Integrating Next Generation Technologies

By Nicole Marie Richardson • Contributing Editor | July 01, 2006

The issue of integrating hotel technologies remains a top concern for most hotel technologists. To address the concerns and map out future opportunities, at the Hotel Technology Forum in April, Hospitality Technology brought together a panel of some of the industry's leaders to discuss the future of integration. Nick Price, Mandarin Oriental's chief information officer and chief technology officer as well as the current president of HTNG moderated the discussion. Joining the panel were Gustaaf Schrils, vice president of technology and services with Intercontinental Hotels Group; Dean Permenter, vice president of shared infrastructure services with Hilton Hotels; and Ed Klein, chief information officer at Royal Resorts.

Nick Price. I am not from the hotel industry. I've been here for six years, but I think of myself as a technologist first and a hotelier second. On my second or third day in the hotel industry, I went into one of our Hong Kong hotels, and I went to speak to the IT manager, and I said, "Take me to the heart of the operation." And he took me to this little black, dark, damp closet in the backroom somewhere deep in the operation where natural light has never been.

I took a look around and I found out what a PMS was, what point of sale was, and all the other key systems. Just as I was leaving, I looked over in the corner where I saw a rack of about 20 PCs standing up on their end. "What's that?" I asked. "Well, that's the interfaces," he explained. "That's the interfaces from these systems over there." The interfaces were in a box connected by gray RS-232 cable that I hadn't seen for 20 years. I said, "You've got to be joking. You cannot run a $75 million hotel operation on pieces of RS232 cable. This cannot be true." Well, unfortunately it is. Subsequently in my six years, I found that indeed was even though we have done our level best to try and remove that gray RS-232 cable and that rack of PCs. That is why we're here today.

With that in mind, let's get started, tell me, what area of your business gives you the biggest integration challenge?

Gustaaf Schrils. The industry is becoming more global. Every company is looking at presence outside of the United States. Obviously that brings significant challenges: language, cultural, technology availability. The biggest challenge that exists is adapting to the biggest emerging markets: China, Japan, Korea, which all have character-based languages. This is one area where the hospitality industry struggles. There is a lot of focus on our end and in the industry to service that market in their local language and be able to store that information and use it for business intelligence going forward.

np. On the guest name, how do you identify a guest globally? Is a guest a guest name or is it a number?

GS. It's a combination that we use today, which is a name combined with an address. As you can imagine there is a real challenge when two people have the same name and so how you differentiate that is by secondary sort by address.

Dean Permenter. Hilton does a great job of pulling out the data from the property around the guest stay. We also collect revenue from that guest and understand each piece of it. Individually we do a good job in our different rate programs, of rate and forecast management. I see the next challenge for us is to bring it all together where we're looking at it across the market. It's that next level of business intelligence above the property that gives us the combination of not only an individual guest spend or guest value to a property, but also in the market, the corporation that person works for or the group that person comes to an event for. It gets more into that next generation of business intelligence above the property that gives us the instantaneous guest worth.

np. It would be fair to say that your focus is on really identifying the customer above the hotel and understanding the value of that individual customer.

DP. Right. Our CIO Tim Harvey has talked about the value of the individual customer. We did a great job last year of CRM and messaging and so forth and going forward, we'll continue to drive that to the next level that's above the property to the market and to the brands.

np. Ed, you have a very tough job because resorts are information poor and data rich in many senses. Can you give us your insight?

Ed Klein. We have all the challenges of hotels plus the challenges of actual vacation ownership, the individual ownership of each unit for a week out of every year. So when you ask about what is the greatest challenge, do I need to pick one? One of my biggest challenges, is to take our legacy systems that are individual isolated islands with bridges built between them, and combine them into one centralized or integrated system on the fly while this thing is moving down the road at 100 miles an hour. It's like trying to change the tire of a car when it's still in motion on the highway. So is dealing with my internal customers: the marketing, sales, reservations, and operations people. Keeping them operating while we are going through all these sweeping changes is a very significant challenge. The other challenge is to avoid being a development shop—if I can help it. We have a good staff of developers in my organization, but really we can't do the work that InfoGenesis, Springer-Miller or Microsoft can. We don't have those resources so what I'd like to be able to do is buy the individual best of breed components, and link them together in my specific environment. That's difficult to do.

np. How many systems do you run at a hotel, and how many systems do you run above the hotel?

gs. It obviously varies by brand. We have our Candlewood Suites mid-scale, extended stay brand, which has the least number of systems running on premises. I would say there's roughly about five systems in that hotel. At the other end of the spectrum, for example our flagship InterContinental Buckhead in Atlanta, Georgia, runs about 20. So there is a pretty big range. We run about roughly seven to 10 applications that would be needed above property.

dp. For our entry level properties like Hampton Inns, about five systems that run on premises. Hampton runs property operations, PBX or call system, in-room video, within the property operations, check-in and check-out and housekeeping functionality. The rest of the applications we moved above property. When we get into the full service Hilton properties, some of the reservation functionality we bring back down to the property so that we have a call center on the property. Revenue management is above the property as is our operations audit or end of the day audit has been moved above property. A lot of the functionality has been moved into central systems where it can be accessed outside of the hotel so that we can run a market office or a city office that manages multiple hotels. ek. Well, when you first asked the question, I was thinking this was an easy one. I am responsible for the integration in the organization, and it is a business integration rather than systems. As you start to dissect what that really means, the IT organization is not responsible for the data, the information that is actually created and stored in the system. We're responsible for the tools to—Gustaaf used the term the interface—the interfaces, to collect the information, to present the information, all the data storage and the interaction between all of our systems, again, the integration.

Right now in my organization, we don't have any particular person or group on the business side outside of IT that is responsible for the integration or even the integrity of the data. We have the little pockets of marketing, of reservations, of sales, of accounting that are responsible for their piece of it. It has become my responsibility to pull all of it together and to get the people working together. Instead of being responsible for servers and data storage and networking and all of that, I find myself responsible for working with the various department heads and processes and implementing change throughout the organization and helping people to embrace that change.

np. You seem to be the person wearing all the hats, which is not uncommon in this industry. I'm going to ask you a quick yes or no question here. Is the need for and the complexity of systems integration widely appreciated and understood within your company and by your line of business colleagues? Yes or no?

ek. I think the answer would be no.
dp. I think it's neither understood nor fully appreciated.
gs. I need to tell you it depends on who within the organization. We have some that are. It's a very tough question, Nick, to answer and really represent the company's view because there are a group of people within the business, fully understand the impact of it and the value of it, and others that may understand it but don't understand the complexity of how to make it happen.

np. If there was one message to take back, it may be this: Go to your CEO, your president, and appoint somebody responsible for defining the systems integration issue, championing the systems integration issue, explaining and educating the systems integration issue in your business because you're going to find it easier as a technology person if that person is on the business side.


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