Ivan Schwartz, director of consultant relations for audio-solutions provider AtlasIED, talks with host Robin Trimingham about diagnosing and resolving the different types of audio-quality issues found within a hotel’s public spaces and more.
He explains the difference between acoustic building materials and audio equipment and opportunities to leverage new technology. He also offers examples regarding how background music can be used to set the mood in a variety of different areas that can enhance the overall guest experience.
Highlights from Today’s Episode
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Ivan Schwartz: Think about going into a restaurant at 5:30 in the afternoon that’s really quiet and everything. And if you’re there for a few hours, you go through this huge change in sound level and noise, and it’s very helpful if the system can do that instead of having to have a person adjust it.
Robin Trimingham: Welcome to the Innovative Hotelier podcast by HOTELS magazine, with weekly, thought-provoking discussions with the world’s leading hotel and hospitality innovators.
Robin Trimingham: Welcome to the Innovative Hotelier, brought to you by hotels magazine. I’m your host, Robin Trimingham. In the hotel industry, regardless of whether you’re a boutique operator or part of an international brand, one of the most frequent complaints that staff often have to deal with is a noise complaint. And yet, an audio complaint, whether it originates because conference attendees cannot hear a keynote speaker, or there’s excessive ambient noise emanating from the lobby bar, or some sort of a disturbance in a guest room corridor at two in the morning, it’s extremely difficult to recover from because it’s often occurring as a result of a combination of poor soundproofing, as well as a faulty audio system. My guest today, Ivan Schwartz, is the director of consultant relations for AtlasIED, and he’s here to offer insights regarding better understanding common audio issues and how audio technology is changing to enhance the guest experience. Join me now for my conversation with Ivan.
Robin Trimingham: FOH Is a global food service and hospitality company that manufactures smart commercial grade solutions. Headquartered in Miami, the company designs and manufactures all their restaurant and hotel products. They have showrooms and distribution centers located throughout the globe, and their products are always in stock and ready to ship from any of their distribution centers worldwide.
Robin Trimingham: Welcome, Ivan. Thanks so much for taking time to chat with me today.
Ivan Schwartz: Good to meet you here, and thanks for having me online.
Robin Trimingham: I think this is going to be a conversation that’s going to help a lot of hoteliers. I’ve worked for several different hotel organizations myself along the way, and let me tell you, audio issues are, well, I guess, you know, they’re everywhere. I was reading a little bit about your company, and I noticed that Atlas IED has been around for something like 85 years. So, what first got you interested in providing audio solutions for the hotel and hospitality industry?
Ivan Schwartz: Well, I think the AV industry, but our company, has evolved as hotels have evolved. It used to just be very simple background music, paging technology was pretty, pretty low, maybe it was even just radio or music on all the time with a little bit of paging. But then as things have progressed as the what I like to say, the it’s all about the customer experience has progressed, we’ve pulled in more technologies from other parts of the industry and really expanded very heavily into hospitality, and now I’d say the transition from what used to be simple hospitality to advanced gaming environments and casinos and things like that has really just upped the consumer’s expectations of what they want in a hospitality experience.
Robin Trimingham: That’s fascinating that you should mention casinos. I’m not really a gambler, but like most people, I’ve been in a casino and the first thing that hits you after you get over the carpeting is the absolute huge amount of noise and bells and profusion in all different directions. Now that’s an acoustic challenge that’s very easy for just about anybody to appreciate. What are some of the different kinds of acoustic challenges that hoteliers would typically face?
Ivan Schwartz: Well, there’s certainly noise from things going on. You think about your average experience walking into a hotel and, as a traveling businessperson, I spend a lot of time in hotels of all sorts. When you walk in, the lobby is usually a relatively calm experience, and hopefully it’s going to help you relax after your day or two of travel getting there. But then, as you’re going to your room, you might hear all this noise from the lounge area, the bar area where people are maybe watching a football game and getting really excited, or it’s a big group of people meeting and making a lot of noise. I think in general there’s the acoustic issues, which has to do with building materials and possibly acoustical treatment, but then there’s also the fact that you can often use background music and particularly well distributed, good sounding background music to give an even flow and experience. So, as you get into a noisier area, hopefully the music’s a little louder and helping to counter out the noise from the bar and other noise, and it should ideally be a very seamless experience. You get in the elevator and it continues and go down the hallway, and again that’s all part of the experience. Just as you think about interior design, visual colors and textures, I like to think about audio the same way. It really is part of your experience there and it sets the mood for your visit.
Robin Trimingham: So, I guess if we talk about something like the hard the Hard Rock Cafe hotel chain, they have a very distinctive brand that is focused very highly around music, so it’s very easy to understand how they would leverage music to enhance the guest experience. Is there any data available regarding how audio ambience impacts the quality of the guest experience and how much should hoteliers actually be worrying about all of this?
Ivan Schwartz: I think as far as really advanced studies and empirical data, there’s not a whole lot. There’s been a quite a few articles written about it, there’s a lot of subjective information about it. And again, I think it has to also do with cultural trends. As you have younger travelers, they’re more used to having music with them all the time and the music can very much set the tone of the brand. I see that a lot with boutique hotels. Go to Miami Beach, go to boutique hotel. They’re probably playing some kind of downtempo European electronic music, and they’re very much trying to appeal to a certain crowd. In terms of just presenting your brand, I think it can be a great thing in terms of setting the mood for the environment. Is it a real lively place like a Hard Rock, or are you trying to take people and relax them a little more? Is it a resort in the Caribbean and you want the local flavor there? And, so I really think it’s a big part of setting the mood for the brand and for the specific location.
Robin Trimingham: I guess for some -I’m going to say larger properties- you would also want to think about your music in terms of different zones. I’m thinking the music that you want in the spa, that sort of ethereal, zen-like stuff that’s completely different from what you might have around an outdoor pool, isn’t it?
Ivan Schwartz: Yes, exactly. And different pools might have different music. You might have the adult pool versus the family pool. I would say you probably have different programming. The spa is a great example of where you’re really using audio to help set the tone to, to help relax people and get them into that spa experience. And the same with restaurants, too. I’ve been involved with a number of higher-end brands of loudspeaker systems, and we always found that at higher end restaurants, you’re looking at wanting to keep people there. You want them to stay an extra hour and order that extra bottle of wine, the extra round of drinks or whatever. That’s a real part of selling your restaurant experience versus a chain restaurant. They want you in and out quickly. Well, the audio is very different between those two. Some of the places that are more looking to turn people, the audio is almost annoying and there’s been intentional. It’s a fun place to be, but you don’t want to be there for three hours. Versus a place where the audio enhances the experience: it isn’t annoying, it’s enveloping and really good sounding, and makes people want to stay and spend more time there. So, you can say that about all sorts of parts of a hotel, but certainly the pool areas, spa and the flip side is a lounge -and you may have multiple lounges- will have different environments as well, and you might have more kind of a hip, louder experience. If you have a sports bar, you’re going to need it to be quite loud to get the sound over the fans. And so, there’s really quite a bit to designing audio for the specific hotel experience.
Robin Trimingham: Well, you’ve just given us a whole pile of different examples. Can you pick what I’m going to call a typical common problem and tell us how you’d set about problem solving it? Just give us a little bit of an example.
Ivan Schwartz: Okay, sure. A good example is a larger restaurant area where you have a bar. As part of it, you probably have at least one private function room, if not more. And there you’re going to possibly want different audio in the private function rooms like the bar area, where it will be noisier and you want perhaps higher output level of the background music. On the other hand, servers and bartenders need to hear drink orders and they need to be able to communicate with each other. And you don’t want all that spilling over into the restaurant area. And this is a really common situation. And that’s where defining zones within a particular part of the hotel is really important, so that you’re able to have control within there. And, in some cases, like the private function room, maybe you’re using it for a meeting and you want to do a PowerPoint with audio, that sort of thing. So that becomes a totally separate sound system, but it can be also combined with the main system if desired. And that’s really where local and global control of the system comes into play.
Robin Trimingham: And I imagine on that level you’re dealing with a whole different kind of factors operating in combination for lack of the proper technical terms.
Ivan Schwartz: Right.
Robin Trimingham: I’m thinking about a conference center where you have a wedding with a live band in one room, and in the next room there’s some sort of conference dinner with a speaker. You really don’t want the sound traveling back and forth between the walls, do you?
Ivan Schwartz: Right. And in that case, quite often you do have the walls that open up, and sometimes you use it as one very large room, and sometimes you divide it up into two, 3 or 4 smaller rooms. So, the distribution of speakers and such isn’t necessarily different, but the ability to control them in groups and to divide zones and be able to take different sources, whether it be maybe a wireless microphone, or the background music, or a local plug in, or an iPod or computer or something, be able to send it to that particular area and not the other area. And then on top of all that, be able to have paging everywhere if necessary.
Robin Trimingham: That makes sense. Let’s try another example. This one’s actually a real example. One of the properties I was associated had a laneway on the back side of the hotel and they would get complaints that guest rooms were hearing the laundry trucks backing up to the loading dock. Just what you want when you’ve gone on vacation. Talk to us about what your advice would be for solving a problem like that if you’re a boutique operator and you’re not a global brand that has endless resources to redesign everything.
Ivan Schwartz: Sure. Yeah, that’s a difficult one. I mean, that’s getting into building and architectural acoustics, and new construction it’s a whole lot easier than existing construction. But definitely there are acoustical consultants available that specialize in architectural issues like that, and they can be utilized to advise on. It might just be shifting to a different type of window. There’s special windows that have much lower sound transmission, but they can identify what’s causing that. Is it a physical vibration through the building? There’s a lot of different variables there. But I will say to add on to that, it’s one of the most overlooked areas of building design. I think architects and architectural firms are getting much more aware of it. But unless there’s something really obvious, like railroad tracks next door, they might not necessarily think about it quite as much. And it is really a challenge when you might be repurposing an old industrial building into a boutique hotel or just the configuration of it like you mentioned, having loading docks right below some guest rooms. It makes it very challenging, but there are acoustical consultants that are able to identify where the problem is and hopefully come up with some way of mitigating it.
Robin Trimingham: I guess there must be an answer, because I was thinking, when you stay at an airport hotel for the most part, you don’t actually hear the planes, which always just amazes me because the airport’s like a quarter mile away and operating practically 24 hours a day. When I was reading a little more about your company, I noticed you guys were talking about something called an audio distribution network. And I think you’ve alluded to that earlier in our conversation today. Exactly, what is it? How does it work?
Ivan Schwartz: Well, back in the good old days, before everyone had computer networks everywhere. If you wanted to run sound from one point in the building to another, so you wanted to get the electrical signal from one place to another, you had to run cable. And then a lot of cases that was quite difficult, and especially unless you were doing serious renovations, it could get fairly expensive. What has happened with having computer networks or Ethernet networks in pretty much every facility now is we can piggyback on that and basically convert analog audio into digital audio, send it over the existing network or -in the case of a really large facility- its own dedicated network. And the beauty of it is we can pick up anything from anywhere and vice versa. So, think about it as being able to be in your house with a Sonos system, or when you’ve got streaming video, any room you can watch anything, anywhere. And so, this kind of gives us the ability to do that to the sense that -what I mentioned earlier- the paging signal, for example, that can be present anywhere you want it, or if you wanted to -for whatever reason- you could put the same signal everywhere. Let’s say a good example would be like a luau at a Hawaiian resort, and there’s live entertainment going. Someone’s mixing that on a local sound system, but they could send a feed into the hotel, and it could go to wherever you want it to go. So, using a lot of technology and I’m a big fan of this, there’s a ton of new technology out, but the key is to make it really simple for the users to operate. And so, it’s really all about the designers, whether it be a consultant or an integrator coming in, figuring out the needs of the facility, and then doing all this programming so that you can just go to a simple control or in our case, our control system is based on an iPhone or an Android device. And so, whoever’s in charge of deciding where things should go just brings up an app and says, here, I want this signal here. And turns up a little virtual fader and away you go. So, this audio network concept allows you to distribute not just audio from one place to another, but basically from any place to any other place on that network.
Robin Trimingham: Established in 2002, FOH is a woman-owned global food service and hospitality company that manufactures smart, savvy commercial grade products including plateware, drinkware, flatware, hotel amenities and more. Driven by innovation, FOH is dedicated to delivering that wow experience that restaurants and hotels crave, all while maintaining a competitive price. All products are fully customizable, and many are also created using sustainable, eco-friendly materials such as straws and plates made from biodegradable paper and wood, and PVC free drinkware. FOH has two established brands: Front of the House, focused on tabletop and buffet solutions, and Room 360, which offers hotel products. Check out their collections today at fohworldwide.com.
Robin Trimingham: I never really thought about it that way, but yeah, it absolutely makes sense. So, how are you addressing what I’m going to call scalability issues for hotel chains that have properties? They’re in varying sizes, they’re in varying locations, some of them are resorts, some of them are urban conference centers. How do you address all of that with like a really big client?
Ivan Schwartz: Well, it’s usually a matter of coming up with a number of different solutions that are expandable in both directions until you get into really difficult things, like a massive resort with separate buildings that are not physically connected with infrastructure, tunnels and things like that. Assuming there’s already a network there, we can scale it from being a very simple, say in a really small boutique hotel. We can have one DSP digital signal processor that essentially takes your various types of signal inputs a paging background, music, perhaps local input for a DJ or something like that in the lounge and be able to send that to wherever. And that could just be 4 to 8 zones and that literally is one piece of equipment. And it’s very simple in a much, much larger place. I won’t name the name, but I’ve been involved in an extremely large hotel project renovation project in Hawaii, and it was so big that it was dealt with one thing at a time. So, let’s do all the spas, let’s do all the restaurants, let’s start slowly renovating the different towers and different areas. And again, getting back to your question about audio network, that makes it so much easier than it used to be, because when you’re ready you just basically tag on to it and just keep expanding it.
Robin Trimingham: Okay, so you’re making me think of another question that I would love to ask. Hopefully I’m going to make this clear enough. I talked to a lot of people who were involved in AI solution and apps and open architecture, where things are very much plug and play. If you had a brand that wanted the same type of music played in all the properties, do you have a way or is there a way coming where you could basically, through an app, just disperse it everywhere? Like this is this month’s playlist and next month we’re going to change it up.
Ivan Schwartz: We don’t do that, but the people that we sell our equipment to do that.
Robin Trimingham: Cool.
Ivan Schwartz: And so, the biggest background music companies are all doing that. They’re also most of them are providing digital signage as well and that’s part of the brand experience. And yeah, they work very closely, basically deciding how you want to represent your brand in terms of music, and is that different at different locations or is it regional? And they really put together exactly the playlist you want at the particular hour that you want. So, breakfast is going to be different than dinner is going to be different than after dinner. And they do a great job of that. There’s a number of companies out there providing those types of services. And then typically they also help coordinate the integration or the installation of the sound systems too, so they can make sure that they’re fitting the customer’s needs.
Robin Trimingham: I just think it’s amazing. Every time I have one of these conversations, I learn new things about the direction that the world is heading. And I think in as little as five years, I mean, what we’re going to be able to do and how we’re going to be able to do it is just going to be so cool. But all this stuff is getting fancy. How important is it for this system? However it’s functioning to be user-friendly for a regular staff person who hasn’t got a lot of training to be able to use.
Ivan Schwartz: Right. Well, and that’s why we as a company took the system interface and control to a different level, because everyone’s seen the in-wall little displays, and you select which area it is and then you can turn up and down the level. A lot of times you’ll see that the host station at a restaurant. We wanted to take that further and basically give the power to whoever wants it and that’s why we went with the app-based system. And it’s also particularly handy because you don’t have to you can be literally talking to a customer and they say “hey, it’s a little loud right here”, and you can pull out your phone and pull down the level in that area. But also, what we’re trying to do is make that technology interface really familiar. And so, ideally, we don’t want some odd. Panel with all these different controls on it that someone isn’t familiar with.
Robin Trimingham: When only one guy in the building is familiar with. That seems to be a typical problem.
Ivan Schwartz: Exactly. Yeah. And so we can have multiple people have different levels of access, but we can also just have simple in-wall controls too. And make those extremely simple like select local. A local input that’s right below it, or background music and then a volume control, that sort of thing.
Robin Trimingham: That makes sense. So, in my global audience, quite a lot of the listeners are independents or boutique operators. What would be a few of your top recommendations to small hoteliers?
Ivan Schwartz: I would say one good thing to do is to go around, obviously to other similar types of hotels and get an idea of what type of music experience you want, because you’re probably going to hear a lot of different things. I’m seeing more and more focus on things like having a DJ, and I’m not talking about dance club, but having a DJ to basically handle like a Friday and Saturday night lounge type of situation. And places are basing their lack of a better term vibe around that type of experience in some cases, particularly in more metropolitan areas and in resorts, but also to find out who’s doing these types of installs. Because if you go to a place that is really immersive, that sounds great. It’s just like walking in and seeing really good workmanship on all the interior materials. You want to find out who does this, who does a good job of it. There are a lot of integrators, and so those are electronic contractors that specialize in audio visual and a lot of times also do IT and other things. But there are also a lot of good AV consultants that specialize in the hotel business. And they can be particularly handy to engage because they can help with the acoustic challenges of a facility. As architects get more and more creative with glass and other sound-unfriendly materials, you typically need to provide some acoustic treatment, and they can help with the overall picture of what you’re trying to do with technology, not just the sound system or not, or not just a few TVs. But if you’re really getting into digital signage and things like that, and perhaps you’re also trying to integrate a mass communication system in a larger property for emergencies and things, that’s particularly important in in resorts. A lot of the AV consultants can help with all those needs and can really properly represent the owner of the property.
Robin Trimingham: I think that’s a great idea because you’re right. Not only is your AV team, particularly if they’re outsourced, in and out of your property all the time, they’re in and out of everybody else’s as well, and they’re going to have opinions about like, what do you absolutely need to fix first and how would they handle that? I think that’s a great way to start the conversation. I read something about voice-activated audio solutions for hotels, and this isn’t something that I know terribly much about. What would that look like and how does that enhance the guest experience?
Ivan Schwartz: I’ve seen Alexa-type integration before. I don’t know at this point if it’s more of a gimmick or more of something that can actually help people. I will say there are not necessarily voice-activated, but there are technologies based on sound recognition and AI that we utilize and other companies utilize that basically listens to the environment and adjusts the sound accordingly. And so, if people are getting louder in a room, it will bring up the level of the music. If there’s no one in the room, you’re not going to walk into this, the sound system blasting away. And so that’s ambient noise sensing, which has been around for a while, but it’s improved tremendously over the past few years because of AI and because of just a lot of advances in sound recognition and being able to take this really high-end technology and bring it to the average installation.
Robin Trimingham: I think that’s a very interesting concept because, yeah, it would be so much easier if you’re having dinner in a restaurant and people around you are getting animated if things just self-adjusted, rather than trying to find a waiter and saying, I can’t hear the person across the table.
Ivan Schwartz: And it can do that in zones too, which is really important. But you think about going into a restaurant early at 5:30 in the afternoon. That’s really quiet and everything, and if you’re there for a few hours, you go through this huge change in sound level and noise, and it’s very helpful if the system can do that instead of having to have a person adjust it.
Robin Trimingham: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. How are advances in AI technology generally impacting the audio technology for the hotel industry?
Ivan Schwartz: Well, I’d say right now the biggest impact will be things like ambient noise sensing. I think as we get into more smart buildings, which we see a lot in the workplace, we see a lot in skyscrapers and work environments. We’ll have a lot more in terms of recognition of people and who those people are and where they are, and I definitely see us going in the direction of, for example, each hotel guest obviously has a key. Well, if you can track where they are in the hotel, you can customize the experience for them. That’s being done to some extent. It’s being done in things like very large hotel suites and things like that. But to bring that down to the mass level so that when you’re in the elevator, the music.
Robin Trimingham: … They’re playing your song, I love it. Yeah, literally.
Ivan Schwartz: It’s not that far-fetched at all. And it again, just is one of those things that just enhances your experience and really tailors your brand to each and every guest.
Robin Trimingham: I hear that they are developing technology that can sense how you personally like the temperature in the hotel room. And when you put your key card into the door HVAC system, I guess it is going into action and making the room just how you like it. So, I believe it would be possible, yeah, to have the kind of music you preferred. Like it could be like a loyalty member perk or something like that.
Robin Trimingham: Interesting.
Ivan Schwartz: It really is. It’s fascinating.
Robin Trimingham: We’ve got 1 or 2 minutes left here. Are there any other things that -I’m going to say- cutting-edge hotels are doing to surprise and delight guests with new technology or acoustics? Or what do you see coming down the pipeline in this regard?
Ivan Schwartz: I think there’s just more of a focus on higher quality experience in general, and I think audio is just finally catching up to that. If you think about going back 20 years ago, what the average hotel experience was like versus now, every chain is getting much better at expressing its brand. I think the boutique hotels are really trying to differentiate themselves in different ways from the competition. And whereas in the past, a lot of times background music was an afterthought or was just, oh yeah, that’s just something you do now, it really is something that can differentiate your brand. And my best example of that is I used to be involved in a lot of really high-end casino property properties in terms of audio systems and in general, there was a big shift to where just the whole experience really was elevated in terms of audio. It was extremely immersive. And even everywhere you went at these better properties, and I used to try to sell this to casinos that were a step below that, and they were like, no, that’s too expensive. And my favorite experience with this was walking into a VP of operations office. And I had been there before and he said: “Before you say anything, I went to that casino, and I get it now”. I understand because it’s one of those things you just have to experience. And it’s difficult for me in my business because it isn’t something that is so cut and dry, but it’s just part of the overall experience. And when a system is properly designed, when the right music’s playing at the right level, it just makes the whole experience so much better.
Robin Trimingham: Yeah. Imagine you’re having some sort of subliminal emotional response that you might not even be aware that you’re having. Ivan, it’s been fascinating to chat with you. Hopefully, we’ve shared a lot of things to get our hoteliers thinking. You’ve been watching The Innovative Hotelier. Join us again soon for more up-to-the-minute information and insights specifically for the hotel and hospitality industry. You’ve been listening to the Innovative Hotelier Podcast by HOTELS magazine. Join us again soon for more conversations with hospitality industry thought leaders.