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by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | January 24, 2014

The industry norm of upscale hotels charging for Internet access in guest rooms just did a 180-degree turn. Yesterday, New York City-based Loews Hotels & Resorts (loewshotels.com), which has a portfolio of 19 properties, announced it is now offering free-Wi-Fi to all guests in their rooms. "Prompt, reliable Internet access has become a necessary and expected hotel amenity," said Loews CEO Paul Whetsell in a statement. "We are delighted to be one of the first hotel brands in our category to offer complimentary Wi-Fi access to each and every one of our guests."

Despite all the chatter about the need for free Internet access to be as standard an amenity as, say, a decent bed and a bathroom, full-service hotel chains have held to a firm line, limiting such a perk to only their higher-tiered loyalty members, even though the service has become a staple in limited-service chains, such as Hyatt Place and Doubletree by Hilton. According to a February 2013 study by Hotels.com of 8,600 travelers worldwide, only 11 percent said they would be willing to pay for Wi-Fi. It trumped free breakfast and free parking, when it came to choosing a hotel.

Last year, Hilton Worldwide, as part of an agreement reached with AT&T, began offering its Gold and Diamond loyalty members complimentary service at its properties worldwide. Fairmont Hotels & Resorts gives free in-room Wi-Fi to its President's Club members; the loyalty program is free to join and the perk goes to all who sign up, regardless of number of stays. Omni Hotels and Kimpton Hotels also offer free Internet access to members of their loyalty programs. And InterContinental Hotels Group says it will begin offering free Internet access in guest rooms for its Rewards Club members later this year. Last year Marriott Hotels & Resorts began providing free Wi-Fi in its lobbies, as part of its much-hyped lobby-makeover strategy.

Previously, Loews had been charging guests from $14.99 to $20 per day for Wi-Fi, depending on location, while offering it for free in most of its lobbies. Those fees generated a few million for the hotel chain annually, but Whetsell says he is confident the chain will more than make up for the financial shortfall in repeat guests, as waiving such an annoyance will resonate with travelers and help drive brand loyalty.

Two things to note about this new "free" service. First, it is for standard connectivity. Guests toting multiple devices or who use an excessive amount of bandwidth — downloading movies or a massive PowerPoint presentation — will be charged a $14.95 fee for a faster connection. What's more, the freebie does not extend to meeting rooms, where Internet access will remain a standard fee, for the time being at least. Now we shall have to wait and see if the other chains take note and, cross your fingers, follow suit.