Hersha Hospitality Expands and Thrives with a Multi-Faceted and Flexible Tech Plan

By Dorothy Creamer, Managing Editor | October 08, 2012

Portfolio diversity is a defining characteristic for Hersha Hospitality Management (HHM, www.hhmhospitality.com). The Philadelphia-based property management company operates 115 hotels nationally, under both independent and branded flags. Properties range from limited service to high-end, including the prestigious Rittenhouse Hotel in Phila., PA. This portfolio diversity demands a strategic approach to technology investments so that each property is tailored to its target market, while satisfying owners and adhering to corporate brand standards.

Chief among its guiding principles is a commitment to understanding and leveraging guest feedback. In recent years, the hotel company has invested in solutions that go well beyond traditional guest surveys, and the approach is empowering not only real-time feedback, but also helping the multi-brand company manage its IT investments across its diverse portfolio. “There was a time when our sole focus was on encouraging guests to provide targeted feedback [on surveys] that we would send to them,” explains Naveen P. Kakarla, president & CEO. “As things became more real-time, we wanted to have access to information beyond just what the guests who chose to fill out surveys would tell us.”

In an exclusive interview, Hospitality Technology speaks to Kakarla and fellow HHM executive COO Mike Murray about how harnessing real-time social feedback has enabled the hotel company to maintain its emphasis on superior guest satisfaction and operational performance standards. Plus, the executives talk about how a focus on solid execution, multi-purpose technology, and competitive advantage are driving successful technology investments.

A thousand points of social data
With guest feedback rapidly shifting from traditional, solicited surveys to spontaneous web dialogue, HHM began researching different methodologies for understanding its own social presence.

 “With data coming at us from thousands of places, we wanted to figure out: how we make any use of it; if it’s important; and if it is important, is it urgent?” explains Murray. “It got pretty daunting to see social media take that feedback to a whole new level where people are talking about the products that they are buying from us in the moments that they arrive and telling the world about it — not necessarily us.” The problem that HHM faced was how to control and understand this flow of social data, which Kakarla likens to a fire hose, and whether or not they should care. Once it was decided that they did care, they cared a lot. “It was like a thousand points of light that we were trying to collect in a bucket and properly decipher,” Kakarla says.

While HHM was trying to conceptualize how to capture the wealth of data available through social sites, newBrandAnalytics (www.newbrandanalytics.com) emerged as a solution. “They were working on similar issues in a different business and were talking to us about the hospitality industry,” recalls Kakarla, noting that the social business intelligence company was very receptive to HHM’s feedback, and in particular the importance of building a technology infrastructure that was relevant for hotel owners and managers.

Real-time and property-specific
The newBrandAnalytics solution not only aggregates reviews online, but it also reads and processes all the unstructured feedback to derive actionable opportunities on a per-property basis. Murray praises this new method of gathering feedback as far superior to the last generation of feedback, which involved merely automating the survey. Those incarnations were often a belated series of questions that may or may not have been relevant to a particular guest’s stay. Now, HHM property managers can respond to problems in real-time. “The beauty of harnessing all of this data is it’s more of a conversation that we are getting back from guests now,” Murray insists. “It’s an instantaneous check about what they feel about a product. Get into any customer’s head or heart at the moment they are feeling it and you can move that customer much faster and certainly turn them around much quicker. If they get the feeling that you found out about a problem and reacted to it before they even thought to tell you about it because they put it on some Twitter feed, and they come back to their room and it’s already been fixed — that’s real serious stuff.”  

newBrandAnalytics creates customized algorithms that tell HHM management both positive and negative feedback from a large, reliable sample size. “This forces us to look more deeply by having that information in a real-time fashion and from various sources,” Kakarla notes. “It has also helped us to connect with our infrequent guests as often as we would with our frequent guests, who would be more likely to answer our dedicated surveys.”

HHM had developed a way to utilize the social media “feedback fire hose” as an input into traditional guest satisfaction tools: HHM plugged newBrandAnalytics into its existing guest feedback loop so that independent hotels can fully leverage the newBrandAnalytics dashboard, and branded hotels can supplement the data that’s coming in from the corporate office. “The biggest concern is to be able to roll all that data together,” Murray says. “What complicates it in our shop is that we are not only managing a collection of 14 independent hotels, where we can experiment and do what we want relevant to property management, but we are in five or six different brand families as well and they are driving their own technology initiatives.” Murray admits that this makes it complicated to put any sort of scalable platform across all of HHM’s assets. In the case of corporate-relevant feedback, “We focus our energies against not what is happening in a particular Marriott, for example, but giving feedback and relevant data on what people are using and taking leadership roles on their advisory boards to help take them to another level.”

In the past twelve months, HHM has seen definite advantages to having newBrandAnalytics in place. The technology has enabled the company to identify changes in consumer trends at a much faster rate than previously possible, and even predict and prevent problems. “Instead of reactively focusing on problems in our hotels, we are leading from the front and intuitively seeing potential problems before guests even know they are there,” Murray concludes.


Tech Investment: Identify. Maximize. Execute.

HHM runs a diverse profile of widespread properties, including independent boutiques plus brands such as Marriott, Hyatt, Hilton, Starwood, Intercontinental Hotels, Choice, Wyndham and Carlson. Starting out in the 1980s in the select-service business, HHM has steadily scaled the organization to include 20 hotels in a full-service division as well. Despite this diversity, HHM prides itself on maintaining open lines of communication between properties and brands in order to allow owners to choose the solutions and strategies that make the most sense for their unique needs, while investing capital dollars intelligently across its network. In addition to guest feedback, three other areas drive HHM’s IT effort: identifying must-have technology, investing in multi-purpose when possible, and ensuring rock-solid execution.

1. Identify the differentiators:
Technology for HHM falls into two buckets: must-have technology in order to maintain pace with expected standards; and technology that may eventually become standard, but right now gives a unique competitive advantage to those who embrace it. It’s this second category that helps set HHM properties apart. In the case of room locks, for example, HHM is upgrading to RFID where possible, especially in new construction. “At the same time we are much more focused on keeping up with the vendors that are creating automated check-in tools and more connectivity with our PMS tools,” says Kakarla, “so we can assign a room and have a more seamless distribution of inventory and greater connection with our guests.” In the new Hyatt Union Square (www.hyattunionsquare.com), HHM is putting meaningful investments into energy management. “We’ve been looking a lot at wireless thermostats and connectivity between our PMS in each individual room,” Kakarla reveals. “We are able to control settings for room temperature across hotel from the front desk. We have the ability to do that in a wired solution and since it’s a new construction we were able to add that technology.”

2. Make it multi-purpose:
Take the in-room television, for example. HHM invested in content and functionality that would leverage the full investments of a TV upgrade. “We focused on having enough HDTV content and that evolved towards thinking about other products that we could use, in some cases like KoolConnect (www.koolconnect.tv) or Roomlinx (www.roomlinx.com),” Kakarla explains. Those products become a virtual concierge that connects guests to hotel management as well as the immediate neighborhood. “They serve as channels for guests to get local information in interactive ways including: showing the weather, what’s happening in local communities, things that we suggest, and more functional services and amenities like ordering room service or towels.”

3. Rock-Solid Execution: “It’s very easy for people to talk about leading-edge technology, but frankly what’s more important is making sure that what you have is functioning 100 percent of the time,” Kakarla stresses. “It’s imperative that the televisions you buy for guest rooms have engaged channels and have the right ones.”


Bandwidth and Connectivity: A Must-Have

Falling solidly into the must-have bucket, HHM focuses significant investment in providing guests with the bandwidth and connectivity they need for work and play. “Where I believe our industry is struggling, is trying to identify where we are allowing complimentary Internet or having basic usage be free, but other services have a fee attached,” Kakarla muses. This has less to do with generating revenue and more to do with ensuring that everyone has perfect Internet service. To that end, HHM has devoted a great deal of attention to the regulators that control bandwidth distribution so that guests have connectivity as they need it. “That’s what is interesting on the bandwidth piece. Understanding consumers’ need for it, and not fighting it, just increasing bandwidth as quickly and efficiently as we can, making sure there is a consistent delivery.”

Murray names the iPad as a major factor in consumption. “[The complications] could really be tracked to within 90 days of the launch of that product,” he says. “All of a sudden people on business doing simple spreadsheets or e-mail see their speed coming to a screeching halt because we have 10 percent of guests watching sports or movies on their iPads,” Murray says.

In addition to bandwidth, guests’ personal devices demand connectivity and providing ample outlets is a priority at HHM. The company has invested heavily in connectivity panels. “It might not seem like a technology item, but you can’t use your technology if you’re down on a knee trying to find a plug. Our products are also at waist level so you’re just plugging everything into one panel.”

There is at least one positive change spurred by guests bringing their own devices: the eradication of the business center, which Murray fully supports. By increasing wireless bandwidth throughout hotels’ public spaces, Murray sees the potential to offer guests comfortable, welcoming — and most importantly functional — spaces where they can perform work-related activities. HHM hotels have been able to create public spaces that resemble living rooms. “It’s a more civilized environment as opposed to being stuck in a faraway corner with bad lighting,” Murray enthuses. “Now public spaces can be used for what hoteliers had always intended them to be — a social business place where people can live, work, play and feel like they are at home in their own den.”


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