Laurence Shapiro embodies a new wave of guests who have hotel operators on edge.
The physician from San Diego never buys in-room movies while traveling. Before leaving home, he converts movie DVDs into digital files compatible with his personal digital assistant, a Dell Axim X51, and plays them on the handheld device. Some of his favorites: "relaxing waterfalls or surf movies to have in the background to relax."
The latest generation of media-player devices, such as iPod, Sony PlayStation Portable and even the laptop PC, is rapidly changing the way travelers entertain themselves on the road. Greater availability of online movies and TV shows and improved Wi-Fi signals at hotels and airports (and now increasingly airplanes) are also helping to fuel the travel entertainment revolution.
"Even compared to just a year ago, travelers have a lot more control," says Elizabeth Curtis, analyst at technology research firm IDC. "Content owners are more comfortable with online distribution."
In a survey this year, IDC found that 92% of people who've watched movies online want to do it again. It's "most likely due to increased (program) availability online and better delivery options," Curtis says.
Meanwhile, in-room movie revenue for hotels is declining, says Brian McGuinness of Starwood Hotels, even as hotels place more flat-panel HDTVs in rooms. And business travelers say download speeds slow as more guests jam the hotel's Wi-Fi network for movies.
Streaming media — movies, TV shows, Internet radio — now occupies about 40% to 50% of Starwood's hotel Wi-Fi traffic, McGuinness says.
Starwood owns Sheraton, W and Aloft, among others. Aloft, popular with younger travelers, is experiencing a higher percentage — close to 60% of traffic used for streaming media — and has had to install faster Internet connections.
Entertainment providers also are gearing up to meet demand. Netflix, a DVD-by-mail company, daily adds new streaming movies and TV shows that are free to monthly subscribers. Amazon, Movielink and CinemaNow sell streaming or movies that can be viewed for typically $3 to $5 apiece.
TV episodes online
All the major TV networks make recent shows available online. Other show sites, such as Hulu, Fancast and TV.com, also air popular TV episodes for free. Other niche sites, such as AnswersTV.com and ExerciseTV, air specialty topic shows.
Travelers seeking their local TV programming can take it with them on Slingbox, a device that hooks to the TV at home and remotely replicates on a laptop via the Internet what's being aired.
Hotels are adjusting on the fly. Several chains, including Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt Place and Aloft, have installed digital panels that let guests connect several digital devices — laptops, video game consoles and iPods — and use the TV as the primary monitor.
Brian Nichols, a consultant from Fort Worth, uses his Portable Sony PlayStation, or PSP, to watch movies at hotels and is a fan of the panels he's used at Marriott and Hilton. He laments that many limited-service hotels still don't have them. When they don't, he connects his PSP to the TV with his own cables. "It's much better (for my eyes) to watch it on the big screen," he says.
As more guests go online for entertainment, slow Internet speeds can make streaming video a frustrating experience, particularly during peak hours. "Between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m., it's quite difficult," Nichols says.
At a Grand Rapids, Mich., Hampton Inn recently, Nichols wanted to watch a Texas Rangers baseball game using Slingbox. "It was completely unwatchable." He then turned to the Major League Baseball site, MLB.com, for an audio broadcast on his laptop. "It was OK for only a minute at a time. It's pretty bad when it's bad for audio. I also gave up on that."
Hotels with limited Internet bandwidth have several options, says Mark Ozawa of hotel technology consulting firm Accuvia. They can buy more bandwidth, adjust distribution to increase it during peak times or ration it to people who hog it. "It's something every hotel owner is struggling with," Ozawa says.
Rob Bloomer, a pharmaceutical account executive from Lakeville, Minn., says he bypasses technological hurdles at hotels with a retro solution. He buys DVDs of TV programs and watches them on his laptop.
"I can honestly say I haven't purchased an in-room movie in over five years," Bloomer says. "The cost is unfair. (TV episodes) are a perfect length — 25 to 50 minutes without commercials — for shorter flights."