Valamar and Cisco: Creating Unforgettable Guest Experiences Through Wi-Fi

CISCO

In today's hospitality industry, it isn't enough to just give someone an amazing place to stay. At this point, anyone can do that.


What you truly need to do is focus on creating something more than that—an amazing guest experience in every sense of the term. A hotel or resort is more than just a place for people to stay in between sightseeing adventures or to unwind by the pool on a warm afternoon, sipping a drink with a little umbrella in it. 


I work for Valamar, which holds the distinction of being the largest hotel company in all of Croatia. We have 33 hotels and resorts, 15 camping resorts, and had 6.2 million overnight stays in 2017 alone. That number is a significant 20% increase from 2016, which means we must be doing something right.


But then again, we could always be doing something better, too.

They Told, We Listened

There are a wide range of different factors that all go into creating an exceptional experience for our guests. In an effort to generate new insights to improve the overall guest experience, we continuously survey all our guests and ask them what we could do better. We want to understand the guests’ version of a perfect experience. We want to hear it from them, taking the knowledge they provide and turning it into action whenever possible.

In the hospitality industry, technology is becoming one of the most valuable tools to create better guest experiences. #ciscogateway


Unsurprisingly, one of the themes that ran throughout all of our guest feedback  was to improve Wi-Fi. When guests were asked to list the service qualities they felt could be improved, time and again Wi-Fi found its way right to the top. People want to be connected wherever they go, without exception. Even if their goal is to relax, they want to check in with friends and family members back home, or touch base with the office. It's part of what helps generate the peace of mind they need to actually enjoy their trip in the first place.


Taking a look back into the past, it became obvious our Wi-Fi services weren't where they needed to be. People experienced slow or dropped connections and, sooner or later, they started asking about it. We recognized that especially in the age of mobile devices, excellent Wi-Fi was an industry trend that was only going to get more important as time went on. Based on that, we went through a number of efforts to try to improve connectivity across the board.


Unfortunately, that quickly proved to be a lot easier said than done.

The Myth of the "One-Size-Fits-All" Approach

At the beginning of this process, we attempted to develop our own Wi-Fi solution and system in-house. Sadly, we quickly realized this was far too big a project for the resources we had access to.


Part of the problem is there are a large number of factors that dictate the quality of our Wi-Fi networks. When you're in a hotel, for example, all of the elements that might be working against you are fixed, making it easier to address them. You have walls, you have furniture—it’s predictable. They're all put in certain places and, for the most part, they don't move around. 


Campsites, on the other hand, are a completely different story. At the beginning of every season, we always perform a screening of certain areas to help better arrange access points. We take a look at the layout, the architecture of the system, and address any challenges that are visible. But these environments are always in flux. When we perform our assessment in the spring, even the vegetation is dramatically different than it will be during the busy summer season. Trees that don't have leaves aren't necessarily a Wi-Fi obstacle. Trees that do, are.


Likewise, think about how the needs of the guests themselves frequently change. One week on a particular beach you have a tent, which is a low object that poses no Wi-Fi issues. The next week you might have a trailer, which is very large and made of metal, which will instantly begin to affect how a Wi-Fi signal interacts with that space.


Even if you return to the example of hotels, every property has its own unique infrastructure you have to deal with. Sure, the fixtures in Site A and Site B don't move, but the makeup of each space is uniquely different to begin with. This made coming up with some type of one-size-fits-all solution to Wi-Fi deployment not only difficult, but impossible. If we had 33 different hotels, it became clear early on this would require 33 different solutions to the same problem.


As I mentioned earlier, when we first set out to tackle this problem we tried to take things into our own hands and perform everything in-house using Ruckus. But as you can now see, we quickly realized this was far too big of a project given our resources.


All told, we would be increasing our company's level of investment in Wi-Fi connectivity by a massive 851%. We would be doubling down on one of the core elements used to create exceptional experiences for every one of the millions of guests we were responsible for every year. We couldn’t afford to get this wrong.


As we approached a solution to this problem, we also had to think about more than just guests. An additional concern was our 6,000+ employees who also needed to use the Wi-Fi network at these locations. All of our housekeeping employees use a particular mobile solution every day. Employees need to stay in constant communication with the head office along with heads of departments. Maintenance teams need real-time data about the location of problems. All of this adds up.

  

The silver lining was that we typically saw about ten times the number of guests as we have employees. We knew we could satisfy both if we focused on the guests, but again, the consequences of getting this wrong were far too large—failure was not an option—and this guided our approach from the beginning.

Modern-Day Problems Demand Modern-Day Solutions

During our initial RFP process, we looked for a complete solution to meet our requirements. It needed to have everything for our access points, offering 100% Wi-Fi coverage to every square inch of our locations, no exceptions. It would need to include switches along with central controllers to manage the entire system.


The quality of the Wi-Fi solution, from our point of view, depends on two factors. First, we need to have a good Wi-Fi signal in all of the areas we want to cover. Then, we need to have the bandwidth necessary to support not only a major number of users, but also fluctuations in their needs. 

Wi-Fi coverage and bandwidth go hand in hand. Your organization can’t afford to compromise on either. #ciscogateway


If you only have one of these two elements, the end result will be insufficient. With too few access points, there is zero chance all users would be able to connect to Wi-Fi, regardless of how much bandwidth you possess. If you have too little bandwidth, your users will grow frustrated. We needed both, not one or the other. 


In the end, we chose Croatian Telecom and Cisco as partner for this project. Partially because they were able to handle everything I outlined above including switches, access points, and central controllers. But also because they offered the best level of support on an ongoing basis—thus exponentially increasing our chances of long-term success.

Now We’re Covered

In Cisco and their partners, we've found the complete solution. For the Wi-Fi side of the project, we're working with Combis who is a Cisco gold partner owned by Croatian Telecom. They're handling all technical operations regarding Cisco implementation as well as maintenance and support.


The combination of Cisco and their partners not only offered Wi-Fi, but also wired solutions and interconnectivity—all in one complete bundle. At the outset, the number of access points we needed was estimated at up to 6,000, and the total number of concurrent clients we needed to support was up to 60,000. This required a throughput between 30 and 40 Gbps.


In addition to those main parameters, there were also other decisions that influenced the types of switches, the types of site interconnections, and other resources we needed. Our high-level design was ultimately defined by way of a central data center site, where all central components were situated based on Cisco UCS C220-M4 servers and IBM storage. All of our remote locations—those campsites, for example—are connected to the central site over L2 provider VPN. Internet access for guests, of course, would be provided from that central site.


All told, we obtained a number of critical products from Cisco, including the WLC 8540 in redundant mode, indoor access points like the 1810W, the 1815W, the 1832l and the 1852l, outdoor access points like the 1542l, and more. We also used distribution and aggregation switches Catalyst 3850X and 3850, along with access switches SG55OX and SG350. All access points were configured in FlexConnect mode to offload WLC, thus going a long way toward avoiding the types of bottlenecks we were likely to encounter.


At the same time, the Cisco Prime Infrastructure was also implemented—a solution that would prove to aid in our long-term success. Thanks to Cisco Prime, we have access to a huge volume of insight that would have otherwise gone undiscovered. We now have better visibility into incidents on equipment, for example, and can receive immediate alerts via email if something goes wrong. We know more about why issues with Wi-Fi radio signals happen. We can even see why network congestion occurs to take steps to avoid it in the future.

Greater network insights = a proactive IT department. #ciscogateway


In addition to being used as a way to provide all Valamar guests with a pure Wi-Fi connection, we're also in a better position now to take steps to improve our infrastructure in the future. We've decided to pursue Cisco CMX licenses, for example, to build the foundation for future developments. 


As we improve our architecture, CMX will allow us to see the impact on guests in real time. All of this will help us drive a more personal approach to our operations, both in improving our business services and through more specific, highly targeted marketing campaigns.

Let the Guest Experience Be Your Guide

When I look back at how far we've come, it's truly incredible to think about what we've accomplished in a short amount of time. In 2016, we had roughly 1,500 access points. We're now at over 6,000 and, based on the insight we've been able to glean, will be at more than 7,000 by the end of 2019. We can now support up to 60,000 concurrent clients and devices at any one time—something that would have been unthinkable just two years ago.


The path to this point was a long one, and it was rarely ever easy. But it was a necessity to support our guests. When you come to a Valamar resort, you both expect and deserve nothing but the best. As time marches on, Wi-Fi is becoming more than just another service in the hospitality industry. It's a cornerstone of the experience we're able to offer. It's how you make the most of your stay, even if you're only here for a couple of days. Any step that is required to create great guest experiences is, for my money, a step worth taking.