RealTime IT News

PrintMe for Hotels

As vice president and research director of wireless services at research firm Current Analysis, Eddie Hold logs more hotel time these days than he would like to admit. Like all savvy travelers, he's got a peeve or two.

"One of the irritating things about traveling is that occasionally you realize you need to print something out, and it is a pain in the butt to do it," Hold says. "If somebody could provide a simplified way of printing, that would be great."

Good news, Eddie.

Based in Foster City, Calif., the five-year-old firm EFI PrintMe is touting an Internet-based solution that it says can vastly improve the printing situation for hotel guests.

The hotel invested in a PrintMe "station," which hooks up to a printer and makes that printer available via the Internet. Users upload their documents at PrintMe.com and designate them for printing, or they can e-mail their files directly to the PrintMe station to be printed. A unique document ID number enables users to claim their documents from the printer.

The alternative isn't pretty, says Victor Thu, product marketing manager at EFI (Electronics For Imaging).

"When you travel from one hotel to another, people may not have the proper print drivers on their laptop, and the hotel will have to have someone help set it up," Thu says. "They have to find cables to connect the laptop to the printer, and if it is a networked printer, they need to configure the drivers to connect to that printer."

Competitors in the field include PrinterOn, ThinPrint and Net2Printer. So far, PrintMe is claiming a lead position: with over 2,000 locations up and running, Thu says the company owns about 70 percent of the current market.

Success has come, at least in part, through the promise of simplicity. With PC-based printing solutions, "you get patches, you get Windows crashes, you have spyware and software incompatibilities," Thu says. With a freestanding, Internet-driven appliance, on the other hand, "there is no complex setup, no potential for PC-based conflicts and problems."

It looks good on paper, but as analyst Hold points out, the hotel industry has been barraged with hi-tech solutions for the past couple of years, and hoteliers are instinctively wary of any new offerings.

"The biggest challenge for any small company is first of all just getting into any big hotel chain and convincing them that this is a strong solution," Hold says.

In one of its earliest breakthrough efforts, PrintMe in May 2002 got in the door of the Hyatt Regency San Francisco Airport Hotel, a 793-room property catering to business travelers.

Until just recently, guests who wanted to print would have to wait for hotel staff to load print drivers onto their laptops, or else devise work-around solutions to send files from a guest's laptop to the hotel's printer.

The arrival of a PrintMe device took the burden off staff and made it faster and easier for guests to get their documents printed.

PrintMe is priced according to the size of the hotel: a property with 200 to 300 rooms would pay about $2,400 for three years of unlimited printing. While hospitality is very price-conscious as a rule, Thu says his sales team can typically overcome financial objections by positioning the product as an amenity powerful enough to draw new business.

"We encourage them to look at the solution from the customer's point of view," he says. "Probably, management already has a $30,000 printer or copier in the hotel. If you see a need for that, why not also give customers the ability they need to print?"

So far, PrintMe has been targeting the high-end properties that make up about 30 percent of North America's 30,000-plus hotels, and Thu says he foresees staying in that niche for the immediate future.

Looking ahead, Thu says growth lies in relationships with big OEM partners such as Ricoh, Canon and Xerox. These partners are moving to embed PrintMe solutions into their copiers and printers over the next one to two years, which could make it easier for Thu to get a foot in the door of some larger enterprise users. "That is a big plus for us," Thu says, "because it lets us leverage our relationships with these OEMs who are out there pushing these products to enterprise users."