TECHNOLOGY is shaping the level at which the hospitality industry is likely to compete and may even convince consumers to part with more money in future.

On Friday, JSE-listed hotel group Tsogo Sun launched an industry first by offering free wi-fi connections to all hotel patrons, from premium to budget establishments.

The offer was likely to spread like wildfire across the sector, analysts forecast.

Graham Wood, the managing director of Tsogo Sun hotels, said the service had been offered to guests since the beginning of last month.

About 25 000 unique guests had registered for the service, with few complaints received.

Tsogo Sun had previously offered wi-fi but the experience was frustrating.

The group spent about R20 million to overhaul the system. It was also using a different service provider, AlwaysOn, a small company that has been rapidly deploying wi-fi hotspots in restaurants and other facilities countrywide.

At its deluxe hotels, Tsogo Sun offers 750MB daily per room for up to three devices per room. The allocation decreases according to the level of the hotel. At Stay Easy budget hotels, the offering is capped at 250MB daily per room, per device.

Wi-fi is a wireless technology using radio waves to connect to the internet – unlike other connections such as terrestrial ADSL and wireless 3G technology.

The high-speed technology enables guests to send and receive e-mails, surf the web and upload photographs, among other things.

“At the end of the day, wi-fi is going to become like a bar of soap – a commodity in a hotel room,” Wood said.

De Wet Schutte, an equity analyst at Avior Research, said most hotels in South Africa already offered wireless services. He added that patrons were mostly corporate and business travellers.

“Maybe the free aspect is something they are trying to bring in as a competitive angle. It’s fair to assume that we’ll see more roll-outs across the country.”

Liron Segev, a technology consultant and the chief executive of Swift Holdings, a group of technology firms, said international studies had revealed that customers preferred free wi-fi to free breakfast. “It’s absolutely critical for the hospitality industry,” he added.

Segev had previously participated in an experiment with technology firm Ruckus and lived off wi-fi for a month while forsaking other forms of connectivity, including 3G.

The test proved that connectivity was available only at hotspots and was expensive at establishments that charged for the connection.

But on a drive to Durban along the N3 highway, Segev was surprised by the many petrol stations that had begun to offer free wi-fi.

Overseas, wi-fi was usually offered free because internet connectivity was cheap, while the concept of uncapped or capped data did not exist internationally, according to Segev.

But because of high communication costs in South Africa, business owners were less inclined to provide free access to others.

Over the past two years, more telecoms companies have been offering uncapped data, resulting in a greater number of businesses adopting wi-fi, including hotels and restaurants.

Nico Pretorius, the executive director of AlwaysOn, said the system network offered symmetrical, high-speed internet access at the majority of Tsogo Sun’s locations, built on infrastructure using 2.4GHz and 5Ghz channels to provide maximum capacity. This was a differentiator for Tsogo Sun, because many other hotels provided only only asymmetrical internet access.

Jaco van Tonder, a director at AlwaysOn, said wi-fi use in the hospitality industry, offices, airports and hospitals increased dramatically over the past two years as smartphones and tablet devices gained in popularity.

Tsogo Sun shares rose 1.74 percent to close at R26.38 on Friday.

Source: Business Report – Asha Speckman