Techno-Bedouins Seek A Digital Oasis

Thanks to wireless communications and ever-shrinking digital tools, business professionals are way ahead in staying productive on the road. Unfortunately, hotels and airports are still catching up.

„Have laptop, will travel.“ Like the hired gunslinger of Hollywood lore, the modern road warrior is constantly on the move, ready to spring into action wherever opportunity may arise.

Unfortunately, not everywhere is a good place to sit down and work. In fact, most airports and hotels are poorly equipped to cater to the needs of what a recent article in the Economist calls “Techno-Bedouins”.

For one thing, architects don’t seem aware that electric outlets are to techno-Bedouins what water holes are to the real ones. “Where is a plug when you need one” is a frequent lament to be heard on the road. Two or more electricity-deprived businessmen squabbling over the solitary socket next to the departure gate has become a familiar sight, like drivers trysting for the only remaining downtown parking space.

But finally it seems that hotels and airports are catching on at last to the changing needs of mobile workers.

While glitches with the new baggage handling system at Heathrow’s bright new Terminal 5 may have left thousands of travellers stranded, at least they could spend their time catching up with their work, thanks to thousands of strategically located electric outlets. “Heathrow is undergoing extensive transformation to improve terminal facilities for 21st century passengers”, says airport media rep Lisa O’Brien. So besides Swarovski crystal chandeliers and furnishings by designers Osborne & Little, the new terminal features ubiquitous (though costly) WiFi coverage and laptop-friendly seats.

Where airport operators fail to provide basic services for road warriors, individual concessionaires often rise to the challenge. The branch office of SEB bank in Frankfurt’s Rhine-Main Airport for instance is often crammed with businessmen and women enjoying a latte along with free Internet access at the bank’s stylish in-house café. Elsewhere, wireless broadband is only available from the local provider, Deutsche Telekom, for a whopping fee.

Hotels are also growing aware of the new work habits of their clientele. “No one wants to crawl around behind the desk looking for the plug”, says Nathalie Debus, communications director of the new upscale Pullman brand, which is being launched by Accor Group in 23 countries mainly in Europe and Asia. She feels that “Technology and ways to help people when they are working away from the office are an important part of our basic offer.”

Rooms at Pullman hotels are routinely equipped with WiFi access, cordless phones, a webcam and an office corner complete with a docking system that offers a simple, practical way to recharge different devices such as laptops, Smartphones, and digital cameras.

However, simply providing the infrastructure is often not enough, as anyone knows who has had problems getting online late at night after checking in. “Hotels are woefully lacking when it comes to tech support”, says Georg Magg, CEO of Integralis AG, a IT security company based in London, Munich and Dubai.

Mack spends about 120 days away from home each year, and he admits that he regularly chooses his hotels based on their ability to ensure that he is always online.

“Tech support is definitely something hotels need to get better with”, Georg Plesser agrees. As director of the Hotel Villa Kennedy in Frankfurt, which is part of the super-luxury chain of hotels run by Britain’s Sir Rocco Forte and was voted “Best Business Hotel in Europe” last year by the readers of CNBC European Business magazine, he makes sure that guests can order up an adapter for every type of digital divide imaginable (each room is equipped with a docking station for the visitor’s iPod).

Like all hotels in his group, the Villa Kennedy has its own resident geek, a trained IT specialist who is on call 24 hours a day. Every member of the front desk staff is required to take a training course in basic IT problem solving.

While the road warrior is on his own most of the time, there are ways that his company or organization can help to solve some of the more vexing issues. One is roaming: Mobile professionals are constantly moving between wired offices, wireless LAN environments, and public networks. Usually, this means he has to stop all active applications, reconfigure the mobile device, establish necessary security, for instance through a VPN, and then restart the applications.
So as business professionals increasingly take to the road, efforts are under way to make the “work anywhere” experience more agreeable – and more productive.

Build them an oasis, and Techno-Bedouins will feel right at home.

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