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The Wireless MiniBar

By Eric Griffith

http://www.wi-fiplanet.com/news/article.php/3307891/The-Wireless-MiniBar.htm (Back to article)

Wireless access in hotels might seem like old news to some. Even many guest rooms are going Wi-Fi in addition to public areas like lobbies and restaurants. And for a select few guests, that high-speed Internet access (HSIA) is even free when the hotel sees it as a value-added amenity along the lines of the pool and free HBO. So how can a hotel recoup some of the costs for HSIA beyond charging customers?

How about Wi-Fi enabling the minibar to track the Toblerones and $4 Coca-Cola in the 10-ounce can?

Bartech Systems of Millersville, Md., has been making high-tech, automated minibars for years. The requirements have always been that the minibar -- usually a small refrigeration unit in a hotel room -- be "open display" so that people can see what they want and take it immediately. Vending machines are considered to have a "psychological barrier" to people buying from them.

Bartech has over 120 different configurations of E-fridge minibar that range from 20 liter capacity up to 75 liters. They monitor what's inside and notify a central property management system (PMS) when a guest has had a drink or snack. The E-fridge traditionally connected to the PMS via Ethernet cable or even television coaxial (pigging backing on the room's pay TV system). Each is a part of the hotel network, with its own IP address.

Bartech's latest E-Fridge is completely wireless. Any hotel with a Wi-Fi infrastructure could use them. They talk with the network like any 802.11 equipped laptop.

"We did some market surveys, working hotels mostly, and see most of them going wireless," says Daniel Cohen, CEO and president of Bartech. With wireless enabled, they can put the minibar anywhere in the room without being tied to a location near a data port or the television.

Each wireless E-fridge has various sensors (pressure sensitive, electro magnetic, infra-red and more) inside detect the presence of food products. When the product is taken out, guest have an average of 30 seconds to replace it or its tagged as purchased and consumed (or if it's still there it should be investigated by housekeeping staff when they restock).

Cohen says the E-fridges will work with about 25 different PMS systems, all the big names in use by major hotels.

The Willard Intercontinental Hotel in Washington D.C. -- where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I have a dream" speech -- is the first hotel to install the wireless E-fridge. In an announcement made today, the hotel said they expect to see an increase in refreshment revenues and a streamlining of the billing for minibar products.

The Willard Intercontinental does offer free HSIA via Wi-Fi in all common areas and via Ethernet in guest rooms. Cohen says the Willard wasn't necessarily a standard case as the hotel installed access points specifically for running the minibars, and possibly used it as a justification to eventually provide HSIA to guest rooms.