I.T. Integration: Embraced by Some, Stalled by Others

By Lisa Terry, Contributing Editor | December 20, 2010

Would you rather spend 1,600 hours creating an interface, or 40? Those are the numbers one vendor’s calculations assigned to development of an Internet Distribution Systems interface without versus with the use of XML, Open Travel Alliance and Hotel Technology Next Generation (HTNG) specifications.
 
The possibility of taking 97.5% of the effort out of building integrations among hospitality applications is a driving force behind interest in integration specifications. The pain is real (one reason software suites have co-opted integration as a selling point), but with the average hotel running 30 to 40 applications, even suite users need their software to more efficiently exchange data with third-party or in-house applications. Favored solutions must take the hassle out of moving data and gain the advantages of two-way versus serial interfaces, including enhanced guest services.
 
Developing and fostering adoption of integration specifications, though, is not easy. Current HTNG specifications cover 60% to 70% of the functionality the trade association is seeking to address with specifications development, but those range widely in maturity and adoption. It takes about four years until a newly released specification is widely used.
 
Hotelier sentiment about HTNG adoption is mixed; many are pleased at the impact of the most widely used specifications, but are frustrated that adoption isn’t moving faster and feel both hotel operators and vendors are to blame.
 
HTNG “is now out of the Internet world and doing the most important systems,” says Ron Strecker, CFO of Al J. Schneider Company, an INFOR-Softbrands (http://www.infor.com/solutions/ hospitality) user which operates Galt House and Crowne Plaza Louisville Airport.
 
Hotel action and inaction
Many tech-savvy hoteliers are pushing for use of HTNG specs among internally developed systems as well as those they buy, but accomplishing that is not always easy. Less IT-oriented properties often lack deep awareness of HTNG and its potential impact.
 
Wynn Las Vegas, for example, uses service-oriented architecture, the foundation of HTNG specs, to connect many of their internal business applications, and uses HTNG/OTA Internet Distribution specifications for global distribution system connections. “When hotels put it in their internal systems, that’s a big step,” says Doug Rice, executive VP & CEO at HTNG. “It shows the vendor community that hotels are committed.”
 
All of the integrations at MTM Luxury Lodging’s 62-room Bardessono Inn and Spa in the Napa Valley use HTNG specs, enabling better information sharing and more efficient and enhanced guest services on their PAR Springer-Miller (www.springermiller.com) PMS system. “All the vendors we chose support two-way interfaces,” says Chuck Marratt, VP of IT for MTM. “With a large hotel that may not be possible.”
 
Hotels may resist HTNG adoption for a variety of reasons. Many are tied up in legacy infrastructure and are waiting for vendors to lead the way or to undertake costly rewrites, but then not adopting the results in a timely way, suggests Jim Bina, director of IT for Rosen Hotels and Resorts, an Agilysys user (www.agilysys.com). “I think the hotel community is waiting for vendor buy-in to standards, but we all need to replace systems,” says Al J. Schneider’s Strecker.
 
Less tech-savvy properties may lack awareness. “It requires a lot of publicity and education in the industry for a hotelier to understand that this is a viable option,” says Dave Lawrence, IT director for Crystal Springs Resort.
 
The benefits of integration must also be sold in-house. At Rosen, for example, business users want technology to adapt to the way they do things. But Bina asserts, “In my opinion Rosen has to change the way it does things…If the industry agrees on a specification than we should all be on board.”
 
“A lot of the resistance we see to moving to standards is not opposition to standards, it’s a business question,” says HTNG’s Rice. “If we do it now the ROI is X. If we do it two years from now as part of a project it’s X-plus. If we do it as a standalone it’s a negative.”
 
The benefits of integration specs, while considerable, do come at a price. “The reality is, serial interfaces are very difficult to develop,” says MTM’s Marratt, “but serial is very stable once complete. Two-way interfaces bring more functionality, but they’re more complex” and therefore more difficult to maintain.
 
For some, the benefits are clearly worth the price. “We will not deal with a vendor not using HTNG, or not moving quickly to certify,” says Gary McCallum, VP of hotel information systems for the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, a Newmarket International user (www.newmarketinc.com).
 
Vendors: some embrace, others resist
Hospitality software developers face an even larger challenge: accommodating hoteliers’ demand for common integration specifications may mean complete rewrites of their applications based on service-oriented architecture. For suite vendors, inherent two-way integration is a key market advantage. Some are aggressively pursuing HTNG as a market advantage while others resist as long as possible.
 
“The more influential the vendor, the more apt they are to participate in and adhere to HTNG standards,” says Rosen’s Bina.
 
Even those vendors who have deployed some HTNG specifications may not promote that fact. For example, suggests Crystal Springs’ Lawrence, a hotelier may have a suite but want to use a different sales and catering application.

 
The developer of the latter might tell the hotelier that the suite maker has implemented an HTNG integration to their software for another customer. That’s something the suite maker might not volunteer, since they would prefer the hotelier adopt the suite’s own sales and catering app.
 
As with any new directive that involves multiple parties, confusion can also play a role, even when all parties seek the same goal. When three-property Crystal Springs Resort contracted for development of an interface between its Northwind Maestro (www.maestropms.com) property management system and another supplier’s golf system three years ago, the vendors planned to use HTNG specifications for the interface. Though they did ultimately get the project done, the intent to use those specs was initially unbeknownst to Lawrence and the project ended up taking two years. It was never clear whether the specification, or the vendors’ ability to adopt it, slowed the process. Today, Crystal Springs is encountering some resistance getting its ski ticketing vendor to adopt HTNG for a needed interface. On the food and beverage side, however, there are significant wins: the resort is using Micros (www.micros.com) and says the vendor has fully embraced HTNG.
 
On the flip side, some vendors tout HTNG in promotional messages; the hotelier must be savvy enough to know if the use of HTNG is a bolt-on to their legacy system, or if their platform has been rebuilt based on SOA and HTNG. Let’s face it: rewriting an entire software platform is costly, and while long term it could become essential for survival, the return on investment is unclear in the short term.
 
The bottom line: Hoteliers need to look under the hood of what they’re buying (including whether the vendor has attained certification for use of an HTNG specification), understand how they could benefit from specific HTNG specifications, and ask vendors for a product roadmap to understand whether they are migrating to HTNG as part of the development cycle. A view of a vendor’s roadmap, for example, helped Al J. Schneider Company decide to postpone a PMS replacement for two years.
 
Too often, “Integration and interoperability are an afterthought,” says James Houghton, VP & CIO at Wynn Las Vegas. “They’re not core to the product design.” Houghton adds, “When we do find a vendor that does it well, it frustrates us that other vendors don’t make it a priority.” The company has implemented extensive marketing and analytics solutions that leverage non-proprietary, open interface standards. 
 
HTNG proponents assert that standardizing interfaces makes sense for all vendors because value should come from software functionality, not integrations. “Interfaces are the plumbing,” says HTNG’s Rice.
 
The HTNG model “allows individual vendors to build on top” of standards, says Strecker. “They can add extensions without destroying the standard,” while still adding value.
 
What’s next
Meanwhile, technology-forward hoteliers are anxious for HTNG to continue forging ahead. HTNG’s Rice would like to see faster movement on in-room device integration, data security, head-end equipment for in-room devices, and wireless coverage. MTM seeks more progress in common specs for mobile apps.
 
“What we have today is great for yesterday but not good enough for tomorrow,” says Mandarin’s McCallum.
 
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