Sonifi Solutions, formerly LodgeNet, quietly building new business model

Dec. 3, 2018

A lot has changed at the company most in Sioux Falls probably still think of as LodgeNet, which grew into a major employer as a provider of movies in hotels and since has gone through bankruptcy and reinvented itself.

It has been called Sonifi Solutions since 2013, when it was acquired by California-based private equity firm Colony Capital.

“A lot has happened in the last couple years,” said Kara Heermans, vice president of product management and user experience.

“At one time, we really were focused on providing movie content to hotels, and it’s been a complete shift.”

The growth of streaming services such as a Netflix and Hulu, content on YouTube and changing delivery mechanisms, including Google Chromecast and Roku’s streaming stick, meant Sonifi had to evolve its approach.

“We realized we really needed to change what we are doing,” Heermans said.

Founded in 1980 as Satellite Movie Co., the business was renamed LodgeNet Entertainment Corp. in 1991 and went public two years later. The name became LodgeNet Interactive Corp. in 2008.

It’s now a privately held company with offices in California, Canada and Mexico, and distributors worldwide.

The company’s CEO is Ahmad Ouri, who took on the role in 2015 and is based in California.

“Ahmad has pivoted the company to providing more than movie content — he has truly challenged the company to be more than where we were,” director of marketing Ross Bjork said.

“And we are better because of it. We are now a technology provider who can provide WiFi, streaming, professional solutions like testing and repaid and TV installation and wiring and more.”

Sioux Falls is still the operational headquarters, with 300 employees representing about half the company’s workforce.

“This is where the heart and soul of Sonifi is,” Bjork said. “We’ve been here 30 years, and we still have employee No. 4 and others who have been here 25 years.”

The work, though, is changing.

Sonifi is evolving into a technology and service platform for both the hospitality and health care industries.

“We’re really not the same company,” Bjork said. “With LodgeNet, we had video on demand. Right now, we offer interactive TV solutions.”

At major hotel brands such as Hyatt, Sonifi provides its core system, offering a menu of information for guests through the television. In response to hotels wanting to extend their branding on the system in a way that looked less templated, Sonifi launched additional functionality this year.

“It lets them create the look and feel of that main menu experience, to have whatever color and font and logo they want,” Heermans said. “It’s pixel-by-pixel control.”

Sonifi’s Staycast system, powered by Google’s Chromecast, recently reached 125,000 guest rooms. The product allows guests to access more than 2,000 apps, including Netflix, YouTube, HBO and other content similar to how they would at home.

“We’re very interested in partnering with others who have brought new technologies forward,” Heermans said. “Bringing known technology into the room has been a focus. Sometimes, guests don’t expect the latest technology to be available, but once they discover it is, the usage is incredible.”

Sonifi’s system also integrates with hotels’ energy management to control the temperature and lighting in the room through the television at some properties.

If it sounds similar to “smart home” technology, Sonifi leaders said that’s because it is.

“Those technologies over time find themselves in the hospitality space, but making it work is much more complicated than at home,” Bjork said. “You need security. You need things to talk to each other … to integrate and surprise and delight the guest.”

Sonifi also is finding applications for its services in health care.

Its interactive system can be used to provide patients information related to their care through the in-room television.

“You can confirm the patient reviewed and completed the task,” Bjork said. “So they (hospitals) can utilize the system from an education standpoint, as well as distraction therapy. It could be like an aquarium or fireplace that gives an ambience.”

Sonifi is working with health systems nationwide, including Texas Health Resources and California-based Dignity Health, which are among the nation’s largest health systems.

New product development includes trying to find ways to incorporate voice technology within the hospital and hospitality spaces.

“If you could say, ‘Hey Google, turn on the TV,’ or ‘Hey Google, I need a nurse,’ it could alleviate a lot of pain points,” Bjork said.

“The health care sector is very interesting and has a lot of growth potential.”

Staff members in Sioux Falls support both divisions. Of the more than 600 employees companywide, 230 are local field service representatives.

“These people have on average 15 years of experience with Sonifi and handle all the installations on both sides of the house,” Bjork said. “We can really have the entire experience, from contracts sold to installation and support, all within one house.”

Sonifi’s Sioux Falls office is still at 3900 W. Innovation St., and the staff is growing.

“We’re growing a bit in marketing and product, but field service is the key area,” Heermans said. “We have a call center, but it’s not a traditional one. These people are technicians and really understand our products and services.”

The employee experience includes access to an on-site gym, visiting masseuse and quarterly parties. There’s a subsidized cafeteria where lunch can be purchased for less than $7.

“We’re all very supportive of each other and help each other out,” Heermans added.

There was a time more people knew the company name, she acknowledged. Remote controls in all the hotel rooms read “LodgeNet.”

Now, “we don’t want anyone to walk away from a hotel or hospital saying Sonifi did a great job. It’s about empowering our partners to build that relationship with their users.”

It can make creating awareness among prospective employees a bit trickier too. But once people get in the door and learn about the company’s direction and relationships with major tech companies, there’s generally excitement, leadership said.

“We’ve been quiet for many years chugging along here, but we made some great strides,” Bjork said. “And a lot of people who come here stay.”

Sonifi Solutions, formerly LodgeNet, quietly building new business model

A lot has changed at the company most in Sioux Falls probably still think of as LodgeNet, which grew to a major employer as a provider of movies in hotels and since has gone through bankruptcy and reinvented itself.

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