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Responding to increasing customer demand, Hyatt International Corp. last year embarked on a mission to spread wireless LANs throughout its hotels around the world.

But it didn’t do so lightly. Before making a move, the Chicago-based hospitality company launched an exhaustive study of Wi-Fi, interviewing prospective service providers and current customers in an effort to understand what was possible and what was worthwhile.

“We talked to our top 50 accounts to find out what their policies were in terms of letting their employees use wireless technology,” said John Prusnick, the company’s director of corporate technology.

Prusnick said Hyatt found that many technology-sector customers permitted their travelers to use Wi-Fi on the road. But traditional customers, such as financial services companies, were less likely to be given Wi-Fi access, he said.

But while some companies gave a thumbs down to Wi-Fi use by employees, Hyatt found that the employees of those same companies were taking advantage of it anyway.

“Even though corporate IT people had said, ‘Thou shall not use Wi-Fi,’ the employees actually were,” Prusnick said.

As far as Hyatt was concerned, the matter was settled. “Now we’re making sure we have it in all our hotels,” Prusnick said.

Last year, Hyatt turned to longtime trusted tech partners Guest-Tek Ltd. and Inter-touch (Holdings) Pty Ltd., systems integrators that work in the United States and Europe, respectively, to handle its global Wi-Fi deployment. The two integrators deployed Hyatt’s in-room Ethernet services.

Hyatt’s caution over the rollout revolved around several issues, such as ensuring security for all Wi-Fi users, both guests and employees. But the company also insisted on being able to maintain a balance, ensuring optimum customer benefit with minimum disruption to the ambience of its hotels and resorts.

On the security end, Prusnick made Hyatt part of iPass Inc.’s network of Wi-Fi hot spots. The iPass client lists all available hot spots in a given area and helps attract customers who look for wireless access in a hotel.

iPass focuses on customers who use public WLANs to access corporate e-mail accounts, which necessitates a more secure connection than Wi-Fi inherently offers. Wi-Fi providers that team up with iPass must adhere to the iPass GIS (Generic Interface Specification).

Hyatt has been rolling out Wi-Fi hot spots and technologies in its hotels and resorts for the past year, but it still has a long way to go. In guest rooms, most customers still choose an Ethernet connection over Wi-Fi for convenience.

To that end, Hyatt aims to push Wi-Fi service where fast connections are not as easily available, such as in its lobbies, casual restaurants and areas outside conference rooms. The hotel chain’s trademark open-atrium building design, for instance, is conducive to Wi-Fi.

“What that affords us is fewer access points and greater coverage,” Prusnick said.

What is more of a challenge is making sure Wi-Fi remains unavailable in areas of hotels where it isn’t welcome. For example, the company aims to continue barring access to many of its conference rooms and its fancier restaurants out of courtesy and ambience concerns. This will mean careful site surveys upon every installation.

“That’s probably one of the most difficult things that need to be taken into consideration,” Prusnick said. “We want to be able to point out clearly which areas we really don’t want to have coverage. Meeting planners and travel planners in many corporations have expressed a lot of disinterest in having wireless access within meeting spaces. The reason is the same issue you see with mobile phones and BlackBerrys, where the attendees are paying more attention to their e-mail than to the meeting.”

By the same token, “in a five-star restaurant, we’re not interested in offering Wi-Fi,” Prusnick said. “We’ll shape the signal so that Wi-Fi doesn’t get in there.”

Beyond Wi-Fi, Hyatt is looking at ways to enhance cellular coverage by installing microcells inside its hotels, Prusnick said. The company is also considering Wi-Fi/ cellular roaming services.

At the same time, however, Hyatt is going back to the basics, trying to get wireless-savvy customers to use the notoriously expensive in-room phone.

“We’re learning our lesson and are looking at offering lower-cost land-line phone service,” Prusnick said.

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