It is an irony of the age that, as connectivity becomes essential, our technological tastes have evolved towards simpler demands. Only a few years ago, futurologist talk of in-room technology revolved around outlandish ideas of virtual reality headsets, electronic dream monitoring and intelligent sleepwear.

The message was escapism, plying guests with gizmos, gadgets and toys to elevate the hotel experience above everyday life. That vision is already starting to look a little dated. Despite phenomenal technological advancement, the typical guest room has remained largely unchanged in a decade.

Television screens might be larger and touch-screen panels rather more commonplace, but the real transformation has been far subtler: the most high-tech feature is now the guest.

Hotel room technology always used to be far more sophisticated than whatever people had at home. For example, properties had pay-per-view movies decades before on-demand TV was widely available.

With day-to-day tech evolving rapidly, however, it has become increasingly challenging for owners and operators to keep up with developments and the guests’ heightened expectations.

Home, sweet home

"Your home is your reference," says Ingvar Herland, general research manager of Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels (the only hotel company with its own R&D facilities for in-room technology), where he runs the group’s electronic service department lab.

"Developments are moving so quickly: now we have 3D at home. Guests are expecting the same type of technology and quality that they have in their own house. That’s a challenge."

In a development that is recognised throughout the industry, the desire to create an impact through technology has been superseded by the need to ensure guest connectivity.

"We’re witnessing a significant shift in the market," begins Monika Nerger, CIO of Mandarin Oriental. "Normally, we’d look at what guests have in their own homes and try to meet, or exceed, that, but we’re seeing the inverse, which is that our customers are driving the trends.

"They are bringing advanced technology – gaming equipment and Wi-Fi-enabled devices – with them, so we need to look at in-room technology differently. It would be impossible to stay current by investing in whatever was required to match consumer electronic innovation, such as 3D TVs. People are changing technology so rapidly; smartphones are replaced annually, while televisions, which used to suffice for a decade, are now obsolete in a couple of years."

Enhancing the use of the mobile and online devices that are already being carried by an increasing number of guests is essential.

"The need for core technology is mounting," says Nerger. "People want this done well. The key is to give guests the ability to view their own content. While the flashy technology is nice, it’s no longer a must-have."

Hotels are focusing on the basics – TVs, sound systems, and easy connectivity with devices and hotel services – and, despite the numerous gizmos available, fast and free internet is the top concern for guests.

"Wireless usage goes up significantly every year," notes Vineet Gupta, senior vice-president of technology at Fairmont Hotels & Resorts. "High-speed internet is still one of the most important features in a guest room: people are now getting annoyed if it’s not available."

Nerger adds that guests expect to be able to connect to the internet for free, and have an excellent experience when they do. "Mandarin Oriental has invested significantly in this," she says. "We are increasing our Wi-Fi infrastructure and bandwidth, making sure that’s it’s seamless."

Confusing the issue

Owners and operators are also increasingly concerned that their devices are user-friendly. When it comes to new technology, it is easy to cross the line from being convenient to confusing.

This is perhaps because consumer technology varies widely and ease of use is becoming ever more important as we are faced with internet-capable televisions, iPod docking stations and a panoply of other gadgets.

"In a way, the hotel room has to be quite conservative, because there is now a big difference between the ‘normal’ technology in society and the sort you’ll find in rooms," says Herland. "Devices must be intuitive and easy to use; you can’t have a person who is staying one or two nights in a hotel spending a lot of that time trying to understand how something works."

Nerger agrees that it is vital that guests are not confused, or overloaded. "Devices such as the iPhone and the iPad have demonstrated exactly that," she says. "Within the hospitality industry, in the rush to introduce lots of technology and innovation into rooms, a piece has been missing, and that is simplicity. This is very important, particularly with regard to global travellers: putting a list of instructions in just one language is not a good way to deploy technology."

Progress has led to 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 has becoming a key consideration for interior designers.

"We are trying to put in discreet technology," says Gupta. "For example, in some newer hotels, we may have TVs behind the mirror in the bathroom, which makes the room very modern."

Nerger adds: "We look at a TV as an artistic opportunity to put in a beautiful piece of glass. As well as looking to connect their devices wirelessly, guests are looking for something that looks great and offers a quality experience."

Future eco

There are clearly risks when investing in new technology, but there are also rewards. The second-largest controllable cost is energy, and most of that is used in the guest room.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, hotels in the country spend close to $4 billion on energy every year, but this can be cut drastically by investing in intelligent technology.

"The available technology represents a definite advantage for hotels looking to meet increasingly stringent sustainability standards," says Herland. "Every year, we try to reduce the amount of power by a percentage. It’s increasing the profitability of the hotel, because we are saving power and therefore payment. As power becomes even more expensive, it’s a motivation."

Gupta explains that Fairmont introduced green IT into its environmentally friendly programme a couple of years ago. "Eco is definitely on everybody’s mind," he says. "We focus on such initiatives and have started to collect data more efficiently: we’ll have a better idea about some of the impacts in 2012.

"However, 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."

Today’s touchstones of efficiency, simplicity and familiarity would probably disappoint the hotel futurologists who promised robo butlers and augmented reality.

However, the scope for creativity and innovation within these fields remains vast, and the hotels that truly know and understand their guests stand to gain the most ground.