For local real estate developer Rob Lauer, eHotel, Inc. started as just another deal.
Lauer, 30, had been buying and redeveloping for almost a decade when he first came across a building at 12th Avenue and A Street Downtown.
But now, more than a year later, Lauer has held onto the 15,000-square-foot building and has become the proprietor of a $6 million high-tech hotel project targeted for the business traveler.
“What we’ve tried to do is take ‘brick and click’ to a new level,” he said.
When completed, each of the hotel’s 70 rooms will feature a fully functional office , digital, direct phone lines, copiers, fax machines, and a desktop computer from Dell Computer Corp. There will also be a Microsoft certified technician on-call for what the hotel calls “digital concierge service.”
The eHotel is in the midst of a soft launch, and Lauer expects to hold a grand opening in late May.
Besides the office equipment in each room, guests also have access to a combined cell phone and palm pilot organizer.
Lauer plans to pay for the technology by selling advertising on the in-room computers’ home page and the cell phones’ first screens, he said.
The hotel will likely become a platform for a technology services company Lauer hopes to create, he said. He’s struck a deal to sell Dell products, such as computers, software and cell phones, Lauer said. The eHotel will house the first retail store in the country to sell Dell computers. Dell installed the company’s computers in the hotel, he said.
Lauer also hopes to develop the hotel’s tekkie comforts. For instance, his vision is to make checking into a room as simple as being welcomed by the valet parking team.
He wants to have the room assignments E-mailed to customers on the day they’re scheduled to arrive. The guests would present a copy and proper identification to the valet, who would hand out the room keys.
For now, the hotel’s working on a business card check-in system. When customers come in, they can have their card scanned , a two-minute process, Lauer said.
Lauer’s prototype has had an enthusiastic response from the hospitality industry. Two hotel chains have approached him about franchising the eHotel concept, but he plans to keep the company with headquarters in San Diego.
“I enjoy living here, and I don’t have any interest in living anywhere else,” said Lauer, the company’s president and CEO.
Lauer explains the eHotel’s roots.
“This started out, really, as nothing more than another real estate deal for me,” he said. “I bought the building with the intention of converting it back to its original use as a hotel.”
– Frustrated By
While speaking to different franchises, he had done a lot of traveling and repeatedly became frustrated by hotels’ approaches to technology.
Fax machines were rarely available and when they were, there was often a $2-per-page charge. Access to data plugs for the Internet could cost as much as $5 for 20 minutes.
“I thought it was ridiculous,” Lauer recalled.
He looked at the business travel market and the affordability of office equipment. “I thought it (office technology and Internet access) should be an included service, and I would be willing to pay a few dollars more for the room if it was included in the cost. And that’s how I came up with the idea.”
The rates for the three types of rooms depend on amenities. A suite with its own conference area costs $250, a suite with an attached office costs $180 and the standard single room, which has an office, costs $159.
Access to the Internet and the office equipment is included in the eHotel’s rates, Lauer said.
– Guests Expected
To Use Systems
He’s betting that guests, even those who arrive with their own laptops, will try out the eHotel’s technology during their stays and will want to buy similar systems.
There will be deals such as getting a credit for a free night’s stay at the eHotel when buying a cell phone from it.
Lauer also is developing the hotel as a computer training facility, he said.
He plans to take the brand to other business-center cities, such as the Silicon Valley, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
Upgrading the building cost Lauer $2 million, and the technology cost $300,000. He used his own resources and other enrolled investors to establish the hotel, Lauer said. He wants to take the company public next January.
He doesn’t have to worry about profits yet. By simply fixing up the building, he’s increased the site’s value to the point that it makes a good real estate deal no matter what, he explained. He calls the deal a no-brainer.
– Optimistic About
Taking A Risk
Lauer feels good about the risk he’s taken. “We’re willing to try new things here,” he said. “Some are going to work and some aren’t, but I feel comfortable trying new things and trying to use technology to speed things up.”
Lauer’s to-do list for the hotel includes a new elevator and a coffee stand for the rooftop deck. He might add a Jacuzzi, and also plans to convert a Victorian building on the same block into a restaurant.
About 15 people have been hired so far, and Lauer expects to hire five more by the time the hotel is fully operational.
His approach to the hotel is almost philosophical: mingling technology and a human touch. For instance, the hotel’s staff doesn’t use voice mail. “To be technology oriented does not mean you have to forget about people,” Lauer said.