2012 Hotel Visionary Award Winners

By Abigail A. Lorden, Editor-in-Chief & Dorothy Creamer, Managing Editor | June 08, 2012

For more than 16 years, Hospitality Technology has been a part of hotel innovation dialogue. We covered the rise of wireless, the Web 2.0 boom, and the downfall of the in-room telephone. They were exciting times, but pale in comparison to the current pace of change.

As hotels in all market segments strive to keep up with guest expectations, a few deserve special recognition for their efforts. Each year, Hospitality Technology honors a group of lodging operators with its Hotel Visionary Awards. These companies are taking creative approaches to innovation and are leveraging technology in compelling ways to serve the guest and grow the business.

Awards are given in two categories: Infrastructure Innovator, and Guest-Facing Innovator. Consideration is given to size, resources and market segment benchmarks to ensure that companies from across the industry are recognized for their efforts. This year’s honorees are Flamingo Las Vegas, Gaylord Entertainment, Hilton Worldwide, and La Quinta Inns and Suites.

Technology is experiencing a true revolution and perhaps in another 20 years the school books will have a name for this period in time. Right now, we have one word for those companies leading the charge; they are Visionaries, and here are their stories.

Customer-Facing Innovator: Flamingo Las Vegas
Interactive Signs Tap into Customer Communications

In the fast-paced, competitive world of casinos the stakes are high to keep guests engaged, informed and either on-property or eager to return. One way to do this is to track and analyze habits to predict what incentives are likely to entice guests to spend.

The challenge for Flamingo Las Vegas (www.flamingolasvegas.com) was to find a way to utilize data about customers that traditionally wasn’t being targeted. “We wanted to continue to evolve the customer experience and our communications based on what we know about them,” explains Katrina Lane, who was senior vice president & CTO for Caesars Entertainment Corp during implementation of the project. “In the past we have been good about tailoring communications in the mailbox, but we wanted to get better about personalizing communications and the experience of guests while on property to extend our relationships with them.”

A key element of this initiative was a digital signage system that was implemented at Flamingo (a Caesars Entertainment property) in partnership with Four Winds Interactive (www.fourwindsinteractive.com). The signage would not only act as an interactive mapping source, but also as loyalty kiosks. Each sign is outfitted with a mag stripe reader next to it. A guest can come up to the screen and swipe a Total Rewards card. The next step would be to opt-in to see and receive specific offers. They can also view their player’s club account and comp balances. If a guest is not a Total Rewards player, they can add a mobile number on the screen, designate a few preferences from a list that includes fine dining, entertainment, golf, spa, casino etc., and get offers direct to their mobile device through SMS functionality. “Some of our guests are not Total Rewards players, so we ask them to specify their offer preferences because we know less about them,” explains Rich Kang, director innovation.

By utilizing information guests choose to share, Kang and Lane agree that Flamingo is able to make its messages back to customers more relevant based on their interests. Formerly a lot of the data that Flamingo collected was around purchases, but with the signs the casino can track historical data about what customers are viewing. “If we see that they are looking at fine dining a certain number of times, we can target an offer with some sort of implied preference designated through their actions,” Kang expresses. “Traditionally we were only able to look at gaming habits, but now we can look at leisure as well.”

Digital signage was a natural way to entice guests to interact with the devices. Adding typical items like wayfinding and incorporating personalized messages is what makes the program unique. While trying to capture the attention of guests who might only be in Vegas on a four- to five-day visit, the timing of offers that are sent via text is imperative. “There could be more than one offer or suggestion a day if there is something relevant, for example a show or dining experience that we think they may enjoy,” Lane reveals.

Partnering with Four Winds on the project was a good fit not only because of the experience in signage, but because of an ability to incorporate attributes to the system that went beyond typical wayfinding. Having done player card integration at another casino, the Flamingo team knew that Four Winds would be open for more innovation. “They were great about taking our ideas and running with them,” Kang praises. “We pushed the boundaries on what they had done in the past, and they admitted this was one of their most complex projects.”

Kang stresses that because this project focused so much on the customer experience and relationships through Total Rewards, a partner was needed that would provide the integration necessary to ensure coordinated communication with customers.

The 13-sign system launched on the floor of the Flamingo in July of 2011 and has been an overwhelming success. A first phase of interactive signage, with a different technology partner, had been rolled out at Caesars Palace prior to the Flamingo installation. This was invaluable in fine-tuning and tweaking the project. The previous trial had utilized RFID tags that front desk staff would stick on guests’ room keys. “Basically the front desk staff would tell guests about the program and enroll them. Changing to a self-serve model, where they guests sign up themselves and use a mobile phone or their Total Rewards card, made a huge difference in terms of participation,” Kang states.

In terms of impact, once the Flamingo made those changes, usage was ten times that of what was in the first phase. Among guests that were enrolled, the Flamingo has enjoyed redemption rates of offers three to four times greater than that of other channels, something that Kang attributes to the communications being in the moment and highly relevant. “We gather and review the metrics of how a particular offer performed on a monthly basis,” says Kang.

“The challenge is to streamline the experience as much as possible so it’s easy and usable by the customer, and juggle that with the millions of things you want to do as a business on those digital signs,” Kang notes. “It’s the classic design challenge of trying to present things to the customer in the right way.”

Customer-Facing Innovator:
Gaylord Entertainment
Gaylord Gives Employees Mobility on a Dime

Un-tether convention services staff members, and get rid of lines at the front desk. These were two core goals that led Gaylord Entertainment (www.gaylordhotels.com) to explore an investment in mobile devices in 2011. Headquartered in Nashville, Tenn., the company operates four upscale, convention properties, each in major U.S. cities, that together comprise more than 7,500 guest rooms. Expansive properties are a natural fit for mobile technology, but Gaylord’s approach to finding their specific solution wasn’t so conventional.

“We knew going into this that it shouldn’t be a corporate initiative,” recalls Rik Reitmaier, CIO of Gaylord Entertainment. “We decided instead to go to the most progressive properties and choose front desk agents and bring them onto an innovation team.” The team also included convention services and sales members, property-level managers, and both corporate and property IT staff. “We chose those folks who were interested in mobility and had passion about the change,” explains Reitmaier.

Inspired by the innovation strategies of best-selling author Daniel Pink, Reitmaier assembled a team of about 20 highly motivated employees and provided them with three things: a purpose (in this case, develop a mobile application for delivering guest services via iPads), time to master a solution, and the autonomy needed to problem solve. Reitmaier’s role in the process was to remove road blocks. “To make innovation successful, you need to give folks autonomy that you won’t ultimately lock down with systems. The team had daily meetings and each week they came back to me as the commissioner of the project. Anything they had with regard to roadblocks, I worked on removing those blocks,” such as systems they couldn’t access or bypass.

The catch? Spend as little as possible. “I told them we had to either find it in the app store for free, or it needs to cost very little. You’d be amazed at how much stuff is in the app store.” For example, the team found a free tool for emulating a green screen onto an iPad to run their Agilysys LMS (www.agilysys.com) software. They added a light version of HOTSOS (www.hotsos.com) called H2go that can create and receive work orders. The devices run Citrix (www.citrix.com), Gaylord’s JAVA-based property portal solution, which provides access to Newmarket’s Daylight Sales & Catering software (www.newmarketinc.com), and a suite of Microsoft Office (www.microsoft.com) products. A file browser app gives access to Gaylord’s shared folders, which is a big win for sales and convention staffers who can now show off photos of event space to prospective customers. The devices have all the major airlines’ apps loaded for boarding pass printing, and they use Apple’s BUMP technology to share PDF files such as maps, menus and directions. Through a variety of applications, staff members can print folios, create keys, initiate checkouts, and they have limited check-in capabilities.

“There was a real ah-ha moment in seeing how much is out there on the
AppExchange,” recalls Reitmaier. This accessibility helped them reach implementation phase within four months of the pilot, which would have been impossible had they built out apps and integration points. “We knew if we started having to integrate, it was going to take six or seven more months, so we tried to be creative in saying, ‘there are products out there already, let’s use those so that we don’t have to build stuff.’”

The biggest cost came with the installation of Zenprise (www.zenprise) for mobile device management. “It solves security issues because if a device is lost or stolen, Zenprise wipes everything for you. We can also see what applications people are using, and what they’re installing to make sure there’s a business need.”

There are currently more than 200 iPads in associates’ hands across all four Gaylord locations. All properties have deployed iPads at the concierge and front desks, and at the Florida property receptionists use the devices at elevator lobbies to check-out guests as they walk to valet. Convention services at the Texas property have now gone paperless with contracts and banquet event orders (BEOs), saving more than 60,000 sheets of paper annually.

Next, Gaylord is planning to pilot a credit card sled. “We are working on a solution that will let us be at the valet, at the airport and all around inside and outside our hotels.”  They’re also working with Newmarket to integrate their Daylight product into Salesforce. “It’s a separate project that will feed into this mobility component, and would create a lead generation and execution engine for sales and convention teams.”

Once the iPads were implemented, Reitmaier visited the properties to ask associates for feedback on the devices. He found out that sometimes, less-than-perfect is okay. “They told us, ‘This device isn’t perfect, but it is valuable to me, and we will allow you to have a little bit less than perfect implementation because this device is so useful for us.’” Since associates value the devices, breakage from carelessness and theft haven’t been an issue. A leather cover protects each iPad and thus far has proved durable enough. “We’ve lost one but for the most part they take good care of it.”

Infrastructure Innovator: Hilton Worldwide
HSIA becomes Consistent and Reliable on a Global Scale

It’s been six years since Hilton Worldwide (www.hiltonworldwide.com) first rolled out StayConnected, its proprietary solution for high-speed Internet access (HSIA). Connectivity to the guestroom was pegged even then, before the days of smartphones and tablets, as a business-critical application. In 2007, just one year later, the iPhone was introduced and Hilton’s leading-edge solution, along with the rest of the lodging industry, was rapidly being outpaced by consumer connectivity demands.

At the same time, Hilton was experiencing significant international growth and it became necessary to deliver consistent HSIA globally. In 2009, the hotel company set out to overhaul StayConnected and resolve several core problems with its infrastructure, most notably a patchwork of providers delivering inconsistent service, insufficient capacity, and declining guest satisfaction.

Hilton identified a set of criteria and required that all HSIA providers re-qualify to meet a set of expectations for delivering consistency, quality, measurability, cost control, and 3G offload. The goal was to build a rock-solid technical infrastructure for offering innovative, guest-facing services on mobile devices across each hotel’s wireless network. Four vendors were re-qualified to provide HSIA globally: AT&T (www.att.com) in the U.S. and Canada, British Telecom Openzone (www.btopenzone.com) in the UK/Ireland, iBahn (www.ibahn.com) in EMEA and Asia Pac, and Guest-Tek (www.guest-tek.com) in Latin America and the Caribbean. Hilton Worldwide is now the first and only global hotel company to deploy a consistent HSIA program, with detailed standards, technical specifications, and monitoring capabilities, across 3,800 hotels in 88 countries.

With the new iteration of StayConnected, Hilton changed its approach to determining bandwidth needs by starting in the guestroom, and working up. “Our customers are bringing a lot more devices, and they’re bringing devices that aren’t as strong from a signal perspective as the laptop,” says John Flack, VP, core technical services, information technology, Hilton Worldwide. “The iPhone and iPad need a stronger signal, so we adjusted our standards to give each guest a certain amount of bandwidth, and from there we determine the size of the pipe we’ll need. I see a lot of cases where hotels try to minimize the cost of high-speed by using bandwidth shaping applications that throttle bandwidth down. I totally disagree with that,” says Flack. “If we try to scale back or throttle, we don’t serve the guest. We make sure that the bandwidth we designate as the minimum amount will run the most popular applications today.”

As to ownership reactions, Flack admits that it’s not always an easy process. “In some areas it’s been positive, and in others there have been some challenges. In any technology initiative, there are always bumps in the road with the transition piece of it. We had some service issues, but we continuously review and have strict service-level agreements with our partners, and we’re moving in the right direction.”

The list of benefits for guests, owners, and corporate brand alike is a lengthy one, and may ultimately buffer any concerns. The system now allows real-time online monitoring of bandwidth consumption and system utilization at the hotel, brand, or system level, and automatically alerts operators if usage passes pre-defined thresholds. StayConnected AT&T support fees are frozen at $3.50 per room per month for the entire five-year duration of the deal, including hardware maintenance.

For guests, payoffs come not only with consistent accessibility and a consistent log-on experience, but also in applications, which include USA Today’s mobile digital newspaper (currently in trials) and in some properties concierge services to the guestroom via iPads. “To try and do what we’ve done with USA Today in a consistent manner with hundreds of different high speed providers is nearly impossible,” says Flack. For AT&T customers, access comes at no cost when they log in with their AT&T credentials and those with select smartphones will benefit from auto-authentication. The network will also enable 3G offload to improve voice and data quality. “Five or six years ago, people thought HSIA would go away because everyone would carry 3G or 4G and not need our network. The opposite has happened. Carriers can’t keep up to provide adequate infrastructure and are starting to throttle back heavy users. Now that we have a consistent infrastructure, we can do a 3G offload [for certain carriers] and allow customers to use our network.”

At the same time the first iteration of StayConnected was launched, the buzzword for hotel networking was “future proof,” but the pace of innovation has shown that’s not truly possible. “The amount of bandwidth will always need to change, and any new infrastructure typically lasts about five years,” says Flack. What StayConnected does provide is the ability to be proactive. “We have insight and reporting to every hotel and four partners watching that performance extremely closely to make those changes when they need to be done, rather than being reactive. From a future proof perspective, I think we’re definitely at the front of the pack, being able to react quickly to what may come down the pike.”

Infrastructure Innovator:
La Quinta Inns & Suites
Inside La Quinta’s Cloud-based Property Management Initiatives

La Quinta Inns & Suites (www.lq.com) was facing a problem that seems like a good dilemma to have. The company was enjoying a period of growth and quickly outpacing its technological infrastructure. The expense of maintaining equipment — computers, servers and PBX systems — was becoming prohibitive and since the property management system was being fed rates and reservations from different systems, when there was breakage, reservations were being missed.

“The cost was pretty high because we are a limited service segment and the size of our hotels don’t warrant a full time IT staff at the hotels attending to tech issues,” Vivek Shaiva, CIO, recalls. “Every time there was a problem we had to dispatch someone and breakage was high because the equipment was aging.”

Shaiva and his team began looking for better ways to manage the hotel’s infrastructure, focusing on centralizing the property management system and transitioning the custom-developed central reservation system to a software-as-a-service model. The first step was getting one pipeline for voice data into the property, allowing the hotel to decommission the old telephone line. “We saved 40 percent on that alone,” Shaiva reveals. “We needed to move the voice traffic away from the decentralized line into the hotel and leverage the same circuit for data as well.” La Quinta rolled out the new Verizon (www.verizon.com) LPN circuit across the entire property. The circuit is a T1, but has additional management and shaping capability that allows La Quinta to prioritize the voice and data separately on the same circuit.

The next order of business was moving the property database to a centralized location; the legacy PMS was designed as a client-server application, meaning that a PC (client) runs the application and a server runs the database. The application talks to the server and everything is collocated at the property. Shaiva and his team decided to explore moving both the client and server to a centralized system and looked to a tool called a DIGI device that can expose the field to the centralized PMS in the cloud over the same network.

Before rolling out any initiative, La Quinta employed an extensive trial. In a lab scenario, La Quinta set up servers and then put the client in the corporate office to test the functionality. The next step was to see how many property management systems could be loaded on one “blade” or server. The results were about three to four PMS per blade. Once initial testing was completed, the next process was moving off the legacy PMS to the new PMS in the cloud. This was done one property at a time to ensure there were no hiccups.

One of the major reasons La Quinta was able to support its growth was because of the switch from the in-house custom developed CRS to a SaaS model. The prior system was managed by internal staff and was experiencing challenges as the chain grew. “We couldn’t support the growth of the chain on that system anymore,” Shaiva asserts. “If we added more properties on the old system it would have failed.”

As part of the strategy of moving everything to the cloud, La Quinta moved the CRS to a third party provider, Pegasus Solutions (www.pegs.com), that holds and manages the whole infrastructure in the data center and links up to the data center that holds the PMS. “Now reservations aren’t being sent down to individual hotels, they are just being sent between data centers which is much more efficient,” Shaiva notes. La Quinta now enjoys a 99.9% success rate in reservation delivery and response times went from an average of 15 minutes, down to one minute.

Shaiva believes the strategy of utilizing an outside company that specializes in software development was a sound one. “Moving to a product-based model for CRS has enabled us to deploy innovative strategies,” Shaiva insists. “One of things we did with them includes revenue management capabilities in the system that are pretty unique. It has provided a competitive advantage and supported growth because we can sell that to potential franchisees.”

Data security, peace of mind
An added bonus for Shaiva has been the peace of mind from moving data out of the property level. “It’s a no-brainer to me in some respects,” he notes. “If you think about it, hosting the PMS on-property is the most unsecure environment — anyone can gain access to the back office.”

The terminals in use at La Quinta properties no longer store data. All sensitive information is in the center protected by severe security measures. “We don’t share our infrastructure,” Shaiva explains. “It’s dedicated hardware just for us and there is a camera recording 24/7 so we can see anyone physically accessing our system.”

La Quinta also went through a rigorous PCI compliance exercise three years ago which checked all the aspects of the hotel’s data security and a third party assessed the company’s security capabilities. “I feel good about the security aspect of how we deployed our cloud solution,” Shaiva asserts. “When we started out we had 450 to 500 hotels and today we have about 800. We’ve almost doubled the size of the chain. We wouldn’t have been able to support the growth of our hotels without this undertaking.”


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