Mr. Brader

Architecture & Design

Audio Management and Delivery Strategies for Hospitality Environments

By Reto Brader, Vice President of Worldwide Sales & Business Development, Barix AG

For most of us, the process of checking into a hotel is not particularly memorable. Nor do many of us often recollect how hotels engaged our sense beyond standard guest relations. Technology has come a long way in filling this void, and hotels have made significant strides in how they engage visitors. From a purely audio-visual perspective, video - i.e., digital signage - tends to get the most attention as a branding, engagement and monetization tool.

However, used appropriately, audio can deliver the same benefits in hospitality environments in hotels and resorts, and at a far lower investment point that deploying and operating a digital signage network - particularly when working across multiple sites. And for the service providers that deliver audio to hotel chains, having the proper toolset to provide a complete service that takes program and system management out of employee hands is a win for all involved.

As the hotel is ultimately responsible for how audio affects the hospitality environment, it makes sense to not only evaluate the right audio content strategy, but also directly engage in evaluating and defining the underlying technology and platform. This will ensure the hotel achieves the maximum return on its investment.

Two Business Strategies

Hotels who look at audio as an important part its strategy of tend to approach its use in one of two ways: A branding and informational platform; or as a broader communications vehicle that can standalone, or operate as part of a broader 360-degree marketing strategy.

The former approach is the standard option for smaller and/or independent hotels and resorts. These typically range from the single-location hotels to smaller chains. In most cases, these businesses use audio to establish a mood that aligns with the company's environment. Therefore, it is primarily a background music tool.

Hotels and resorts that implement an audio-based engagement strategy must first discover music that projects the image that the brand conceives. This is generally achieved through finding the right outside service provider, or content provider. Some content providers believe they can meet most business needs by offering a number of pre-mixes; others create and manage dedicated mixes for individual clients. Either approach can work fine provided the music aligns with the feel of the location, provided there is enough flexibility in the service to meet the hotel's requirements.

For content providers, an important goal is to ensure a robust and reliable delivery solution that doesn't eat all the profits from a maintenance perspective. The cost of background music, particularly through service providers offers a one-size-fits-all approach with pre-mix channels, continues to come down in price. This requires an efficient workflow platform through content management and delivery; as well as reliable technology that favors remote maintenance over on-site repairs and upgrades.

For larger chains, audio can standalone; or integrate within a broader strategy that includes the visual and mobile/internet connectivity. In either case, audio becomes a marketing concept comprising music, promotional information, and even outside advertising to generate revenue. This quickly becomes very complex depending on the degree of targeted messaging - for example by region, or even individual locations on the same site. And as emerging trends like integration of audio ads and streaming digital signage audio to mobile devices take shape, the ability to flexibly target content delivery within each location - lobbies, bars/restaurants, retail stores, fitness centers and spas, for example - grows in value.

The important point to note is that as the overall degree of granularity escalates, the need for centralized content management - and simple scalability - grows in importance.

Interactive Engagement

Interactivity in hospitality environments is beginning to take shape to drive guest engagement. For hotels using digital signage, streaming audio to mobile devices is one emerging trend that can strengthen intimacy between the hotel and the guest. Most digital signage deployments today lack live audio tracks so as not to disrupt the natural environment. This can be very limiting from a marketing and communications perspective, however. The delivery of audio tracks to complement the video output allows the business to leverage digital content on a far more intimate level.

This emerging trend is now oft-referred to as "Audio Signage." In an Audio Signage deployment, an analog audio source is streamed to a smartphone or tablet with very low latency, or delay. That minimal latency is the key technical element to ensuring the application works properly, and that the audio stream is synchronized with the video output.

One example of where Audio Signage provides value is in the hotel lobby. A guest that is waiting to check in, for example, can tune into a private stream that provides information about the hotel and its services. This creates two-way relationship between the presentation and the guest, without polluting the lobby environment with a voice track. A less disruptive background more in tune with the lobby environment music can continue to exist.

Audio Signage lives on the network, streaming single- or multi-channel audio tracks over WiFi to mobile devices. In a single-channel environment, an encoding device picks up the analog audio stream and converts it into a stream delivered over the network. An app on the mobile device receives the stream and decodes it back to audio.

In a multi-channel deployment, users can select from multiple audio tracks on a single screen; or separate audio tracks used on multiple screens. The former example works well for multi-lingual audio tracks, where a guest can switch between English, Spanish or French languages of the same informational program in the lobby.

The latter example is especially ideal in a bar, where a patron can switch between different TV sets. Think of a hotel with a sports bar, where multiple football games might be broadcast on various screens. Multi-channel Audio Signage deployments require an additional server that communicates the various channel information and availability to guests on their mobile devices.

In both single-and multi-channel configurations, a simple QR code provides the gateway to the app download. This removes the burden of hunting for the app, and quickly brings users into the Audio Signage environment. Collectively, Audio Signage represents a true innovation in the convergence of audio-visual, streaming and mobile technologies that, used effectively, can elevate communications and guest engagement in hospitality.

Audio and the Cloud

In terms of pure audio delivery without video content, IP delivery has minimized the needs of on-site curation and, in multi-site chains, old-school satellite delivery methods for background audio content. However, how that content is managed continues to evolve. Working within the cloud to manage content and maintain systems has introduced an entirely new set of efficiencies for the service provider.

This is especially true for service providers working with larger chains. The more ads, promos and cuts that comprise playlists - and the more that content fluctuates by end point - the less operators want to be burdened with components and workstations. And for the content management workflow that incorporates operators from multiple seats and/or locations, centralizing these operations to singular platform becomes that much important from an efficiency perspective.

Working with a cloud-based workflow that centralizes playlist creation, scheduling and other management tasks - and in the process, eliminates disparate components and systems - simplifies the entire operation. Users have the freedom to simply log in from almost any networked location to schedule and manage content.

As another example, an operation with shared groups can provide access to different departments that may produce ads and promos versus those who curate the background music. Each has access to the central system to upload content that is eventually built into playlists for scheduling and dissemination. This is especially useful for targeting promos and special messages to different sites, such as messages pertaining to vacation club meetings and on-site fitness programs.

Working within the cloud, service providers and retailers can general adopt two methods from the content scheduling and delivery side: Live streaming, or store and forward. Which approach works best for the service provider and the end business will depend on variety of factors, most of which tie to cost and infrastructure.

Delivery Architectures

Using an Internet connection to push content to the IP-addressable media players is a very cost-effective way to distribute content to many locations on the same site; and across multiple hotels. However, network availability and bandwidth requirements vary a lot between live streaming and a "store and forward" methodology, and therefore will play a key role when deciding what solution to implement.

Bandwidth availability will play a significant role in which methodology to use based how much traffic exists from other services on the same network. Point of sale data, Internet and IP-based phone services will likely have higher priority from the business point of view.

Live audio streaming becomes a technical concern in these cases, as it requires a constant, robust connection. Unfavorable network conditions risk dropped packets that can result in audio glitches. In a branded audio environment - particularly a monetized service with advertising - the loss of audio will disrupt the mood, distract the shopper and prove counterproductive to hospitality strategy.

Even as connectivity, bandwidth, speed and overall network conditions improve, we find that many businesses still prefer the Store and Forward approach. In this configuration, service businesses are protected when fast and/or reliable network connections cannot be guaranteed. Playlists and built and scheduled for delivery by the region, location and/or individual player; and, at the scheduled time, pushed over the network for download at each receiving point. Since content is typically forwarded during hours with lower network traffic, this architecture all but eliminates concerns of network outages, mood disruption and other technical problems.

Investment Options

The costs of purchasing, installing, operating and maintaining any technology-oriented system are always a consideration to ensure profitability. The question becomes: What investment options make the most sense for my business model?

Leveraging a cloud-based workflow generally means working within a SaaS-based subscription model, which incurs a monthly cost. Live streaming and store and forward architectures, both operable within a cloud architecture, can both fit within this OpEx-focused model. This can allow the user to switch between live and stored content, which is particularly useful for hotels and resorts that may want more personality and/or dynamic ad insertions; as well as for those that find their network connections to be more reliable at certain times of the day.

A "classic" audio management and delivery architecture, working outside the cloud environment, requires more of an upfront capital investment. A server and content management system at the central office must be installed, monitoring and maintenance infrastructure facilitated and a server backup strategy implemented.

Also, such solutions are many times less flexible when it comes to the individualization of content. For example, in a streaming environment, every time individual content requires delivery (for example advertisement in a different language), the entire stream generation infrastructure must be duplicated.

Maintainability

In a subscription-based model, it's especially important to keep labor and maintenance - and their associated costs - to a minimum. The cloud brings far great freedom in monitoring system health and status, upgrading player firmware, adjusting system settings (such as volume) and troubleshooting performance from a central location. Often, these responsibilities are moved to a managed service layer to remove the burden from the hospitality business.

Operation is centralized, with a dashboard that identifies each player on the network with an icon Access can be given via user accounts. This means not only the service provider sees what is going on, but the end customer can get access to, if he wants to.

Alarm notifications can be sent to definable recipients allowing operators, as well as end customers, to address issues as they arise. This saves hours of research and expensive onsite visits when it comes to pinpointing, analyzing and repairing problems.

There is so much more when it comes to planning an audio strategy inside the hotel, including the integration of paging and intercom systems with background music. What matters most is that thanks to new technologies for audio delivery, both service providers and retailers can provide cost-effective, new and dynamic ways to engage guests and drive business throughout the hotel.

Reto Brader is VP of Worldwide Sales & Business Development at Barix AG, a Zürich, Switzerland based manufacturer of Audio over IP solutions, codecs and IoT devices for the Audio/Video, broadcast, security, retail and hospitality markets. Barix offers expertise and tailored solutions for system integrators that need to implement audio communications and control for a variety of applications in a cost effective professional way. Since joining Barix, Mr. Brader has assisted many small and large companies in implementing an audio distribution strategy while consulting small and large hotel and retail chains in particular. Mr. Brader is an expert on digital content distribution technologies. Mr. Brader can be contacted at 414-343-32211 or sales@barix.com Please visit http://www.barix.com for more information. Extended Bio...

HotelExecutive.com retains the copyright to the articles published in the Hotel Business Review. Articles cannot be republished without prior written consent by HotelExecutive.com.

Receive our daily newsletter with the latest breaking news and hotel management best practices.
Hotel Business Review on Facebook
RESOURCE CENTER - SEARCH ARCHIVES
General Search:
Coming Up In The November Online Hotel Business Review




{300x250.media}
Feature Focus
Architecture & Design: Authentic, Interactive and Immersive
If there is one dominant trend in the field of hotel architecture and design, it’s that travelers are demanding authentic, immersive and interactive experiences. This is especially true for Millennials but Baby Boomers are seeking out meaningful experiences as well. As a result, the development of immersive travel experiences - winery resorts, culinary resorts, resorts geared toward specific sports enthusiasts - will continue to expand. Another kind of immersive experience is an urban resort – one that provides all the elements you'd expect in a luxury resort, but urbanized. The urban resort hotel is designed as a staging area where the city itself provides all the amenities, and the hotel functions as a kind of sophisticated concierge service. Another trend is a re-thinking of the hotel lobby, which has evolved into an active social hub with flexible spaces for work and play, featuring cafe?s, bars, libraries, computer stations, game rooms, and more. The goal is to make this area as interactive as possible and to bring people together, making the space less of a traditional hotel lobby and more of a contemporary gathering place. This emphasis on the lobby has also had an associated effect on the size of hotel rooms – they are getting smaller. Since most activities are designed to take place in the lobby, there is less time spent in rooms which justifies their smaller design. Finally, the wellness and ecology movements are also having a major impact on design. The industry is actively adopting standards so that new structures are not only environmentally sustainable, but also promote optimum health and well- being for the travelers who will inhabit them. These are a few of the current trends in the fields of hotel architecture and design that will be examined in the November issue of the Hotel Business Review.