Fix the Wi-Fi – The Rally Cry for Better Hotel Internet

Hotel Wi-Fi has become a flash point with business travelers (and all guests, really). It’s expected to be free and it’s expected to work. The fact that this so often is not the case is puzzling…and frustrating.

Marketing guru and entrepreneur Seth Godin posted this insight on his blog today, likening a hotel’s offerings to a buffet. A number of features—comfortable bed, quiet room, hot water, fluffy towels, Internet—are included in the room rate, an all-you-can-consume price. Godin explains:

So, the hotel that says, “With this sort of volume… we do tend to encounter a slower pace with our free wireless internet,” has completely misunderstood how to think about the free internet they offer. It’s not free. In fact, it might be the one and only reason someone picked your $400 hotel room over that hotel down the street. Sure the hot water and the towels and the quiet room are all free in the sense that they’re included in the price, but no, they’re not free in the mind of the purchaser.

The more done right, the greater the chance of a satisfied guest, repeat business and social buzz.

Guests do care about good Wi-Fi and don’t want to pay extra for it. They care a great deal. In fact, it’s consistently ranked as the number one desire of business travelers. I believe hotels are starting to “get it” but must now solve their infrastructure issues to provide this. Offering good Wi-Fi in a hotel room, like offering a comfortable bed, has become a cost of doing business.

When I checked out of a hotel with my family recently, I noticed the hotel’s feedback card had been filled out, apparently by my son. It said simply, “Fix the Internet.” Even kids know that the Internet—even when “free”—should work.

Wi-Fi in the Friendly Skies

If you’re a frequent traveler and I tell you I’m writing this on a United Airlines flight with Wi-Fi, then you won’t be surprised when I tell you I did a little happy dance this morning. (This is a figurative happy dance, of course: Even Economy Plus wouldn’t have the legroom for an actual jig. Wi-Fi on United.) Apparently, I scored one of only 103 aircraft in the United fleet that is currently Wi-Fi-equipped. Incidentally, my A320 was also outfitted with UA’s new seat design, which I found comfortable and smart.

United was one of the very last airlines to join the Wi-Fi party, a fact their management has spun as a plus: “We were able to leapfrog over old, land-based technology.” According to United’s website, domestic flights with Wi-Fi use Gogo, the largest industry’s provider, but I did not see the Gogo branding so prevalent on other airlines. United also boasts that it was the first airline to use satellite service, enabling full connectivity on transoceanic flights.

The cost of my San Francisco to Chicago service was $9.99, which seemed a fair price. The cost is computed based on length of flight, though exactly how this calculation is arrived at is not disclosed. United has a neat perk for Mileage Plus members: You can switch devices without paying extra. I’m not sure why you’d need that, but it’s the first I’ve seen of this option.

Gogo-branded Wi-Fi on other airlines uses a similar sliding fee, with transcontinental flights coming in at up to $26. (Tip: Buy a pass online before flying for $14. Other insights on Wi-Fi from business travel writer Chris McGinnis are here.) The best Wi-Fi value, though, is $8 on Southwest, and it’s good for a 24-hour period. Since my last excursion on Southwest involved three flights in one day, that setup made all the difference.

While inflight usage is reported low (I’ve seen estimates at 8 to 13 percent of passengers on any given flight where Wi-Fi is available), when you need it, you need it. Like today, for me. Yes, I occasionally breathe a guilty sigh of relief when I get on a plane without it. “Gosh, I’d like to work, but I guess I’ll need to read this novel instead.” But when the stars align–a deadline looms, it’s a long flight, and I spot the Wi-Fi logo as I board–well, it’s time to log on at 10,000 feet.

Post Script: If you’re a frequent traveler and I tell you I’m writing this on a United Airlines flight with Wi-Fi…then you won’t be surprised to learn that the system failed as I wrote the last paragraph. WordPress hadn’t saved most of the post, and I was forced to rewrite after landing. Sigh.

Laptop parade

This week I spent some time on an oddly positioned treadmill in a hotel fitness center. Strangely, the room was just off the lobby and the treadmill faced out to the front desk. So I spent my workout watching the comings and goings in the lobby. (Literally!) The parade was diverse: individuals, couples and families walked by the door, many stopping at the front desk to check out. There were grandparents, young couples, busy families and business types. After a while I noticed that with one exception, they all had only one thing in common: a laptop bag.

Surveys show–backed by anecdotal evidence such as my treadmill observation–that free Wi-Fi is the single most important amenity to travelers (both leisure and business), trumping free parking and breakfast. I know I would not even consider traveling without a laptop (except for one unplugged vacation last year) and usually have at least one other device for which I will use Wi-Fi. While business travelers have long behaved in this way, I suspect that it’s only within the last five years that leisure travelers have as well. No matter where we are, or why, connection to elsewhere has become essential.

Travelers have long been perplexed by the pricing contradiction: lower-tier properties tend to offer free Wi-Fi, while higher-end properties charge for use (or charge for faster speeds). A year ago, I would have said this is bound to change: Free Wi-Fi for all! But hotels have just caught on to what airlines have known for a few years: Ancillary fees can have a huge, positive impact on the bottom line. What’s your take? Do you see Wi-Fi becoming so essential to the hotel experience that it will go the way of the bed: free?

Go-Go or no-no?

I learned yesterday that inflight Wi-Fi provider Go-Go is charging up to $26.95 for a full-flight fee. “Is this too much?” a friend of mine wondered into the Twitterverse. My first reaction was, “Yes!” But the question caused me to think about my own inflight Wi-Fi use and how it’s changed over the few years since Go-Go first became available. I was an early adopter, but my use has waned. Is $26.95 too much? For me, the price is irrelevant because I am reimbursed by my company. Yet, I increasingly choose not to use inflight Wi-Fi.

When Go-Go was first introduced, I’ll admit that I logged on occasionally when I didn’t even need to. It was a “Why not?” universe. I found all sorts of cool activities that became even cooler at 30,000 feet.  I used an app that labeled the landmarks you were flying over. What a thrill! I tweeted. 140 characters were never more fun! Even work was made more pleasurable with the novelty of emailing from the sky.

In those early days of Go-Go, there were plenty of promotions to attract new customers, and I’ll admit that the months when Alaska Airlines offered free Wi-Fi, I took full advantage. Every flight.

But I notice that my interest gradually softened. The honeymoon ended. The initial thrill of connection disappeared, replaced with, “I would really love to relax.” I notice that while I publicly disparage United for being mostly Wi-Fi free, secretly I am a little relieved to be on their flights—“Not my fault: I have no choice but be disconnected.” (And it’s particularly satisfying because I get to blame United.)

On my last trip, several free Go-Go passes—swag from a recent conference–were tucked in my laptop bag. I thought for a moment about using one, then decided against. Even free wasn’t enough to get me motivated to go online. I reached instead for a book and enjoyed the flight. At one point I took a break from reading and stared out the window at all we passed over. I was in awe to see Crater Lake come into view, which would be my vacation destination in a few weeks. Go-Go inflight to catch up on email? $26.95. Crater Lake from 30,000 feet? Priceless.