Over 30 years of innovation – The Peninsula hotels’ in-room technology - inventive, unobtrusive, state-of-the-art and custom-designed

The Peninsula Hotels not only has ten of the world’s finest luxury hotels throughout the US, Asia and Europe but is also a pioneer and industry leader in the research and development of innovative guestroom technology, as its Research and Technology Department (R&T) celebrated the 30th anniversary last year of its founding in 1985.

The only hotel company in the world with its own research and development facilities to design, build and customise equipment to serve the group’s guests (versus installing standard available technology used by other hotel groups), all in-room technology is developed and then tested to perfection by the R&T, comprising a team of 26 electronic, software and hardware engineers who are able to respond to guests’ every need through a combination of observation, innovation and technological know-how.

Located in Aberdeen on Hong Kong island’s south side, Group General Manager of Research and Technology Christopher Chan and his team of white-coated engineers strive to provide user-friendly, intuitive technology for today’s increasingly demanding and sophisticated hotel guests to enhance comfort and the overall hotel experience - whether on business or vacation, the technology is there to assist guests with work or simply to relax and “repair” with the room as their sanctuary.

With the aim of delivering a new bespoke room experience, where guests can choose how they access the hotel’s services – as technology and guests’ expectations continue to develop at breakneck speed – R&T is tasked to not just keep up with, but stay ahead, of requirements.

The R&T team’s latest offerings at The Peninsula Beijing and Chicago take these initiatives to a new level of creativity and innovation, with a truly personalised in-room experience. Initially introduced at The Peninsula Hong Kong in 2013 and Paris in 2014, fully customised interactive digital bedside, desk and wall tablets are pre-set in 11 languages, and full control of all in-room functions is a mere touch away, including the in-room compendium of restaurant menus, hotel services, the “PenCities” virtual city guide, personalised streaming terrestrial TV, Internet TV and radio, mood lighting, curtain, valet call, weather, thermostat, language and privacy options.

The impressive work desks are complete with high-speed Internet access, international Internet radio, weather panel, iPod docking station and more, while The Peninsula’s signature en suite marble bathrooms offer LED touch-screen panels for terrestrial and Internet TV and radio. Mood-lighting with a customised ambient spa setting delivers a luxurious, integrated light and sound experience for indulgent relaxation.

State-of-the-art audio visual centres with flat-screen, Blu-ray LED televisions offer a vibrant, enriched entertainment experience via tablet with 90 terrestrial, cable and satellite TV channels, 460 Internet radio stations and complimentary HD movies, iPhone/iPad docking station, memory card reader and Sound Bar virtual surround sound speaker system. Wireless connection to personal electronic devices and to the all-in-one fax/printer/photocopier/scanner enables the seamless functionality of a home office, plus multiple device chargers for added convenience.

Complimentary high-speed wired and wireless Internet access also means that international IDD calls via VOIP are free in the guest rooms, while free wireless access and local calls are available when traveling in the hotels’ Rolls-Royce and MINI fleet.

However, it all started with the first of many “firsts” for The Peninsula Hotels’ R&T team – the introduction of satellite TV to Hong Kong. Back in 1985, The Hon Sir Michael Kadoorie, Chairman of The Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels Limited (parent company of The Peninsula Hotels) wanted satellite TV channels for The Peninsula Hong Kong’s in-house television system, but it was unavailable in HK at the time and he was assured by all that it would be impossible to install as the technology of the day wasn’t sufficient. Determined to prove the naysayers wrong and scouring Hong Kong for satellite dishes, he met Australian Fraser Hickox – at that time, a freelance technical consultant – who duly installed two dishes on the rooftop of The Peninsula. As coincidence would have it, the first – and only – channel that was available at the time was ABC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s national TV station.

Located directly behind The Peninsula, sister hotel The Kowloon Hotel was being built at the same time. Featuring very small rooms, the challenge was to add technology into the limited space, and as Sir Michael was not happy with what was on offer at the time and wanted to take guestroom technology to the next level, he invited Hickox to come on board as a consultant. Hickox put together an innovative concept for the hotel, including a PC in the room which acted both as a computer and TV, plus a fax and printer, and also featured 200 pages of destination, weather and hotel information – common enough since the advent of the internet, but a first at the time.

Opened in February 1986, The Kowloon Hotel was the world’s first true “technology hotel” at the time – and received numerous visitors and extensive media coverage on its unique and innovative technological features and design.

Plans were then drawn up to refurbish The Peninsula in the early 1990s. Sir Michael’s goal for the in-room technology was that it must affect the guest – that they must “sense it, feel it and touch it” yet it must be invisible and seamless at the same time, with connectivity and interlinking of all in-room functions.

Tasked to deliver what guests want before they know they want or need it, the R&T’s twin mantras are “technology is all about people” and “you shouldn’t have to think – it just happens”, and thus every element must serve guests, help them unwind and keep them connected, informed and at their best.

At its heart, the issue has always been a continual evolution of design – always asking “how does this work” and “what can we do better?”

Since its inception in 1985, R&T have created, designed and developed cutting-edge in-room facilities for the group’s ten hotels, and also work closely with manufacturers of off-the-shelf items such as TVs to re-design remote control devices to be as simple and user-friendly as possible for guests. While each hotel has an R&T team in-situ, Chan and his team can also control and monitor the electronics in every guestroom around the world from an elaborate control panel in their laboratory at HQ.

The design process for a new hotel starts an average of two years prior to opening. Ideas and functions are envisioned by a committee of senior HSH executives, and are then developed and produced by the R&T team. The technology is installed into the sample room (a complete and fully functional room in a confidential location in Hong Kong), which is then occupied and tested by numerous Peninsula executives in order to perfect the design, flow and functionality of the entire space.

A catalyst to invention, the thought and development process comes from a variety of sources, including intense observation when travelling (in Peninsula hotels and elsewhere) ranging from how guests move around the room to staff efficiency and beyond.

Anecdotal experiences include nail dryers when Hickox observed a lady with wet nail polish in an elevator at The Peninsula Chicago, while the temperature gauge originated from a trip to Paris when he couldn’t determine the outside temperature by looking through the window, as some people were
in overcoats and others in shorts. The latest incarnation of this are the panels at The Peninsula Shanghai, which offer humidity, wind speed and U/V readings in addition to the temperature, from gauges positioned on the hotel’s rooftop.

Extensive research has been carried out on the effect of light on brain waves, and how “invisible technology” - in-room lighting and facilities - can help guests unwind. In order to bring the conscious state to a relaxed level, fading the lights out helps reduce brain waves from the usual 15 Hz to a more relaxed 10 Hz (in comparison, the REM stage of sleep is 8Hz), rather than abruptly switching lights off in the conventional manner. Similarly, the sudden ringing of an alarm clock jolts sleepers awake, causing involuntarily muscle tensing and momentary stress, so Peninsula alarms start gently and then ramp up the volume in order to avoid this.

Ideas come from other sources too – the inspiration behind the bathtub telephone, first introduced at The Peninsula Hong Kong in 1994, came from an Imperial Leather soap TV commercial featuring a couple in a bubble bath on a private jet when the husband calls the pilot to fly to Bermuda.

Telephones are a signature Peninsula feature – unable to source an attractive and appropriate model offering the required functions, The Peninsula phone was designed by the executive committee, with innovations including a rubber grip on sides for the elderly or when hands are wet, “ripples” to grip the phone to the shoulder while talking, VOIP using Skype, Bluetooth to sync in-room phones with mobiles and a home town time and language display. The phone also detects the voltage reversal if a call comes in, mutes the TV or radio and then turns the sound back on when hanging up. The telephone metamorphosis continues, with bedroom wall sconces that light up automatically if a call is received during the night.

The Peninsula Hotels’ in-room technological systems are proprietary, and never sold to other companies. Nevertheless, The Peninsula can lay claim to the following “firsts” – innovations created by R&T and now found everywhere…..

- “smart switching” – the master switch switches all off, but individual freestanding lights can be illuminated
- the celebrated Peninsula bedside panel, which initially controlled all the light switches in the room and affected how the lights themselves worked. The latest models now control every aspect of the in-room ambience
- Weather, temperature and other climate information panel
- Hotel, destination, weather and flight information on TV screen
- Valet box – initially a small box for shoes only, which has evolved into a hanging box for full-length garments
- Complimentary internet since the inception of the world wide web
- Internet radio - The Peninsula hotels offers over 4000 channels
- Complimentary VOIP calls
- Total in-room connectivity, dating from 1990 onwards when Sir Michael had been travelling with his Handicam and required camera memory cards, etc, through to iPods and touch screen technology today

Born in Hong Kong and educated in Canada, Christopher worked in multi-media design, digital signage, IPTV, music and guest control systems before joining The Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels in 2011 as Engineering and Maintenance Manager overseeing the global system support for guestroom control systems. He then became Manager of New Development and Senior Manager, Research and Development before assuming his current role as General Manager, Research & Technology, where he oversees a group of 26 engineers, project staff and software developers engaged in the development and implementation of the latest in cutting edge guestroom technology for new and existing developments globally.

“A hotel is like a dance and the control system like a corps de ballet – smooth, elegant comfortable and no jerky on/off movements - offering a smooth transition from one operation to the next to avoid stress,” says Chan. “The greatest compliment for me and my team is when guests go to other hotels and realise what they miss!”