On the heels of Microsoft's recent Worldwide Partner Conference in Washington D.C., I swapped the final night in my perfectly serviceable midtown hotel for a night at the upscale Mandarin Oriental Hotel, which is conveniently located between both the National Mall and Reagan National Airport. I didn't do so to abuse my expense account—indeed, the stay was provided free of charge—but rather to experience an interesting new fusion of two of my top interests, technology and travel. You see, Mandarin is piloting the use of Surface Pro 3 in its rooms. And I was curious to learn how that would work.
As a frequent traveler for both business and personal reasons, I've watched non-passively as the travel industry has adapted to the technology gains of the past decade. It hasn't always gone well, nor proceeded quickly. But we're well past the days when hotels would charge heady fees just to make a phone call, and pay-per-view was both limited and expensive. Today, we have expectations about Internet connectivity, the availability of power ports and electronic entertainment options, and more when we hit the road. And that's as true in the air as it is on the ground.
As with other businesses—I'm reminded in particular of safety and entertainment features in automobiles, for example—these changes often begin at the luxury end of the market. And since this is the space that Mandarin Oriental occupies, it is perhaps not surprising that the hotel organization is keen to meet and exceed customer expectations in every way imaginable, and in being a leader in doing so. Increasingly that includes personal technology expectations in addition to more traditional forms of pampering.
Mandarin Oriental, Washington D.C.
To understand what Mandarin was trying to achieve, I spoke separately with Microsoft general manager of Windows and Windows Phone commercial marketing Erwin Visser and two representatives from Mandarin Oriental, VP of technology Todd Wood and VP of communications Danielle DeVoe, ahead of my stay.
Mr. Visser explained that Mandarin wanted to take the customer service experience a step further by offering Surface Pro 3 tablets in its rooms, providing digital concierge, in-room dining, and other entertainment and informational experiences for its guests. Mandarin is able to remotely wipe the tablet each time it's rebooted, or automatically when the guest checks out, so users get a personalized and safe experience.
As important, the ability of Windows to seamlessly switch between languages was a huge boon to Mandarin because of its international locations and diverse guests. So the Surface Pro 3 is personalized for each hotel and surrounding area, of course, but also for each guest. They can also sign in with their Microsoft accounts, gaining access to email and other information on the device. And sign into apps like Netflix and Hulu Plus to access their own services while away from home.
Visser told me that from Microsoft's perspective, the Mandarin pilot was important on a number of levels. The work they're doing with third party partners such as iRiS and Interknowlogy would provide a blueprint of sorts for other uses of modern Microsoft technology, not just in the hotel industry but in industries such as air travel.
Speaking later with Mr. Wood about Mandarin's pilot implementation of Surface Pro 3, I was told that the device would augment a number of traditional guest services and would expand over time. The goal here isn't to replace the old ways of doing things—television-based welcome screens and entertainment options, phone-based in-room dining requests, and so on—but rather to offer modern technological equivalents for those customers who would prefer it. But technology should also be used to take services to the next level when possible.
"Guests will still want great TV experiences," he said, offering a typical example. "But they also want the ability to access content that they own or bring with them. Looking at the future, we believe it's more about a combination of Internet content 'over the top' of traditionally delivered TV content."
And as noted, it's not just entertainment. In the current pilot program, Mandarin's in-room Surface Pro 3 provides the ability to order breakfast, request various in-room services—luggage pick up, laundry pick up, in-room dining table collection, shoe shine, and more—and access a number of apps related to hotel information and amenities, guest feedback, language choices, and so on. This will be expanded, logically enough, with more dining choices—the hotel offers 24/7 room service—and room controls for lighting and shades.
And not to get too far ahead of ourselves, but when you consider some of the future technologies that Microsoft demonstrated at its Worldwide Partner Conference that week, also in D.C., it's not surprising that Mandarin is already considering how they might integrate some of that into the system as well.
"We're very excited by the new capabilities that are coming to the device," Mr. Wood said. "Skype Translator could be a game changer, and could let guests from around the world talk to the concierge in their own languages. Guests could use Cortana to set a wake-up call by voice. These are big opportunities for us."
I had to ask. Given the prevalence of Android devices, and iPhone and iPads out there, I was curious why Mandarin chose Windows and Surface Pro 3.
"We evaluated everything," Mr. Wood told me. "Innovation is very important to Mandarin, and we're very guest-centric. We want to make a difference, not make a guest use technology to accomplish something."
But he says there was never any doubt about going with Windows and Surface Pro 3.
"The ability to manage the overall environment really put this solution over the top," he said. "The security controls in the enterprise version of Windows gives us the ability to ensure we're never exposing user data to the next guest. This is a problem in a traditional hotel business center, for example. But we can make sure the device is always secure and refreshed. We can provide a guest with anything they would want to run on a PC using core apps from our partners, marketing links, and customizations that are made by each hotel locally. Each property has flexibility there."
"A guest can come in and use the tablet immediately," he continued. "If they want to, they can sign in to their Microsoft account and download their own apps. They can sign into Netflix and the others apps we provide. And all that gets wiped from the machine when it reboots. We're really excited about this, and it's unique to Windows. This wasn't available on iPad or Android, where you'd have to work with iffy smaller players for the hotel-specific apps."
And the reality is that almost all of Mandarin's guests are Microsoft users too, Mr. Wood told me.
Mandarin piloted this setup first in London, and then in Washington D.C., Las Vegas and Tokyo. It started with Surface Pro 2 but then moved immediately to Surface Pro 3 when that became available, and it will now standardize on the newer model. My understanding is that the tablets are available in a limited number of rooms to start so that Mandarin can gather feedback from users and make changes as needed before a broader rollout.
From a technology perspective, Mandarin is already a step ahead of the rest of the industry, but this type of solution comes with a number of additional requirements. That includes more pervasive and reliable wireless connectivity than is typically available in hotels: Mandarin intends to put a wireless access point in every single one of its rooms. (That is currently not the case in the D.C. location, apparently.) And it will provide wireless streaming of content from Surface Pro 3—and users' own devices—to the HDTV in the room using Miracast.
That I was a bit curious about, given my previous experiences with Miracast. Mr. Wood agreed that Miracast was an evolving technology and that ideally they will be rolling out Miracast-enabled TVs with well-designed chipsets. For now, they're piloting with add-on Actiontec Screenbeam devices, which my Windows 8.1 Field Guide co-author and resident Miracast expert Rafael Rivera has identified as the single best solution at the moment.
But, Miracast is indeed problematic. "We can't deploy it to scale yet," Mr. Wood told me. "We need to get to the point where we have a personal area network for each room, something that will know the guests and what devices they have, and will be ready to work for them when they arrive. A new generation of 802.11ac gateways will help too. But the goal is to let users send anything to the TV so that it feels more like home. It will get there."
I was curious what the reaction from guests had been so far.
"Guests really appreciate the ability to request services from the device," Mr. Wood said. "They can request that the in-room dining table be collected, or get an ice delivery. We can provide access to services in ways that simply don't work on the TV alone. And the performance of the Surface Pro 3 is so smooth and fast when compared to using a remote control with the TV."
Finally, I got my chance to experience Mandarin's Surface Pro 3 pilot for myself. As you may know, I travel fairly frequently, and have stayed in every hotel imaginable. Or so I had thought: Mandarin offers a luxury experience that was well above what I'm used to, but after getting a guided tour of the room, I tried to settle in and enjoy myself.
It wasn't hard. The room provided a spectacular view of the Jefferson Memorial and was laid out with exactly the sort of amenities I never see in the garden variety hotels I frequent: a clothes brush, chocolates and other free snacks, slippers ... oh, and Surface Pro 3.
So I dove right into that. The Mandarin-supplied Surface Pro 3 comes sans keyboard cover so you can enjoy a purely touch-based experience, and of course the device looks more natural in the décor of the room without it. (Mandarin does offers a Type Cover in its lengthy list of in-room services right from the device.)
The Surface Pro 3 is nicely customized for the hotel with an appropriate color scheme, a surprisingly rich and filled out Start screen full of useful hotel apps, area information, utilities, travel services, apps and games. The hotel-specific apps are particularly good, and range from the informational—Mandarin offers such things as a spa, various restaurants and lounges, meeting space and more at its D.C. location—to the practical. I was able to use the Breakfast app, for example, to order food for the following morning—shocker, it was spectacular—and then the Request Service app to ask for the table to be collected.
These apps do a good job of promoting the Mandarin brand in that they're pleasant looking and consistently designed. But they're also truly useful, and take nice advantage of the panoramic experiences that are common and preferable on the modern Windows platform.
I experimented with Miracast a bit as well. Sadly, that experience wasn't as positive, but I can't blame Mandarin for that, and Mr. Wood had indicated that this was a work in progress. I was able to redirect a movie from the device to the HDTV, but it eventually froze. What I discovered, as will many others, I think, is that the Surface Pro 3 screen is so nice looking, the HDTV is almost superfluous in such situations anyway. Many people will simply ignore the ability to broadcast the device's screen to the HDTV, or not realize that capability is available anyway.
Overall, it's clear that Mandarin is on to something, and not just with Surface Pro 3 specifically, though I think that was a fine choice. It's curious to me how other purportedly guest-centric hotels can cut corners on things like connectivity and electronics, and once you see the Mandarin approach in action, you realize its validity. Hopefully, the lower-end hotels I usually visit will pick up on this in the next decade. Certainly, I've had too many technology issues in such places over the years to even count.
Indeed, my time at the Mandarin Oriental in Washington D.C. was, if anything, all too short. On most trips, job one is getting out of the hotel and out into the area you're visiting. But I could spend time in a hotel like that. Rushing to a cab for the short ride to the airport the next morning—Mandarin D.C. is just 10 minutes or so from Reagan National airport—I found myself in the strange position of not wanting to leave. And that's something that doesn't happen very often at all.