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Tue 14 Jul 2009 04:00 AM

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Room for improvement

Viability director Guy Wilkinson meets an expert to find out how much energy could be saved by hotel rooms.

Room for improvement

In the hotel sector, one of the world's leading suppliers of Energy Management Systems (EMS) is New York-based Transbeam, which has recently set up a joint venture called Transbeam PMG in Sharjah.

According to managing director, Eric Kashi, EMS uses software to shut off or reduce the level of air-conditioning, heating and lighting in a guest room when it's unoccupied to save energy. Controlled by motion and/or door sensors, the system can be set at different levels according to the level of activity in the room.

"When the room is completely unoccupied or ‘unchecked-in', it uses no energy at all," explains Kashi. "When it is checked-in, but housekeeping staff are in the room, then a minimal level of a/c and lighting can be used. When it is checked-in but unoccupied, the system also has set limits. Finally, when the room is both checked-in and occupied, the guest can do what he/she wants."

Cleverly, guests' preferences regarding temperature settings can be recorded via an interface to the hotel's main check-in desk and Property Management System (PMS).

This allows chains, for example, to utilise such information as part of their guest-loyalty programme and to cool or heat rooms to a guest's taste at any other hotel in the world.

By accessing what Kashi calls the ‘common brain' of their properties, GMs can obtain information about room temperatures from anywhere in the world and send maintenance engineers to remedy problems.

"EMS converts standard guest rooms into ‘smart rooms'," comments Kashi.

"You are not only creating efficiencies and savings for the hotel owner, but also brand loyalty for the operator, as well as good PR for both in terms of demonstrating that they are supporters of the green movement."

EMS is good for guest rooms, but apparently not as effective in public areas where it is more difficult to predict when they will be occupied. Transbeam recommends the use of LED (light emitting diode) lighting, which consumes far less energy even than the low-voltage bulbs that are increasingly used in Gulf hotels.

EMS can reportedly save between 15 to 25% of the energy in a room. The actual cost of electricity varies between countries, but as a rule of thumb, the installation of EMS itself costs relatively little - between US$500 and $800 per key - and typically pays itself back in five to six years, meaning that after that, all savings go to the bottom line.

Since becoming established in Sharjah late last year, Kashi has found that Gulf hotel owners and developers are just beginning to learn about these new technologies. "They've heard the catch phrases, but there's still a learning curve."

But multiple initiatives across the region like last January's announcement by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of UAE and Ruler of Dubai, that all future buildings in Dubai should conform to the US Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, for example, have already made the acquisition of such knowledge increasingly urgent.

The benefits of energy saving, especially in this region's desert climate, are becoming much better understood, according to Kashi, but there is always a tussle between the interests of the owner and the operator, particularly when it comes to the initial investment. "The owner wants the lowest cost up-front, while the operator wants the lowest cost of operations," says Kashi. "There has to be some give and take."

Finally, it is reassuring to know this fast-spoken IT ‘guru' is aware that not everyone is able to grasp the benefits of technology as fast as he. All systems recommended by his company have to pass the so-called ‘grandma' test. "If my grandma stays in a hotel room, she should be able to turn the temperature up or down either via a thermostat on the wall or by using a digital device."

In other words, the old big-bottomed arrow switch is still there, even if in some cases you can also adjust the a/c using your telephone.

"We want guests to be able to figure out the technology in 30 to 60 seconds," claims Kashi. If it takes any longer, guests can be very embarrassed to ask staff how to work the gadgets and this can literally be a reason not to check in at a hotel. If they do need to ask, the system is not designed properly."

Guy Wilkinson is a director of Viability, a hospitality and property consulting firm in Dubai. For more information email: guy@viability.ae .

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