Many frequent travelers have experienced this situation: After a long day of meetings, you return to your hotel room, pull out your laptop, and decide to check your e-mail. You plug in your modem and dial in, then turn on the TV or pull out a book while you wait the 30 minutes it takes for mail to synchronize.

Fortunately, this situation may be resolved thanks to some new innovations in “hospitality technology.” Several network providers and national hotel chains are working to provide high-speed Internet services right in your hotel room.

There are several competing approaches to providing this service today. Interestingly, most of the major hotel chains seem to be hedging their bets right now, trying several different approaches in different markets.

With proper equipment and preparation, you can be just as productive on the road as you are in your office. In fact, I am more productive, since my phone isn’t ringing off the hook. For example, I wrote this column while connected to in-room Internet service from Darwin Networks.

In-room Ethernet port
One approach is to put an Ethernet jack in the hotel room. To use it, you connect the Ethernet card in your laptop to the jack, turn on the PC, and start working. There may be some simple setup instructions provided, but these services are basically plug-and-go.

All of the services I have encountered have had a 24-hour help line with live(!) customer service reps in case you run into any trouble. The most difficult problem is disabling your proxy settings if your company has a proxy server or firewall, but even this is outlined for you in step-by-step fashion. You can expect high-speed T-1 connections, or 1.54 MBps—roughly 30 times faster than your 56K modem.

The network jack is typically located at the desk, if there is one. However, I have found in some hotels that the port isn’t always in a logical place.

For example, you might have to plug in to the port on the bedside table and work sitting on the bed. Not too bad for short things like checking e-mail, but pure torture if you have to do a lot of work online.

The cost for this service typically ranges from $8.00 to $14.00 a day, depending on the market and the hotel. You can either pay for the service by secure credit card transaction or have the service billed to your room, although the latter option is not available at all locations.

I’ve used this service a number of times and find it by far the best way to work on the road, if you travel with your laptop. To use this service, however, you must remember to take your network card with you when you travel.

Keep in mind that right now, there are relatively few hotels offering this service (less than two percent of the market). If you value this service, you should check the Web sites of the two largest players in this market: Darwin Networks and CAIS Internet. Both offer tools on their Web sites that allow you to search for equipped hotels by city. Hilton, Holiday Inn, and Carlson are among the major chains that have implemented this approach in some of their hotels.

In-room computers
Some high-end hotels are also experimenting with providing a computer in the room, which offers the obvious advantage of being preconfigured. You just sit down and begin working.

On the surface, this looks like a pretty good option. But unless all of your work is Web-based, you are missing your e-mail client and all the files on your hard drive.

I won’t use in-room computers at all—I prefer to use my laptop with a modem connection. If you like to travel light, however, you might find the hotel computers useful, especially if you are accessing applications via the Internet, like a customer resource management (CRM) program via an ASP.

Video-based Internet
SpectraVision and LodgeNet, both industry leaders in hotel pay-per-view movies, are working on high-speed Internet options similar to WebTV. Basically, your room would have a wireless keyboard, and you could surf the Net via your hotel room television (for a fee, of course).

Expect to see this option rolled out aggressively in the next few years. The disadvantages are similar to the ones I mentioned for in-room computers. But as long as your work is Web-based, this option should work well.

Business centers
Many hotels that cater to business travelers offer business centers. These are full-service work areas that are typically equipped with telephones, fax machines, Internet kiosks, and sometimes, high-speed Internet access. Some hotels charge for these services, while others do not. Make sure you check the charges. I have paid as much as $2.00 per page for sending and receiving faxes, but if the message absolutely must get through, this can be a real benefit.
If you travel frequently, do you ever find an Ethernet port in your hotel room? Have you used business centers in certain hotel chains? Tell us about them. Send your travel advice in an e-mail or start a discussion below.