Technology gives The Peninsula a jolt in competitive Chicago hotel market
I've never felt more wired, yet more relaxed than I did on a recent trip to Chicago, where my hotel room was more technologically advanced than any I've ever experienced.
That's because The Peninsula Chicago, 108 E. Superior St. – already known as a luxury refuge for business and leisure travelers arriving in the Windy City – has upped the ante when it comes to technology.
The features and upgrades are so integrated and encompassing in the room that it's difficult to know where to start.
There's free local and international calling and wi-fi. Tablets allow guests to control lights, ventilation, televisions and more, as well as offering weather and other updates, restaurant menus and city information, guest services, concierge and housekeeping connections, airport information, and an incredible press reader with free access to more than 2,000 newspapers and magazines from around the globe.
The system also integrates the panels that have replaced light switches throughout.
Bedside tables are equipped a tablet, too, as well as an array of chargers for every device you can imagine.
There's a fax machine and printer in the desk drawer. A panel in the TV stand allows guests to connect devices to the big screen with slots for four kinds of memory cards, USB and HDMI jacks, and audio, video and VGA inputs.
Pull out the drawer under the television and there's a docking station that allows guests to connect iPhones, iPads and Android devices to the big screen.
Listen to music, watch your videos or photos, or business travelers can work on reports and other projects, too.
The entire system is easily toggled between 11 languages.
"Technology is a big part of our company"
The proprietary system was state of the art when it was introduced at Peninsula hotels in Beijing, Paris and Beverly Hills. But Chicago's Peninsula has the latest version of it, making it potentially the most "wired" hotel in the world at the moment.
"Technology is a big part of our company," says hotel manager Richard Sorensen. "Our hotels have always, or at least for a very long time, had a proprietary low-voltage system in them. We felt the last system was dated and we wanted to bring the latest and greatest to our property. (So) we went and asked for it from our corporate offices.
"I think there are some other hotels with tablets in them but nothing with the type of control that you get in our rooms from the HVAC, to the lighting, the television, the room service menu, that's very, very comprehensive."
The Peninsula – located on the Magnificent Mile, across from the Water Tower – has been installing the new technology in rooms since it began renovating rooms a few months ago, and the results, says Sorensen, has been drawing comments from guests.
"We get a lot of comments from our guests through social media, emails and written notes, but I can't even think of a single negative comment," Sorensen says. "What's coming through in social media is just that they love the technology. I think many of us thought our older clients might find it difficult, but we're really not receiving any feedback that indicates that.
"I think this technology brings hotels back to the point where you have something that you don't necessarily have at home anymore. Big screen TVs, big marble bathrooms and all these things are pretty commonplace now. We all have them at home. But with this technology, it's not something that is widespread yet. It's really a wow factor for the vast majority, I think. It's very special.
The docking station is the latest addition to the system, says Peninsula spokesperson Susan Ellefson.
"That actually takes us to the next level," she says. "Our property in Hong Kong renovated with this same technology a couple of years ago and then when our Paris property opened they had that same technology. But that docking station is new. The Paris and Hong Kong properties don't have that. It's another nice component."
Sorensen is also enthusiastic about the docking station, which – like the other features – is easy to use, unlike similar devices that have sometimes confounded me at other hotels.
"It's very intuitive," he says. "You basically just plug it in and it works and it shows whatever is on your phone, whether it's your photographs, whatever you want to watch on YouTube or Netflix, or anything like that. It's really easy to use and, with the beautiful large TVs, it's a really, really, I think, accessible and fun feature."
I found that even the less flashy aspects – like the plethora of chargers in the bedside tables – made life simpler during my stay, saving me the usual chase for the right chargers for my assortment of electronics.
"I have to say, as good a traveler as I am, I've been frustrated many times when I've forgotten a cable or a charger," Sorensen agrees. "And those things aren't cheap. To have to go out and purchase one for $30 is frustrating and annoying. When it's all there for you I think it just demonstrates how well thought-out the rooms are for the traveler."
A new look
The technology updates are just one facet of the room renovations currently underway at The Peninsula Chicago.
According to Ellefson, the work is being undertaken during the first quarter, which is traditionally a slower time for the hospitality industry in Chicago. Three floors have been renovated and the work to update 331 of the hotel's 339 rooms – including 79 suites – is expected to be complete by the beginning of April. It takes roughly nine to 10 weeks to complete the renovation of a floor.
The new look is the work of designer Bill Rooney and it feels both traditionally classy and sleekly contemporary at the same time, thanks to a mix of fine wood finishes, leather and attractive fabrics.
"When this hotel opened (in 2001), we were considered very contemporary and the other hotels were traditional," says Sorensen. "I think we were starting to look not so contemporary anymore."
Sorensen says the changes, especially a smarter utilization of space, have helped open up the rooms, allowing for a dining table, a desk, a vanity and other seating even in the standard-size guest rooms, which have large picture windows offering views of the city.
One especially striking element is the floral fabric art wall, created by artist David Qian. The wall features the chrysanthemum, which is not only Chicago's official flower, but also one of the four noble flowers of Asia, the birthplace of The Peninsula.
"I don't think there's anything else like it," Sorensen says. "It's very unique and very dramatic."
The warm blue tones and some design elements, especially in the fabrics, adds Ellefson, are Rooney's nods to Chicago, from its position as a city on water to Frank Lloyd Wright's influence in area architecture.
"The blues really are a nod to the Chicago River and Lake Michigan," she says. "That's such an important component to the city of Chicago. There is a very subtle wave pattern (in the linens) also in white. The headboard is a textured fabric, there's a beautiful wave pattern in the marble on the backsplash area of the desk, there's a horizontal pattern in the dark wood, which is a nod to Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Prairie Style. So there's a lot of really interesting components to Chicago and components to the high-end, luxury residences."
The combination of a new extreme tech focus and a smart new look position The Peninsula well in the Chicago hospitality market, which is both crowded and extremely competitive.
"I'm very confident of that," says Sorensen. "We've always been known for our service and our beautiful location. Now, I think, (we've) really raised the bar."
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