Hospitality All-Stars

As these three Enterprise All-Stars prove, the hospitality industry is innovatively integrating state-of-the-art communications into all business areas, from fast-food orders to guest accommodations. Wireless and convergence technologies have become important tools for keeping in contact with customers, even as they roam a service area.

As these three Enterprise All-Stars prove, the hospitality industry is innovatively integrating state-of-the-art communications into all business areas, from fast-food orders to guest accommodations. Wireless and convergence technologies have become important tools for keeping in contact with

Untethered Utopia

West Edmonton Mall turns Wi-Fi into a tourism dream come true.

Offering tourists the largest entertainment and shopping complex in the world wasn't enough for West Edmonton Mall's tech-savvy executives.

Located in Edmonton, Alberta, a former fur-trading post in northwestern Canada, the übermall covers the equivalent of 48 city blocks and is billed as "the greatest indoor show on earth." Each year, 22 million visitors flock to the entertainment mecca's three hotels, eight amusement parks, 21 theaters, 110 restaurants and 800 shops. Boredom is definitely not an option. Fantasyland Hotel guests can choose from Roman, Polynesian and other themed rooms, and World Waterpark thrill seekers can scream down miles of slides that stretch like licorice in a candy factory. On Bourbon Street, it's Mardi Gras every day.

Despite such amenities, managers hankered to develop an unused bit of real estate: thousands of cubic feet of empty airspace. In 2002, they launched a plan to build a wireless network that could be accessed anywhere in the mall. With the help of Siemens Communications, their vision of a secure, end-to-end mobile network is well on its way to becoming reality. Over the past year, the partners have installed the first phase of an 802.11 wireless LAN (WLAN) that has turned West Edmonton Mall into the largest Wi-Fi-enabled entertainment and retail center on the planet. For its above-and-beyond Wi-Fi efforts, West Edmonton Mall earns the distinction of being named a 2005 Enterprise All-Star.

"What we are trying to do is build a community and allow people to connect in that community space," says Joseph Schuldhaus, the mall's vice president of IT.

Conceived as an opportunity to provide staff high-speed wireless Internet services and applications, the project quickly grew into a plan to gain a competitive edge in the mall's three commercial markets: entertainment, hospitality and retail. Motivating managers was the idea that technology has become a pivotal factor in where people decide to work and play.

"We now live in a world where the Internet is always on and always available," Schuldhaus says. "A new breed of location-based tools is emerging that provides connected people with knowledge of services, products and resources that are most convenient to their current location."

West Edmonton Mall’s All-Star project leader Joseph Schuldhaus

Managers wanted a network secure enough for the mall's 16,500 employees to remotely access it from home offices, parking lots and corporate branches. They also wanted to create different user-access policies and applications for multiple types of end users. They looked at several solutions over a three-year period before choosing Siemens' HiPath Wireless portfolio, a centrally deployable WLAN that can be installed over any data or VoIP network. The IT team was sold on HiPath's ability to support VoIP and other real-time applications without requiring users to re-authenticate and re-key as they move around, as well as its Layer 3 overlay architecture, designed for fast, secure roaming.

The $300,000 Wi-Fi network, dubbed WEMiSphere, serves the mall's Fantasyland Hotel, food court and waterpark. Managers expect to roll out 70 more wireless hot spots by next year, bringing the total to 130. The IT team is exploring a real-time video surveillance system for the mall's mobile security force, and is working with Siemens, Dell and HP on tablet PC and PDA products rugged enough to withstand Canadian winters.

Meanwhile, an increase in conference attendees has convinced managers that the network and its competitive pricing plans are drawing new customers. For $10.95, hotel guests can buy 24 hours of network access that enables them to roam from their room to nearby conference rooms and attractions. For about $34.95 a month, tenants get unlimited access for online banking, location-based marketing, and Internet-based services for customers and employees.

"By selecting a wireless platform that is based on open standards, we are better prepared to address any application service," Schuldhaus says. "We expect that our own requirements, as well as those of our tenants, will drive those services."

Based on their projections, mall managers expect to recoup incremental investment costs in less than two years and garner a 120% ROI in 2007 from Wi-Fi access sales and affordable voice-over-Wi-Fi telephony for tenants. The mall's parent company, Triple Five, is weighing a similar installation at the giant Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., which it co-owns.

Response from West Edmonton Mall customers and tenants has been upbeat. A visitor described a VoIP conference call he conducted over a Wi-Fi phone while his children played at the waterpark. An optometrist reported that he conducts business over the network while his wife, with their children and a laptop in tow, takes care of the shop's accounting on the fly at amusement venues. For Schuldhaus, such satisfaction is all part of delivering the services demanded in today's increasingly competitive and digital business world.

"West Edmonton Mall prides itself on giving people a unique shopping experience," he says. "We promise to keep building on that."

Méndez-Wilson is a Denver freelance writer. She can be reached at madre2@qwest.net.

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