Voice at the Mansion

By Eric Griffith

June 16, 2006

Wayport won't ignore its public access roots even as it expands into back-end wireless, VoIP and more for interested customers.

Travelers lucky enough to stay at the five-star, five-diamond Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas get to experience some opulence during their stay. They may also get to see the staff communicating as if they're in the cast of Star Trek.

That's because they've been outfitted to use Vocera voice badges for hands-free, VoWi-Fi communications throughout the property. Vocera's unique VoIP system has been very popular in healthcare, but hotels represent a relatively new market for them -- the company that brought them to the Rosewood Hotels-owned Mansion is Wayport.

Wayport is best known for providing public access connections at hotspots and hotzones, in particular in hotels and airports, but also for unwiring (so far) 7,500 McDonald's restaurants in the United States. In fact, it was at Mickey D's that the company first started doing more than just hotspots; Wayport's network ties in directly to the point-of-sale (POS) use of credit and debit cards to pay for food at the restaurants.

Don Jenson, Channel Director for Wayport's Hospitality Business Unit, says things have changed in the last few years. "The industry used to be about high speed guest broadband — that was the whole reason the network [in a hotel] was installed," he says. "It's now very appropriate that other services, such as Vocera's, ride over that infrastructure." The Mansion on Turtle Creek also offers guest broadband — they've been a client of Wayport since 1998.

Jenson says Wayport is in discussions with other leading hotels about implementing the Vocera Communication System. Wayport even helps train the hotel staff to use the badges. Each badge is profile-independent, so any employee can take any recharged badge and use it to sign into the system and start taking and placing calls.

Wayport Vice President of Business Development and Marketing Dan Lowden admits his company hasn't been very aggressive in talking about its slight change in strategy toward back-end systems. Public access Wi-Fi is still the company's bread and butter, with 13,000 locations spread across 32 countries. But the back-end services business is growing.

"Our system has flexibility to support private side applications... it’s a great thing for a venue to leverage, so they can run more efficiently and more effectively with features they didn't have before, like Vocera," says Lowden. He mentions not only voice and POS, but also surveillance cameras, which he says would work on Wayport's deployments. Hotels can run their business centers or meeting rooms with Wayport. The company even has a team of people that do nothing but help hoteliers get set up with wireless  or wired connections in meetings. Wayport's own CyberCenter Express kiosks could be set up in hotels for walk-up access. In the case of the Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, Wayport ties directly into their database so existing members of their ByRequest program get instant access for free or at a reduced rate, depending on the individual property.

When asked if Wayport would push back-end services or public access on a customer that wants one or the other, Lowden says a lot of Wayport customers are open to options — in fact, he says, "A lot of folks look to us to come to them with solutions. They want ideas for things they may not have thought about before."  He says the company's 10 years of experience — "we live and breath this" — surprises many potential customers into doing more than they thought they wanted at first.

That's not the case with Nintendo, though, which made a big splash last year by announcing a deal with Wayport and McDonald's to offer free access for any users of the handheld Nintendo DS. Anyone looking to play Mario Kart DS, Tony Hawk's American Sk8Land, Animal Crossing and other DS games can sign onto the hotspots at McDonald's for no charge and find opponents. They could be in the same restaurant, a different restaurant, or logged on from their home network. Lowden says Wayport has been thrilled with the amount of traffic the DS users have generated, and has seen it spread out, not just in select locations but across thousands of the McDonald's locations where "they can log in all day." Wayport even had a little tournament in its hometown of Austin, Texas, co-sponsored by GameStop.

"We're talking to other manufacturers of devices, some that have a browser, and some that don't," says Lowden. Because of the large Wayport footprint, third parties frequently want to make sure their systems will work seamlessly with the Wayport network, even if they're not direct partners. A lot of them will never even be announced.

"It used to be we saw only business travelers," Lowden says. "But now we see consumers. Road warriors, but also moms and kids. Our network has expanded the market."

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