other integrated services as suggested here.


And while at it, integrate the phone system as well. The PBX system can be modified very easily to integrate with the Google or Facebook contacts either directly or using some third party tool. Do folks really still use that $1/min rate to call anyone using the hotel current phone system? Why to have this with no revenue stream but tons of negative appeal.

4. The mini bar and mini freeze

OK, this one is not technical but the recommendations are inspired by tech giants success stories. While Apple and Google have made billions with their 99 cents app store &  highly complex services offering for free, the hotel industry is still trying to nickel and dime customers by selling bags of chips or water bottle or laundry service at 10-20 times their street price. What about treating this line of businesses as complimentary customer service and making it profit neutral ? Believe me, with a happy customer they can make more money than selling a few overpriced bags of chips or bottle of wine.

Bottom line

The bottom line is that the  hotel's bottom line isn't going to get hurt by these seemingly free or at-cost options rather its going to grow. It will save time, add satisfaction and minimize stress to a business traveler and will make a vacationing family's stay smoother whose little ones are getting more & more tech savvier.  

Saturday, May 5, 2012

A New Energy Saving Initiative

Everyone these days keeps talking about having a National Level Energy plan; some folks arguing for permitting all offshore drilling and others for exploring all alternate energy sources. What about this simple step to increase the production by 2-3% almost without much effort:

A Solar Panel on Every roof

Yes, it's an ambitious target but assume out of 112M household in US, even if we achieve 25% success rate, that's still 28M new household with solar panels.
A typical family of fours typically consumes about 1 kwh energy per hour which can be met by a 5KW solar panel producing about 25 kwh a day.
A nation wide adaptation of such system would produce 700 Gwh (25 kwh/day * 28M installations)  energy every day, i.e. equivalent to  30GW new power plant of 30 GW capacity (700 per day/24 hours) right there.
In 2010, US total electrical power capacity was 1137 GW.
30 GW or 2.5% of that source will come thru this renewed effort.



Purchase and installation of solar panel is still way too expensive in US for an average family and the numbers don't' compete with the grid energy rate.
But a comparatively new price plan, i.e. leasing the panels, is catching up. Combine that with full prepay and you almost get your own system as the lease term is almost as long as the life of the panel itself. Not to mention all the support and warranty being provided by the installer throughout the lease term.

Financing and Low Rate  Loan

A 5KW system leased for 20 years thru a company called Solar city or BGI in Maryland  typically costs about five thousands. Now this is where the federal govt. can chime in and can provide further incentive on top of the 7.5K write off that they provide to the owner (in lease system, it goes to the Leaser). They can provide an affordable (say 0.5% rate for 10 years) loan to the homeowner to meet the upfront cost of prepay lease. This new loan shouldn't need any complicated paperwork and payment plan should also be as straightforward as possible. An example of that would be adding a one page form to the lease document, confirming that the lessee wants to meet the upfront cost thru federal loan. And automatically adjusting the loan premium to the tax return liability without adding that as a tax clause. That is, the homeowner will still file the tax the same way, but as soon as they are done filing, their tax liability will increase increase by say $5250 (yearly payment for a $5k loan for 10 years @0.5%) or their refund reduced by same amount. So, no complicated loan approval process, running to bank or mailing a check etc.

This new initiative will be almost cost neutral to Federal Govt even in the worst case scenario. . They do provide 28M * 5K = 140 B loan though but that's a loan at higher interest rate than currently being extended to bank (0.25%) and its the money directly extended to homeowners and directly working towards stirring the economy and creating jobs.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Personal Railroad Transportation

Thinking in terms of Saving energy, Independence from Gas and Usage of Clean energy, this idea crossed my mind. Will love constructive comments:

Out of the 4 main modes of transportation available today: Automobile, Railroads, Air and Ship (or any water-based transportation) , the last one can be filtered out right away; anything below say 50mph wont' fly here at US. Not to mention their lower fuel economy.

Among the rest, their best passenger mile per gallon numbers are:
  • Automobile -car: 200 passenger-miles/US gallon for Toyota Prius
  • Automobile -Bus 330 passenger-miles/US gallon (A diesel bus commuter service in Santa Barbara, California, diesel bus with  efficiency of 6.0 mpg-US assuming all 55 seats full)
  • Railroad: 468 passenger-miles/US gallon for Colorado rail
  • Air:  78 passenger-miles per US gallon for Airbus 320

So, as expected Railroads has better fuel economy as it doesn't' have to fight gravity like airplanes and has much lower friction than ship or even automobiles.

A railroad based personal transportation can evolve in these 3 stages, co-existing with each other and also with the current modes of transportation:

Stage 1: Bringing masses to Trains

This can  be done by implementing  few major changes. The idea is to overcome the standard problems people face today in train ride :
  • Runs only on certain times
  • Tickets too expensive
  • Takes forever
Below steps should help alleviate these shortfalls:


Automate Signalling, Monitoring & Controlling System (read No Driver)

Ever seen the shuttle mono-rails at airports ? Or What about the new driver-less cars traveling in bay areas by Google ? So, why not in trains ? It should not have drivers, train masters, ticket conductor or any supporting staffs, just passengers. After all, they are the only ones paying & they don't' (want to) pay a lot :)


No predefined start time times, stoppage etc.

It should all be dynamic, guided by passengers on-board or in-waiting.  We have way too better technologies now and its about time trains should start using them. Passengers run-time requests, tickets purchase, track occupancies etc. would feed into the intelligent train management system to make this happen.


Make it smaller

Having done the first two, now its time to reduce the trains length; literally. It doesn't' have to be 10 cars long. Just one car please. Car size can be different, say 10, 20 or even 50 passengers etc. Depending upon the ticket purchased and demand, one of such train cars pulls up at the station and off you go. No need for 10 minutes stoppage at each station to make it economically viable option.

A tiny little engine would be fitting nicely under the car running nicely on electric third rail. reducing the engine size need even further.
A similar rail bus was apparently tried long ago, but this time around, we have the advantage of technologies: ie automatic driving, signalling, smaller engine size etc.


And fast please !!

Now that the train is just one car long, there is no need for it to run it at  a slogging 40-45 mph rate. Why not to double the speed ? Current infrastructure should support it just fine without a multi billion dollar new high speed infrastructure change.


Stage 2: Making it "Personal" Train

Once the mass starts using the train because they can choose the timing, (almost the same way they set out to drive) and its way too cheaper because of much lower overhead  and its faster because of lesser occupancies and automation, the next step is to bring them even closer to that "personal" transportation experience;


Ride with your car:

There is no stone writing that trains should be the way it is. Or even the way it's proposed earlier. The new train car can be just a rack car i.e. four wheels platform with the engine underneath where a car can "ride". Why not to just drive your car instead ? Because car running on train platform will provide :
  • Automatic driving 
  • Better fuel economy (electric engine, no battery meaning no range restriction) 
  • Free time to driver
  • Free up from worries of packing your stuff
  • Availability of your car at destination ie no more requesting friend & family or hassles of renting
  • No Traffic Jam & predictive arrival

So, how this all will look like: You would drive up to the train station, will be redirected to the automatic auto loading yard and with a brief demo, etc. you and your car will be driving on a railroad track without you actually doing anything. Your car will be fed in power (for AC), Internet, Data, TV signals etc. thru from the carrier underneath thru one of the windows.


Stage 3: Little More Advance

Once the above 2 ideas are in place, ie once people start choosing trains as a more practical options than roadways and airways, its time to make it even more smart and efficient:


Moving Platform

A new train platform where passengers either come to ride a single-car train or drive to be fitted with undercarriage car, doesn't' need to be a regular current station platform. They can be moving platform, cutting down time further on boarding train or waiting to be fitted with undercarriage car.


Even faster please !!

Now its time to make the trains running even faster so that they can complete with Air travel in terms of time too. Here some big infrastructure change would be needed for high speed rail. But once the demand is there, driven from the above 2, this infrastructure change should be well perceived & funded. 

Time is money after all !!