About a year ago, I was staying at London's Landmark Hotel. The rooms were expensive, and so when I opened my laptop and found out Wi-Fi would cost more than $20 a day extra, I was peeved. I asked to talk to a manager, who told me, and I paraphrase, "When people pay this much for a room, they don't worry about little extra charges."
It was a lovely hotel otherwise, and I would have easily recommended it. But that Wi-Fi charge (which still applies) stuck in my craw. I realize that in hotels you pay a premium to get a glass of wine in your room or at the bar, but Wi-Fi should be different. It's free in so many places - cafés, bars, even public parks - that charging for it seemed like charging for heating or electricity. I left the Landmark with a sour taste in my mouth.
Business travellers are less tolerant of communications charges since iPhones, BlackBerrys and iPads rely more and more on Wi-Fi connectivity. And big chains are listening.
When Delta Hotels and Resorts asked 5,663 of its most frequent guests last year what they thought the most important feature of a hotel was, bedding came in second, having a loyalty program came in third, and atmosphere, restaurant and gyms brought up the rear. No. 1? Free Wi-Fi.
So, as of January, Wi-Fi is free at Delta hotels in Canada; free in rooms and common areas at 15 of their 45 independently run locations, and at the remaining 30 locations it's free if you become a Delta Privilege member (on your second stay). According to spokeswoman Sandy Indig, trying to stay ahead of the competition was a consideration, "but it was really the research that was more alarming to us."
Red Roof Inns, a bargain chain with locations across the U.S., announced last month it was going one step further, offering free Wi-Fi, local and long-distance calls (within the continental U.S.), as well as free faxes, up to 10 pages.
"Over all, we think it's getting better," says Juliana Shallcross, senior editor of the website hotelchatter.com, which posted its annual U.S.-centred hotel Wi-Fi report in April. "When we started doing this four or five years ago, hotels didn't even have wireless Internet."
Marriott also just introduced free Wi-Fi for its gold and platinum-level loyalty members, which is good for the frequent traveller, and possibly a sign that the stalwart resistance to so-called free-miums among the higher-end brands may be weakening.
Now, chains like Fairmont, Omni and Kimpton offer free Wi-Fi and local calls to those who sign up for frequent guest programs, which anyone can join.
And Fairmont's The Plaza in New York just announced it's including iPads with WiFi in every room come September, free for use by members of its guest program, President's Club (it costs $14.95 a day if you don't join). There's no word yet on whether other Fairmont properties will offer iPads any time soon.
For the most part, though, flagships brands such as Hilton, Westin and InterContinental continue to charge for Wi-Fi as well as local and even toll-free calls. Their lower-end brands such as Garden Inn, Holiday Inn Express and Indigo offer it for free.
"That's the way it's always been," Shallcross says. "I imagine they were charging really high rates for telegrams at the turn of the last century too."
As other businesses - such as coffee shops and fast-food restaurants - roll out chain-wide free Wi-Fi, this new normal may already be crystallizing.
Or the industry could take its lead from Las Vegas and the new "spa charges" system, extra fees from $10 to $20 a day for access to service packages that include the gym, pool, Wi-Fi and local calls.
But with numbers like Delta's, hotels will have to tread carefully to retain the post-recession corporate travel market. "It'll be really interesting to see what they can get away with," Shallcross says.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Do you have feedback? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow Road Work on Twitter@BertArcher.