Omni Carves out Innovative Luxury Niche with Technology

By Abigail A. Lorden, Editor-in-Chief | October 08, 2010

Coming in first place -four times- in guest satisfaction, Omni Hotels & Resorts (www.omnihotels.com) is solidifying its place as a leader in the upscale pack. The ranking, put out by J.D. Power and Associates, is based on the input of some 53,000 travelers. In 2010 (as well as in 2006, 2005 and 2000) Omni took top honors out of the 15 brands identified as "upscale."

But what is it really based on, this elusive guest satisfaction score? As it turns out, it's pretty inclusive of everything. Seven major areas are examined: reservations; check-in/check-out; guest room; food and beverage; hotel services; hotel facilities; and costs and fees. At the same time, just weeks before the 14th annual J.D. Power results were announced, Omni discovered telling guest insights of its own through a study the hotelier conducted on the mobile technology needs of its business travelers.

In this exclusive one-on-one interview, Hospitality Technology talks to Richard Tudgay, the vice president of technology for Omni Hotels & Resorts, about how technology has helped the 45-unit hotel chain make a name for itself in this competitive segment, deliver on its guest satisfaction promise, and even carve out its own unique niche, according to Tudgay: "innovative luxury."

HT: As an up-scale brand, what's Omni's approach to technology? Do you want to be leading-edge?

RT: We want to be the absolute leaders when it comes to Wi-Fi in our hotels. Omni started in late 2002 implementing Wi-Fi in all our hotels and offering it complimentary to all of our Select Guest loyalty program members [with paid access to non-members], regardless of their level within the program. We were one of the first to have 100MEG circuits in most of our hotels to support the ongoing needs of business travelers. We're looking past 100MEGs to see what's next.

We also want to be on leading edge in the support of our e-commerce department, and what they do with their applications, whether it's mobile apps or enhancing the Select Guest portfolio. When you look at how we won J.D. Power for the fourth time, a lot of that is the innovation with mobile apps that e-commerce has developed, and what we're able to do at omnihotels.com, with IT being the backbone of that and the e-commerce department pushing us.

HT: That being said, in what segment of lodging is Omni classified?

RT: We are upscale. When you see us in segments we're identified as that, but we see ourselves as innovative luxury to be honest with you.

HT: How so?

RT: Omni properties are very unique; no two are the same and we're taking that down to the guest level and not just saying, "Here's everything for everyone," but rather offering things that are specific to a certain guest. From the guest's point of view, they're not bogged down by the technology and everything is seamless.

For example, when we picked Micros Fidelio (www.micros.com) in 2008 to replace our home-grown reservations system, one of the primary goals was the profiling piece and giving Select Guest members the ability to personalize their stays. You could be talking about a business traveler that's staying one night and looking to decide what complimentary drink they'd like in the morning, or a resort guest who wants to book activities. They're able to book without having to go outside of our processes, whether it's a third-party or our own activity. And if they want to charge it to their room, pay cash, book for the future, it's all doable. Everything is personalized to that guest.

HT: This sounds like CRM. What are the technologies that Omni is leveraging to get to this type of personal experience?

RT: A lot of our CRM is home-grown with our Select Guest department and a lot is Micros Fidelio; we use their profiling. We run two different PMS's currently: Micros OPMS [Opera multi-property system] and SoftBrands' Epitome [now a division of Infor; www.hospitality.softbrands.com]. We leverage the ability to take info, book the reservation, and pass that through no matter what PMS a particular hotel is on. Our marketing department is looking at a true CRM to enhance that, but overall, instead of trying to look at all guests collectively we look at guests individually through our Select Guest program.

HT: What are some technologies that are critical to the guest-satisfaction recognition you've now received four times from J.D. Power and Associates?

RT: I'd start with reservations. We scored very high on our ability to book reservations, which goes back to us installing Micros Fidelio. We've since been able to streamline the reservations process and allow our revenue management department to distribute our rates a lot more efficiently to all of the reservations channels that are out there.

The second thing goes back to Wi-Fi. We always score very well there as we continue to try to be on the leading edge. The third goes back to e-commerce efforts like the ability to check-in online from a mobile phone.

HT: Speaking of business travelers, Omni just conducted a guest survey to find out what technologies are most important to business travelers. What's the most interesting fact that came out of that?

RT: From an IT perspective, I would have to say the use of Skype. I would never have guessed that 34 percent of our business travelers were Skyping at Omni. The same with video games, which were right behind at 28 percent. That really surprised me. It goes back to the importance of why we focus on Wi-Fi, and why we strengthen our infrastructure; because we don't know what the guest is doing until we do a survey like this, and both of those take a lot of bandwidth and a lot of infrastructure.

HT: Have the insights from this study impacted IT priorities?

RT: Absolutely. We reprioritized Wi-Fi once again. Every time you think you're done, you've completed a phase and you think, 'Okay we're good. We can sit tight for 18 months,' something like this comes out and it shows that guests are doing more and more with the network, and it's not all business related. We knew they were downloading TV and movies, but the Skype and gaming we weren't aware of. In several properties we were trying to decide if we needed to make changes to the network, and this information pushed us over the edge to do it.

HT: A lot of the survey focused around guests' use of mobile apps and social networks. Are these areas really worth all of the hype, or are we as an industry focusing too much on them, possibly at the expense of other areas?

RT: I think you have to walk a fine line there. There is certainly a degree of coolness to it, and that is all wonderful. And then there's a degree of, 'Are you really increasing your revenue? Are you really increasing your guest satisfaction?' At Omni, we want to walk that fine line. We want to be cool, there's no question about it. That goes back to innovative luxury. But we always have to remember that it needs to make business sense in order to do it, whether that's in customer satisfaction, which is sometimes very hard to weigh, or if there's an increase in revenue based on that channel.

HT: Going back to your unique approach to innovation-meets-luxury, how does the company's smaller size play a role?

RT: When we look at our niche, we own/manage all of our properties and have a lot of control of the technology that's in those properties. We have one brand; one consistent brand. Because of that we have a lot more control over our systems and consistencies. Size plays a lot into the favor of Omni, in our ability to be nimble. We can roll things out quickly which plays very well into our ability to implement something new.

HT: I have to ask about growth, then. With your smaller size being a key factor in your ability to stay nimble, are there growth plans?

RT: I'm glad you asked that question. Recently Omni acquired Amelia Island Plantation [Amelia Island, Florida; www.aipfl.com], and then announced the following day that we're building a convention center hotel in Nashville [Omni Nashville Hotel]. We'll grow where it makes sense, whether it's an acquisition or a new build. But long term there is no set plan that says we need to have 50 hotels by 'X' date, 75 'Y' and 100 by 'Z'.

The beauty in these two acquisitions shows our uniqueness. Amelia Island Plantation is a full-blown resort with a hotel and many villas, and the urban Nashville build is as downtown as you can get next to the convention center, another niche that we're playing very well in. So within two days we announced two totally different styles of hotels, with a lot of the same technology, and a lot of different technology in each.

HT: What technologies are you looking at implementing?

RT: We're currently building a hotel in Dallas, a convention center property, that's pushing the technology envelope. We want to do TVs in the mirrors, energy management controls, in-room controls. A lot of these are things we have never done at Omni. We're also looking at interactive digital signage, which makes a lot of sense at our convention properties. We're wrapping up our conversion of putting in all HDTVs and as soon as that's done we'll look at a VOD platform for certain hotels.

HT: You mention television innovations. What do you think about 3D TV?

RT: I think it's wonderful and cool, but due to the costs and the fact that you're wearing glasses, I think it's a long way off before it goes main stream in hospitality.

HT: Last thought, then, are there areas of innovative lodging technology that you think are being overlooked?

RT: I think there are two. Part of the overlook is government regulations, and that's using your cell phone to open door locks. In the next few years, I think it will become very common in a lot of hotels, but I'm not going to say all. Also, I'd say RFID. Some hotels have grasped it and run with it and there's a lot more opportunity there. We continue to look at how we can leverage this at our properties.

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