Forget the front desk: Hotels go high tech

There’s nothing like a bit of luxury when staying at a nice hotel. Be it in-room dining or the staff waiting on your every need, feeling like a king for a day is a matter of taking advantage of the hotel’s services. Unfortunately, the systems in place for requesting such things are years behind, teetering on the edge of archaic. You can stare at the minuscule writing on the phone handset in hopes that dialing the listed numbers won’t throw you into an infinite loop of forwards and “accidental” hang ups or, at some hotels, you can click your way through a sluggish and ancient feeling TV interface. They may as well be using pneumatic tubes.

Runtriz, a software firm out of Hollywood, CA, is aiming to bring hotels up to speed. Following a series of quiet test runs at other LA hotels, they’ve debuted a product called “Hotel Evolution” at the Malibu Beach Inn in Malibu, CA. When a guest checks into the hotel, they’re asked if they have an iPhone or iPod Touch. If they do, the hotel staff will load the Runtriz Hotel web application to the device. If they don’t, they’re given a 16gb iPod Touch (with the application pre-loaded, of course) to keep for the duration of their stay.

Once you’ve punched in your room number and security code, all of the hotel’s service offerings are but a click away. Straight from the device’s screen, you can order room service, set a wake up call, request your luggage, dry cleaning, or car (or if you’re going all out, a limo), request linens or toiletries, check your messages, or set your room to “Do Not Disturb”. They also provide information about nearby nightlife, attractions, and shopping.

Rather than attempting to jailbreak each and every guest’s iPhone or brave their way through Apple’s app store approval process, they opted to go with a web application. Beyond simplifying installation, this also allows them to upgrade and maintain the application remotely by modifying the site, without any sort of manual upgrades required on the hotel’s end. It also facilitates portability; when they add support for other platforms (such as Android, or BlackBerry) in the future, it’s a matter of simply tweaking the layout for each browser, rather than rewriting an entire application.

The cost of getting such a system up and running varies on a hotel-by-hotel basis. According to Matt Allard, president of Runtriz, the cost of the first month is generally about double that of the standard monthly fee of $10 per room.

While I like the idea already, where it truly flourishes is in its scalability. At the launch party, I overheard talks of migrating the idea to a sports arena, or otherwise extending it beyond the realm of hotels – still good ideas, but the concept can extend far beyond implementation at individual locations. Imagine in just a few years, when all of the major browsers will likely be location-aware (via a “This website wants to know your location” security prompt), and more consumers are comfortable and familiar with the idea of location based services on mobile handsets. Something like this could be a full-blown concierge for your life, adapting its offerings based on your location. It could offer the basics regardless of where you are, but step into an established (via partnership) geofence, and the functionality expands to include location-specific options, with the application icon lighting up to alert you of the changes. It wouldn’t happen overnight (current technical limitations aside, it would require a ton of partnerships to be truly useful), but I imagine such things making our lives a whole lot easier within the foreseeable future.