Computers keep tabs on minibar usage in hotel rooms

By Stacey Hirsh

The Baltimore Sun

A hotel guest takes a beer from the minibar, and the front desk knows instantly.

How? A computer told.

Hotels in cities including New York, Las Vegas and Paris are using the technology to track what guests take from the minibar and which rooms need the fridge restocked.

Bartech Systems International, a Millersville, Md.-based company that developed the minibars, predicts that the technology will eventually drive down the price of, say, a beer or a bag of peanuts for consumers because a minibar saves a hotel money.

Here’s how it works: Microswitches and infrared beams inside the minibar read when an item is lifted off the shelf and send an instant message to the front desk, via a small computer hidden in the bar.

"We call it the intelligent room, and that’s the brain," Daniel Cohen, Bartech president and chief executive officer, said of the computer.

The minibars, or e-fridges as Bartech calls them, have already made their way into tens of thousands of hotel rooms. Bartech’s products incorporate one of the many smart technologies in the works or on the horizon.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Auto-ID Center, for instance, is developing a system where smart tags (microchips as small as a speck of dust on tiny antennas) would be on commercial products, and tiny radio antennas on supermarket shelves or residential refrigerators could read the smart tags. About 40 companies — including Procter &Gamble Co. and Kraft Foods Inc. — sponsor the project, but the technology is at least a decade away from consumers’ fingertips, said Kevin Ashton, the center’s executive director.

"Maybe one day, you won’t need to take all your stuff out of the shopping cart and line up and do all that stuff because the chips will be talking to the shopping cart," Ashton said. Then, you could simply swipe your credit card through something in the store without going to the register.

California-based Alien Technology Corp., which makes the tiny computer chips that MIT’s Auto-ID Center is using for the project, also makes display screens for smart cards.

The display screen could show, for instance, how much money a person has on his card or the last thing paid for with the card, said Jeffrey Jacobsen, Alien’s president and chief executive officer. Jacobsen said such cards are already being used overseas and are a year or two away from coming to the United States.

Bartech’s e-fridges are already standard in Europe, Cohen said. The first one was installed in Geneva in 1989, according to the company.

Today, the e-fridges are in 70,000 rooms worldwide — 13,000 in the United States, all of them in four- and five-star hotels. Cohen said the company, which had revenue of $15 million last year, expects to install at least another 20,000 minibars this year and 40,000 next year. The minibars sell for about $900 each, which includes software, installation and training for employees.

Philippe Striffeler, food and beverage director for Hotel Nikko in San Francisco, said the minibars have saved his hotel time and money. Before, someone had to go in and check minibars in all 533 rooms in the hotel. Now, the hotel knows beforehand exactly which rooms need to be restocked, so they require fewer workers to make the rounds.

Also, Striffeler said monitoring the minibar by computer makes it easier to keep guests from taking an item from the fridge and then denying they did it.

"From our end, one of the best things about Bartech is we can see if they take it or not," he said.

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