Spend enough time in the company of futurologists and tech gurus and one could easily come to believe that the hotel room as we know it will be unrecognisable within the next couple of years. Robot butlers, electronic dream monitoring, green screen retailing, virtual furnishings; one is bombarded with new ideas that feel more suited to a sci-fi movie than a five-star hotel.

But, if one looks to the past in order to better predict the future, reality promises to be somewhat more mundane. We have just lived through a decade of phenomenal technological advancement, but the typical guest room has remained largely unchanged. The television might be a little larger, touch screen panels are becoming more common place perhaps, but the real transformation has been somewhat subtler than your average blockbuster director would demand. In fact, the most high-tech feature is now the guest themselves.

"We’ve seen a significant shift in the market," begins Monika Nerger, CIO of Mandarin Oriental. "Normally, we’d look at what the guest has in their own home and meet or potentially exceed that, but we’re seeing the inverse. Our customers are now driving the trends. They’re bringing advanced tech, gaming equipment and Wi-Fi-enabled devices with them. So, we need to look at the in-room technology differently."

In the past, hotel room technology was far more sophisticated than the gadgetry people had in their homes. For example, properties had pay-per-view movies in hotel rooms decades before on-demand TV was broadly available. But with gadgets evolving at a rapid pace, it has become increasingly difficult for owners and operators to know when and how to incorporate the latest technology.

"According to a Hotels.com survey last year, just 11% of guests are now willing to pay for wireless when staying at a hotel."

Ingvar Herland is general research manager of Peninsula Hotels, where he runs the group’s electronic service department laboratory. Peninsula is the only company with its own R&D facilities dedicated to designing and building in-room technology.

"Your home is your reference, but developments are moving so quickly," says Herland. "Now we have 3D in the home. Guests are expecting at least the same type of technology and quality level that they have in their own house. That’s quite a big challenge."

Nerger agrees and explains that keeping abreast of leading-edge technology is a difficult thing to pull off.

"It would be impossible to stay current with investments required to match consumer electronic innovation such as 3D TVs," she notes. "People are changing technology so rapidly; if you look at the life of a smartphone, it is sometimes reduced to a year, while televisions, which we used to deploy for ten years, are now obsolete in three."

Online, all the time

Fast and free internet access remains a priority for guests. According to a Hotels.com survey last year, just 11% of guests are now willing to pay for wireless when staying at a hotel, and 34% say free Wi-Fi is their biggest priority when choosing a hotel, whether they are travelling for business or leisure.

"Wireless usage has been going up 10-20% every year," notes Vineet Gupta, senior VP, technology, Fairmont Hotels and Resorts. "Over the last couple of years, it has really shot up. High-speed internet is still one of the most important features in a guest room. People start getting annoyed if it’s not available; the guest is definitely demanding it."

Nerger adds that guests expect to be able to connect to the internet for free, and to have an excellent experience when they do so.

"Mandarin Oriental has invested significantly in this," Nerger says. "We are increasing our Wi-Fi infrastructure and bandwidth, making sure that it’s seamless."

Owners and operators are also more concerned that devices are user-friendly. In the consumer world, ease of use is now a key factor as the public is faced with internet-enabled televisions, iPod docking stations and other gadgets.

"In a way, the hotel room has to be quite conservative because, today, there is a big difference between normal technology in society and the technology put in the room with respect to the user," explains Herland. "The devices need to be intuitive and easy to use because you can’t have a person staying one or two nights in a hotel spending a lot of time trying to understand how something works."

Nerger agrees that it’s vital that in-room technology is not confusing.

"This is fundamental and I think devices such as the iPhone and the iPad have demonstrated exactly that," she notes. "Within the hospitality industry, in an attempt to deliver lots of technology and innovation into the hotel room, there has been a piece that is missing, which is the simplicity. This is important, especially given our global traveller; putting a list of instructions in a certain language is not a good way to deploy technology."

Glitch in the matrix

This shift in guests’ relationship with technology has resulted in innovations such as connectivity panels built into furniture and controls appearing in bathrooms. But while a relaxing and restful experience is still the key objective of any room, technology is becoming a key consideration for interior designers.

"This shift in guests’ relationship with technology has resulted in innovations such as connectivity panels built into furniture and controls appearing in bathrooms."

"We are trying to put in discreet technologies," says Gupta. "For example, in some of our newer hotels, we may have TVs behind the mirror in the bathroom, which makes the room very modern. It’s not technology in your face."

Nerger adds: "We look at a television as an artistic opportunity from a design perspective – to put in a beautiful piece of glass and then enable our guests to wirelessely connect their devices. They are looking for something that looks great and offers a quality experience."

While there are clearly risks to investing in new technology, there are rewards as well. The second-largest controllable cost is energy, and most of that is used is the guest room. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, US hotels spend well over $4 billion on energy every year. But, by investing in intelligent technologies for energy management, this can be cut drastically.

"The available technology represents a definite advantage for hotels looking to meet increasingly stringent sustainability standards," notes Herland. "Every year, we try to reduce the amount of power by a percentage. It’s having an impact on the earnings of the hotel because we are saving power and therefore payments. So, as power becomes even more expensive, it’s a motivation for the hotel."

Gupta explains that some years ago Fairmont introduced ‘Green IT’ into its environmentally friendly programme.

"Eco is definitely on everybody’s mind," he says. "We are focused on such initiatives and started to collect data more efficiently. I think this is a real opportunity for hotels and guests. Customers want efficiency, and it’s something the hotels can market. Clearly, it’s a win-win situation."

While analysts and futurologists are predicting what guests are likely to experience in hotels rooms in years to come, Herland concludes that visions of a hovering bed and a ‘dream creator’ are off key.

"What’s the future of technology in the hotel room? If you could tell me that, my life would be a lot easier," he says with a wry chuckle.

As owners and operators compete to offer the most-advanced, user-friendly systems, while at the same time considering their hotel interiors, the future is still unclear. With the promise of energy savings for hoteliers, fusing design and sustainability to create high-tech solutions is certainly an attractive prospect. The boundaries of what we can expect within the hotel room are likely to be pushed even further.