From the March 1998 issue of Entrepreneur

Just because you're out of the office doesn't mean you have to be out of touch. Today many hotels, conference centers and airports are getting wired like never before.

Close to a quarter of all U.S. hotels offer Internet connections in their rooms, according to a survey conducted last year by Northern Arizona University's School of Hotel and Restaurant Management. About one in four properties also reported they had business centers where visitors could get online.

We looked at some of the most connected properties and facilities in the country and found it's getting easier than ever to send faxes and e-mail, make calls, videoconference or conduct a presentation from your laptop computer--without your business missing a beat.

But before you travel, remember:

  • Getting wired is still expensive. Whether you want to send a fax from the airport or hook up your computer in your hotel room, expect to pay a considerable premium. Prices range anywhere from an extra $30 a night for a hotel with all the right electronic gizmos to several hundred dollars for a few hours of videoconferencing hardware.
  • Don't assume anything. Hotels typically offer a two-tiered approach to connectivity. The more expensive concierge-floor rooms offer dataports and fax machines, for instance, whereas you may have to ask for a connection in rooms on other floors. Call your hotel in advance if you're not sure about its techno-amenities.
  • Be patient. Keep this in mind particularly at airports, where there may be only a few fax stations or Internet kiosks. If you absolutely must send messages from airports, buy a cellular modem and pay the roaming charges. It's better than waiting in line--and missing a flight.
  • Prepare for the worst. It pays to invest in software and hardware that helps you connect to various kinds of networks or allows you to make presentations from any kind of projector. Just because a conference center is wired doesn't mean it will run your programs.

Christopher Elliott writes "Crabby Traveler" for ABCNews.com and "Inside Interactive Travel" for the Interactive Travel Report. He can be reached at chris@elliott.org

Before You Go

Getting connected begins before you leave your home city. Many airports are installing new monitoring systems, stringing high-speed fiber-optic cable or bringing in Internet access booths to ensure passengers never miss a message--whether it's a voice mail, fax or e-mail.

  • Portland's Multilingual Kiosks

Oregon's Portland Airport has introduced electronic kiosks that offer data about ground transportation, tourism and the airport itself. The interactive booths are the first in the country to present the information in six languages so travelers from around the world can get good, clear directions when they land. While these free kiosks have since spread to other airports in the country, Portland continues to push the technology envelope--it's also on the cutting edge of offering real-time flight data. Although it's not the first airport to give travelers more up-to-date departure and arrival information, Portland was an innovator in making that information available on its Web site

  • Better Flight Information In Baltimore

The leader in flight information systems, actually, is thought to be Baltimore/Washington International (BWI) Airport, which recently installed a state-of-the-art flight information and baggage display system. The technology taps into data provided by the airlines, giving passengers the latest arrival and departure times. Previously, the numbers displayed on the airport's television screens were nothing more than airlines' standard schedules with a time-delayed update. Now the information is linked to actual flights taking off and landing, as well as to the baggage claims in process. BWI's recently opened international terminal (the International Pier) is also decidedly high-tech. Thanks to a new fiber-optic network, you can get connected to your baggage and flight information a little faster.

  • Norfolk's Internet Booths

Virginia's Norfolk International Airport was the first facility in the country to bring in a CyberFlyer booth (below, left), manufactured by Denver-based CyberFlyer Technologies. The stainless-steel units help travelers plug into the World Wide Web through a lightning-fast connection, check e-mail, and access special travel information, such as flight guides. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey plans to install similar kiosks with Internet access at the Kennedy, La Guardia and Newark airports. Eventually, Internet kiosks at airports could become as common as phone booths.

  • Just The Fax At O'Hare

At Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, the nation's busiest, more travelers are getting wired with the help of airline clubs. The private clubs offer standard analog phone jacks through which travelers can connect to the Internet, a convenience many business travelers have come to depend on. But O'Hare went a step further when it began offering high-speed Internet access and fax stations in the airport. Since airline clubs are off limits to passengers without memberships, the new services are finding many new customers. O'Hare's Monique Bond says she has noticed an increase in passenger demand for connectivity, "so we are giving passengers more services, more technology."

Hot Property

As travelers try to get plugged in, more and more hotels are there to help. Whether it's a cell phone handed to a guest at check-in or a suite decked out with the latest technology, today's hotels are catering to the connected traveler.

  • Cell Phones Make The Mark

It isn't uncommon for guests to rent a cellular phone when they arrive at a hotel. But check into The Mark hotel in Manhattan, and along with your room key, you're offered a cellular phone. Book a suite, and you can have all your incoming calls sent directly to your room--and if requested, bounced to your cell phone. While the service costs $1.75 a minute, regardless of whether the call is being made or received, the amenity is finding lots of fans among international business travelers who aren't able to use their cell phones in the United States.

  • Sonesta's High-Tech Rooms

If you want a truly wired room, Boston's Royal Sonesta Hotel is a good place to go. Last month the property finished a $7 million renovation that included new wiring for dataport phones that let guests access the phone while online. The rooms also feature an Internet connection that's about nine times faster than a conventional modem connection over a standard phone line. Since you'll be spending more time in front of your computer, the Sonesta threw in new ergonomically designed pedestal tables and three additional lighting options in the high-tech rooms.

  • Claremont's Smart Terminals

In the hills above Oakland, California, the Claremont Resort and Spa delivers high-speed Internet access to guests--with a twist. A favorite with the Silicon Valley crowd, the hotel supplies travelers who stay in its high-tech North Wing with a terminal connected to an in-hotel file server, so there's no need to drag a laptop with you on your trip. Guests receive a personal fax number and e-mail account when they register so they can receive private faxes and e-mail messages in their rooms. The superconnected rooms include a large desk, two phone connections, as well as a television, CD player and VCR.

  • Turn-Of-The-Century Room

Perhaps the most wired of all hotel rooms is being tested at the Century Plaza Hotel and Tower in Los Angeles (above). A lot of the bells and whistles in this one-of-a-kind room are so futuristic, in fact, you probably won't find them at any other properties for years to come. For example, the prototype Cyber Suite comes with a proximity identification entry system, a gadget that "reads" your identity by scanning a card given to you by the hotel that you carry with you. If it recognizes you, a pleasant voice welcomes you into the suite with a personalized greeting. Staying connected is easy: The Cyber Suite offers the very
latest in desktop broadcasting technology, including a high-speed Internet connection and videoconferencing facilities. Also in the room is a personal computer loaded with software so you can get that last-minute proposal done.

Let's Talk

With the exception of the ever-present overhead projectors and the phone booths in the hall, the conference centers of yesteryear were decidedly low-tech. But you might be surprised by the amenities at your next meeting. The newest facilities are turning ordinary conference attendees into superconnected delegates by offering fast Internet connections and dazzling audiovisual systems.

  • Northland Connectivity

The Northland Inn & Executive Conference Center in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, is located about 25 minutes from downtown Minneapolis. You won't have to drive too far to get connected, though. About one-third of the 140 ergonomically designed seats in its Longfellow Room come with a power supply and a modem connection plug so you can check your e-mail any time during a meeting. "Using these facilities, it's possible to link up with associates in other parts of the country or around the world," says Jonathan Parker of Northland. "This capability also lends itself well to training sessions where data needs to be disseminated simultaneously to a group of people."

  • IBM's Latest Toys

Big Blue's Palisades Executive Conference Center ranks among the most wired conference centers in the country. Located on 100 acres of rolling hills about 20 miles north of New York City, the conference center's European brick buildings look more like a university campus than a meeting center. But appearances are deceiving. "We have all the latest toys," boasts IBM's Peter Maruzzella. Indeed. The 206 guest rooms all feature a personal computer connected to a high-speed network--a given for a high-tech company like IBM. What makes the facility so special is that each conference room offers a rear-screen projector that's compatible with just about any presentation software you can buy.

  • Harmonizing At The Aspen Institute

The nonprofit Aspen Institute, Aspen Meadows (below), a conference center built in the Bauhaus architectural tradition in Aspen, Colorado, offers many of the amenities found at its larger counterparts' facilities. Oh yes, and there's one more thing--it's hard to quantify but easy to see. You might call it harmony. "We wanted to make sure the technology enhanced the seminar process but didn't overwhelm it," says director of marketing Dan Rowe. "It's there if you need it." What that means is all the gizmos--from videoconferencing equipment to high-speed Internet access--are discreetly installed; they're never the centerpiece of the conference rooms. "The dialogue is the most important part of a conference, not the technology," adds Rowe. "If you want special effects, go see a movie."

Contact Sources

The Aspen Institute, Aspen Meadows, 845 Meadows Rd., Aspen, CO 81611, (970) 544-7850

Century Plaza Hotel and Tower, e-mail: centu@westin.com, www.centuryplazala.com

The Claremont Resort, (510) 843-3000, www.claremontresort.com

IBM Palisades Executive Conference Center, (914) 732-6799, www.conferencecenters.com

The Mark, (800) THE-MARK

Northland Inn & Executive Conference Center, (800) 441-6422, www.northlandinn.com

Royal Sonesta Hotel, 5 Cambridge Pkwy., Cambridge, MA 02142, (617) 491-3600