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All Signs Point to Digital

Dynamic panels show guests where to eat, what to do, in an eye-catching way.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009
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Las Vegas is a 24/7 city, where the lights never go out, and neither do the signs.

Digital signs have slowly been replacing static signs, but they have been far from perfect. Images could get burned into plasma screens in as little as a year or two. That's finally changing. New LCD panels are giving hotels new opportunities to use technology and get creative in their communications and marketing.

Soon, guests arriving at MGM properties will be greeted with a digital message board tailored to their needs. Guests arriving in the morning will see directions to the nearest Starbucks and learn that a dolphin show is beginning soon. As the day progresses, the message changes to convention center programs, or directs guests to buy tickets to the LOVE show by Cirque du Soleil. After the show begins, the screens will point out where the restaurants and night clubs are.

"Instead of a static sign that lives near the ceiling, it's dynamic," said Randy Dearborn, Vice President of Multimedia for MGM Mirage. Dearborn is working on converting all of his properties' legacy signs -- plasma panels with burnt-in images, small screens and other obsolete technology -- to a single digital signage program that his office controls.

As Dearborn has learned, it's a whole new world of signage. Forward-thinking hotels are embracing the new technology to build a cohesive communications strategy, whether it's to help guests find their way around the property, direct meeting participants to events or to market amenities at the hotel such as restaurants, spa or entertainment.

Some of MGM's digital signs already are in place. At the Monte Carlo, guests who are coming down the escalator from the parking garage are greeted by four 82-inch LCD monitors that market dining venues. Instead of the same image playing on each screen, different images are spread across the separate panels to present one eye-catching message to guests. In a promotion for the Monte Carlo Brew Pub, one display shows a full beer, the next shows half a beer, and the third display shows an empty glass with the phrase, “Going…Going…Gone!”

Touch-screens allow guests to navigate through the property to find out where the dollar or quarter slots are, or sift through a restaurant menu and design their own sandwich, all while waiting in line. Restaurant staff can update the digital signs by themselves, simply by changing a spreadsheet.

After experimenting with a number of manufacturers over the years, MGM is converting its signage program to panels from NEC. MGM Mirage properties now have more than 400 big-screen LCD panels. Dearborn's in-house team manages the content and develops the hardware and software.

In an environment as visually stimulating as Las Vegas, Dearborn said he works with his staff to make sure the digital signs do not lead to visual overload.

"That's one of our biggest challenges," he said. "I believe in nice, simple, bold, to-the-point content. There is so much bad content out there: fonts I can't read, people who don't understand content and color. I want a fourth-grader to understand our signs."

Another of Dearborn's strategies is to use the same navigation system on the signage throughout all of MGM's properties. So guests who are at staying at Mandalay Bay will understand how to use the signage at a restaurant at the Luxor. It helps educate guests, which is essential in a new technology roll-out.

"When we first started putting it up, younger people would be all over it. Older people would stand back and not be sure," Dearborn said. "With iPhones, more and more people are getting more comfortable going up to the screen and familiarizing themselves. At first we had to put a sign out that said, 'Touch me for more information.' Now, people see big buttons and they get it."

Keith Yanke of NEC said the MGM properties are at the forefront of where digital signage is heading. With any technology purchase, some hotels may be waiting to take the plunge, but Yanke said the time is ripe.

"You can always wait for the latest and greatest, so it really depends on what do you want to do now," he said. "Do you want to keep moving forward with the static signage you're using today, or do you want to jump into the digital realm and change the way that people view a property or a corporation or a retail environment that uses digital rather than static images?"

NEC's Professional Series, the line that MGM uses, is particularly geared for signage applications. It's built for 24/7 activity, as opposed to a TV-grade panel that is intended for an eight-hour display. Screens that are continuously in use can build up heat, and the Professional Series has a cooling technology to extend the life of the panel.

The series starts with a 40-inch screen and also includes 46-, 52-, 55-, 70- and 82-inch models.

For way-finding in a lobby, 46-inch screens have become the standard size, Yanke said. It used to be the 40-inch panel, but as costs have come down hotels have upgraded to the larger size. Other areas may require a larger screen to make sure the content is viewable and understandable. Yanke cited the special screens at the Monte Carlo as an example.

"It's always the 'wow' with Vegas," Yanke said. "With the 82-inch, they're using in a portrait configuration. It allows them to give that lifelike experience on their display [such as] actual footage of people in a nightclub experience. It's an interesting, creative way that they are using the product. That's the nice thing about the bigger size - 70-inch or 82-inch - it gives you the flexibility of using one single display for getting a creative message across on one unit."

Another creative option with NEC is its video wall application. Instead of one large screen, these are several smaller LCD screens that are grouped together to form a larger block -- up to a 10x10-foot wall -- or into custom configurations such as a pyramid. They also have an ultra-narrow bezel so there is only a few millimeters of dark space between the screens.

But are these high-tech screens feasible in a cost-cutting era? Yanke said yes. NEC's video wall, for example, can cost less than buying a single, big screen that could run into the tens of thousands of dollars. A lower-cost NEC line offers professional grade panels but strips down the functionality or has a wider bezel on the screens.

"We can drive down the cost and give hotels and properties a lower-cost solution if budget isn't there for a professional display," he said, "but still give them the same confidence that the product is going to operate without problems."

Another concern is how much energy these giant and constantly changing screens can consume. Yanke said more hotel customers are asking this question than ever before, and NEC has responded.

"We're striving with each generation of product we come out with to drive down energy consumption," he said.

The newly launched P401 and P461 models, for instance, have better contrast and maintain the same brightness level as the previous generation but cut the power consumption by up to 25 percent, depending on the size. In the future, as LED technology comes down in price, it will also help screens become even more efficient.

NEC also ships its products with the brightness in "normal" mode, which consumes less energy than the high brightness mode that many manufacturers use when they ship their product. Many times, the user never bothers to adjust the levels, using more power. NEC also builds in a carbon meter that will report the carbon savings of using the product in normal mode.
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