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Integration Update Where are They Now?
By Mary L. Carlin
System integration is a key pain point for any lodging operation given the vast number of systems that any one property runs and the number of vendors required to install, service and support those systems. To help alleviate the challenges associated with integration, the industry association Hotel Technology Next Generation (HTNG), comprised of leading hotel operators and members of the IT vendor community, has joined with other key players in the industry to encourage the adoption of open standards and seamless integration.
HT checks in with hotel operators, members of HTNG, and industry analysts to discuss areas where system integration progress has been made, and areas where there's still room for growth.
HTNG has made major inroads in the past year. These include the release of the first certified HTNG interface products, the addition of several new workgroups, and opening up its XML-based messaging format for use by any two vendors wanting to exchange specific, non-standard data streams.
"Given that the installed base of older systems cannot take advantage of the flexibility and power offered by XML/IP-based interfaces and that hoteliers are legendarily reluctant to replace their systems, HTNG's encouragement of vendors to use its messaging formats to extend the usability of their existing interfaces has considerable potential to help improve systems integration in general," explains industry analyst Jon Inge, a founding member and executive advisor for HTNG.
However, Inge feels there still needs to be wider recognition of the benefits of adopting these new interface technologies to hotel operating efficiency. In five to ten years, he predicts the wider spread of XML-based interfaces, both under HTNG's umbrella and developed separately by individual vendors, in support of a more SOA (Service Oriented Architecture)-based architecture. "In ten years, I see SOA-based systems being the norm in the majority of hotels. I'm also an optimist," he explains.
In agreement is Dr. Dan Connolly, associate professor of IT at the School of Hotel, Restaurant, and Tourism Management at the University of Denver's Daniels College of Business, and an Executive Advisor for HTNG. "Hotel companies are working to simplify their technology portfolios and the technological sophistication at the property level by moving systems off or above property," explains Connolly. "Web services applications seem to be making some inroads, albeit the pace of adoption is a bit slow due to concerns over security, performance and service levels."
Looking to the future, Connolly expects this trend to become much more prevalent, especially as companies like Google pursue "cloud computing" where the applications are all on the Internet and accessible via a Web browser.
In today's era of personalization, hotel operators are seeking ways to better manage the guest experience through better information availability. MTM Luxury Lodging is a member of HTNG's architecture workgroup and a major proponent of its goals. The company's Hotel 1000 uses a converged network of cabling and fiber for its video on demand, IP network, energy management, and CRM (customer relationship management) to enable new levels of personalization for the guest.
For example, the network enables the hotel to automatically preset a particular room's temperature to the customer's preference at check-in using CRM data from their previous stay. The hotel can also automatically preset the guest's TV preferences, and their preferred artwork is displayed in high resolution on the room's flat panel TV to enhance the arrival experience. "A converged network hadn't been applied to a hotel environment before," explains Chuck Marratt, director of IT. "Before, everything was a separate entity, but now with the VLAN and fiber infrastructure, it's all together.
"More vendors need to participate in HTNG, but many don't see a need," Marratt continues. "As hotel operators, we need integration across the board. In the future, we'll be at the point where SOA-ware provides the different services. In our HTNG workgroup, we're creating a road map for how it's going to go. When we operators can buy services from different companies, the SaaS (Software as a Service) economic model will be much cheaper, but it needs to be compatible and interoperable with other systems."
In MTM Luxury Lodging's (newest property being built in California, there will be fiber all the way to the guestroom for in-room IP phones, television, and connections to the network and Internet. Energy management personalization will extend to controlling the lights, temperature, fireplace, and solar shades according to a guest's known preferences.
More Work Needed
Industry analyst Mark Haley of The Prism Partnership still sees room for improvement: "The HTNG-certified solution sets remain somewhat incomplete, perhaps in order to satisfy 'lowest common denominator' needs. Many hotel companies and vendors will need to use these solution sets as a starting point to build from, hopefully making the final work product available to OTA [Open Travel Alliance] and HTNG for adoption into future versions of standards and products."
In the near term, Haley expects to see interfaces enhanced to the point of near-seamlessness, but still operating as interfaces, with one database communicating to another in a structured manner. Within ten years, he hopes to see virtualization and database sharing among disparate applications.
Also still needed is an infrastructure that enables hoteliers to drive unique loyalty-building experiences for their guests from pre-arrival to during and after their stay - particularly one that can more easily integrate with new and future technologies based on guest demands. The goal is to gain a 360-degree view of each guest and to give hotel staff real-time access to that information.
In the future, advanced analytics and integration may help drive differentiation in the guest experience, using individual guest preferences and requirements to build loyalty. Further integration could include additional off-property services like airline arrivals, luggage routing, and transportation.
There has been more focus and momentum, as well as wider participation in HTNG over the past year, but it needs more participation from multiple vendors. Given the highly price-sensitive nature of the hotel industry, the open source movement can only help HTNG. Reusability is vital, as is room for adaptation. The HTNG architecture workgroup is currently developing reference architecture around which to build their systems. But it's a slow moving process.
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