"On the road again, but wired"

Hotels and airports are waking up to the technological revolution and giving business travelers the kind of tech support they need

Jennifer Franklin   Staff Reporter

Joel Becker is an associate trainer for Baseview Products, a computer software company based in Ann Arbor, Mich. Becker travels at least half the year for his job. Like many business people who are on the road a lot, Becker has experienced the frustration of needing to get his work done, report to his boss and try to keep in touch with his friends and family using technology that is far less up-to-date than that in any normal office.

"I work at a job that requires me to send a report every single night. After I've done training all day and I go back to the hotel, after dinner I'm online. Any business person [on the road] is likely to have to send an invoice, send paperwork back to the office or file a report of what they did."

Unfortunately, many business people who travel find that, even though they have a laptop computer, facilities in airports and hotels simply are not current enough to accommodate their needs.

Several forward-looking companies in the Twin Cities are investing in experimental new technology that specifically caters to the business traveler and ushers in the age of the office on the road. From the airport to several hotels in town to Mall of America, businesses that cater to out-of-towners here on business are hoping that their up-to-date amenities will give them the edge over the competition.

"If I knew that a hotel had a T1 line, [a high-speed telephone line that connects to the Internet three times faster than a 56k modem], that would definitely make up my mind about where to stay," Becker said. "That cuts the time that I'm sitting on my computer waiting for a connection. It would really add to my free time when I'm on the road."

Often the communication breakdown isolates business travelers long before they reach their destination. While they can work on their laptops on the plane, it would be nice to transmit their work or connect to their e-mail while they're sitting in the airport, waiting for a connecting flight.

Tom Pokonosky, president of the Airport Business Center, a concession which furnishes business amenities at the Minneapolis/St.Paul International Airport, recognized the need to keep business travelers connected to the home office a long time ago.

"It all started in 1982 when someone asked me if we could send a fax for them. At that time, I didn't even know what a fax was, if you can believe it," he explained. "We're on the leading edge." Now in semi-retirement, Pokonosky takes a less active role in running the company than he once did; his wife, Mary, is the CEO.

The concessions available to business travelers at MSP International have come a long way from that first fax machine. Today Airport

Business Center offers a wide variety of services, from an on-site conference room to secretarial services, a foreign money exchange, phone cards and laser printers. The airport also has several free-standing Internet kiosks. With a swipe of your credit card and a touch of the screen, you can check and transmit e-mail, photocopy and fax, check stock quotes, and take advantage of all that the Internet has to offer. A company called Touchnet, based out of Lenexa, Kan., provides the kiosks to the airport.

"This airport is probably more aggressive than most. People don't choose airports because of the business amenities we offer, but progressive airports are giving them a choice ... For some business travelers, [being able to work at the airport] is an ever-increasing need. Some airports may treat these amenities as a perk, but more and more, it's a necessity."

Several hotels in town are recognizing this need as well. The Marquette Hotel, located in downtown Minneapolis, has recently upgraded two of its floors to accommodate guests who would like to get work done during their stay. Thirty-six rooms are now equipped with personal computers on the so-called Executive floors. The hotel, and all of the IDS Building where it resides, is wired with high-speed T1 phone lines, which connect at 156,000 bps, to eliminate business travelers jamming hotel phone lines when everyone logs onto their laptops after dinner.

Jean-Marie Grouard, general manager of the Marquette, said the response to the new computer-equipped rooms has been good. "We have only seen positive comments," he said. Grouard thinks that the high-tech hotel is definitely the wave of the future. "The United States is completely computer-literate," he said. "Soon putting a computer in hotel rooms will be like putting a clock radio on the night table."

A Mendota Heights company called Integrated Network Technologies Inc. (INTxx), which makes a software application for hotels called Cyberoom, furnished the hardware to the Marquette. Cyberoom not only gives the guest Internet access, but also acts as a virtual concierge, tourism bureau and travel agent.

"The whole point is to connect the hotel to the guest, 24 hours a day," said Thor Christensen, the director of products and corporate development at Intxx. "We're creating intimacy."

Becker said that if he were staying at a hotel that offered Cyberoom, or similar software, he would definitely use it. "When I see those racks of pamphlets, I tend to just walk by," he said, "but on a computer you can just click click click."

Dan Little, general manager of the Regal Minneapolis Hotel, has allocated four of the hotel's 10 rooms to accommodate the business traveler. The rooms have two phone lines, accessible phone jacks and electrical outlets and big desks "that you don't have to crawl under." The Regal also offers a private business lounge with a PC, Internet access and other business amenities. Also available to all Regal guests is a computer with high-speed Internet access in the lobby. "Even though many of our guests have laptops," Little said, "they'll use it because it's so much faster." The Regal is looking to renovate two more floors for business accommodations.

"It's not cheap," said Little, "but business travelers are demanding it. We've really tried to be as available to our guests in the high-tech realm as possible. You've got to make at least a portion of your rooms user-friendly for the business traveler. If you don't, you'll lose business."

Englewood, Colo.-based US West is also jumping on the trend to upgrade facilities for the business person on the go. "We took a look at the business traveler and found that they need access to both their business and personal communications," said Lynn Carlson, the communications and public relations manager for the Public Access Solutions division of US West.

The telecommunications giant has installed a number of Internet-accessible kiosks -- called public Internet terminals -- around the Twin Cities, including several at Mall of America. The user can log on to their own e-mail, play games, or surf the 'Net for a fee based on each 15-minute block of time that the person is online. Some of the kiosks use touch screens, others have pointers and mouses.

"It's just like a pay phone to the Internet," said Mike Goebel, product manager, public Internet terminals for US West. The target market for the kiosks include "anywhere where people are away from home and want Internet access" -- airports, hotels, convention centers, malls. Said Kim Bothun, Minnesota public relations for US West, "People's need for public access to the Internet at home and in the office is echoed out there in public just like with the pay phone."

Everyone that CityBusiness talked to agreed that the need for Internet access for business on the road, and the desire for Internet access for personal communication, entertainment and information has become increasingly blurred. Business people who need to work away from their offices will also use public Internet access to e-mail friends, surf the 'Net or learn more about the city they're in. Rooms equipped with two phone lines, like those at the Regal, will allow the traveling business person to work on their laptop and still receive a call from their spouse.

Becker explained, "I don't watch TV, so when I'm on the road, the computer is my entertainment, too."

Certainly companies like US West are banking on the fact that, as these high-tech amenities proliferate throughout the public marketplace, more and more people will want, and then need, to have access. The kiosks at the Mall of America have free areas -- where essentially the clock stops on the billing of your credit card -- that are especially user-friendly to teach the novice about Internet, Web surfing and e-commerce.

"The new technology came into place to help business people do their work better," Becker said. "But they're expanding in ways that everyone will want to use."