One of the biggest challenges for today's hotel operator is to integrate systems from different vendors. Some opt for best-of-breed and integrate systems themselves, while others seek a one-stop solution. Both have their compromises for functionality. The goal is to share and incorporate data from many different systems under one umbrella, in order to obtain a single view of the guest. The reality is that while known entities like POS (point of service) and PMS (property management systems) are more likely to be able to talk to each other, nichÃ© systems are a perennial problem.
Sometimes it's better to wait until integration options become more seamless and cost effective. "In the absence of partners with hooks to each other's software, look at your options internally," advises Mike Duffy, director of hospitality technology for Seaport Companies. The Boston-area company is operator of four distinct businesses, including hotel/convention property Seaport Boston and Sebastian's CafÃ© & Catering. The D.I.Y approach is especially important "if you can't wait for the vendor's development pipeline, or if standards are not yet set," notes Duffy. "We looked at building our own engine because we had to scale it to our organization's smaller size. We can't spread our investment costs. Our developers are using some hooks between systems to back into integration."
Do your due diligence when buying any software. Work with vendors and look at all of the options in the early stages. "Make sure that it's not vaporware. It should preferably be tied into HTNG [see sidebar, pg. 33] to future proof your investments," explains Duffy.
"It helps to simplify and use fewer vendors' technologies in-house. The bigger, more well-known players have deeper pockets and a bigger base to work towards change," explains Dr. Dan Connolly, assistant professor at the University of Denver's School of Hotel, Restaurant, and Tourism Management. "But smaller vendors can sometimes be more nimble. User groups help provide safety in numbers."
See it in action
Find a property with a similar set-up to yours and make sure the system is working seamlessly for them. Visit the site and ask lots of questions, including questions about vendor support and responsiveness. "Make sure that you see it working in a live environment. You can't have an unreliable interface -- then it's back to the ledger system," warns Christy Ashton, IT manager for the upscale Stein Eriksen Lodge in Utah, who has interfaced their Maestro Front Office system ( www.maestropms.com ) with numerous other systems.
Update your hardware
Make sure that your hardware is completely up to date with the recommended system requirements. "I double the amount that they recommend, especially for memory, which can freeze up software if there's not enough power there -- especially for the servers," Ashton advises.
Business processes will need updating before the integration takes place. Cross-departmental involvement and planning at this stage must include budgeting and plans for adequate staff training. Make sure that everyone has a stake in the project and appreciates the long-term benefits.
Ready for primetime
Put the system in a realistic and challenging test environment before installing in a live environment, even if it is pre-tested software. "Remeber that a perfect system doesn't exist. You need to prepare beforehand so it's as close to seamless as you can get," advises Ashton.
The Stein Lodge, located on a remote mountaintop, routinely gets power outages lasting three to four hours, thanks to wind, snow, and ice build up. Ashton uses uninterrupted power sources for all computers, and all data is backed up nightly -- some data every three hours.
Into the future
Make it your long-term objective to develop and constantly update a single snapshot' of each guest, accessible from all systems in all locations, on and off the property.
Hotel systems should ultimately become different modules under one umbrella, interfaced with one database. "We need easy access to guest information and history from one database," affirms Ashton. "If they've just had a bad experience in the spa, we need to notify the restaurant immediately to treat them extra well. I'd also like to see portable wireless units as a personal concierge for guests, so we could pick them up at the airport and everything could be done remotely as they ride up to the Lodge."
Dr. Connolly predicts more consolidation of vendors, with companies retooling and modernizing with more modern languages and open systems. "With better and more powerful technology, we'll have fewer systems that do more things. Integration should become more Internet-like in linking and standardizing platforms," notes Connolly. "We'll have a lot more portability, with small device connectivity and functionality sharing a common look and feel to enhance usability. The future will look towards XML and Internet-based technologies," he concludes.