As technology becomes more prevalent in every aspect of business and people’s lives, hotel companies across segments must constantly seek ways to address the ever-evolving desires of tech-dependent customers while streamlining operations. As hotels look for creative and affordable ways to stay one step ahead of the competition, some emerge as leaders in implementing technology to improve functions and service.
For nine years, Hospitality Technology magazine has been honoring lodging operators with its Hotel Visionary Awards. 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 Choice Hotels International, Conrad Hotels & Resorts, Hyatt Hotels Corporation, and Red Roof Inn.
Each of these companies has found truly innovative ways to utilize technology to move forward in the lodging space. HT is pleased to honor these forward-thinkers as they are shaping what processes stand to become industry standards. Here are their stories.
CUSTOMER-FACING INNOVATOR: Choice Hotels International
TECH Team Leverages PMS to Aid in Search for Missing Children
Technology projects are often rooted in improving customer service or some area of overall operations. In a break from that norm, the IT team at Choice Hotels International, (www.choicehotels.com), was seeking a way to leverage the company’s extensive technology network to perform some sort of service to the community. “Choice does a lot of community service projects, but many are hands-on with employees donating their time to worthwhile causes,” explains Todd Reeser, the company’s director of customer information services and Choice portals. “We in IT thought, ‘we have such a broad reach with our hotels and technology, what can we do with service work?’” Acting on a potential fit, a member of the corporate office reached out to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), (www.missingkids.com), for information on becoming a secondary distributor of AMBER Alerts.
The AMBER Alert Program is designed to quickly notify the public in the search for an abducted child by providing information about the child, their potential abductor, and any vehicle that may have been used in the abduction. The U.S. Department of Justice coordinates the AMBER Alert program on a national level and has asked the NCMEC to develop a network of secondary distributors with the ability to deliver the alerts to a larger audience.
“It just gelled,” Reeser recalls, and work began to develop a near real-time interface with NCMEC and Choice’s proprietary ChoiceADVANTAGE property management system (PMS). Reeser was the development manager for the team effort. “It wasn’t another IT project about RevPar or occupancy. We were focused on what can we do for the people, and that’s what made it a passion for everyone involved. We didn’t even track budget — it didn’t matter — we just did it and madeit work.”
A web-based interface allows the NCMEC servers to connect to Choice
ADVANTAGE anytime there is information about an AMBER Alert, including new, updated or cancelled alerts. Alert information is stored in the Choice ADVANTAGE database and appears on users’ screens based on their geographical location. The arrangement allows for AMBER Alert messages to post on the computer screens of PMS users almost as soon as they have been issued by law enforcement and redistributed by NCMEC.
Choice CIO Todd Davis explains: “It reaches every desktop computer, every laptop in the area of an active AMBER Alert where our franchisees use choiceADVANTAGE. So when they are checking a guest in or out, looking up the housekeeping status of a room or anything else related to managing their hotels, they will see the AMBER Alert and will be able to act if necessary.”
Information is distributed nationwide across 5,100 Choice Hotels’ franchised properties where its PMS is used. Since 2009 when this arrangement began, choiceADVANTAGE has processed more than 600 AMBER Alerts.
Reeser encourages peers at other hotel brands to look into becoming a secondary distributor of AMBER Alerts. “It’s such a key point; logic seems to be the case that people might head to a hotel, and if so, you’d have the description of people and vehicles that law enforcement teams are looking for.”
CUSTOMER-FACING INNOVATOR: Conrad Hotels & Resorts
Conrad Launches Fully Integrated Hotel Management App
Allowing guests the “Luxury of Being Yourself,” is a mantra for Conrad Hotels & Resorts (www.conradhotels.com). Born of that phrase and the ever-increasing necessity to appeal to mobile device-linked guests, the company launched its Conrad Concierge mobile application. While other hotels have deployed virtual concierge applications, Conrad’s mission was to take that a step further. “We wanted to launch something that would embrace technology and give guests the freedom to customize their stay,” explains Tim Loughman, vice president innovation & guest experience, Hilton Worldwide, parent company of Conrad Hotels & Resorts.
One of the first decisions made with the project was to prioritize mobility. Loughman explains that they made the conscious decision to not add any additional technology to the guest room because modern guests already travel with two or three types of devices. “They have enough technology, what we want to do is link up that technology for them,” Loughman explains.
Using the Conrad Concierge mobile application, guests can perform a variety of functions: making pre-arrival requests such as choosing specific bathroom amenities, customizing what is in the guestroom, pre-ordering room service, requesting turn-down services, or scheduling a valet to bring a car around. Off-property, guests can search for local attractions on a map with wayfinding.
They can also make restaurant reservations and at the end of their stay check-out through the app.
Guests’ app activity is then stored in Conrad Hotels’ customer relationship management (CRM) system. “When we looked at our hotels, there was a myriad of different systems from the front desk to food and beverage, dispatch, reservation, and Hilton Honors reward stay program,” Loughman describes. “We wanted to focus on how to combine all of those to really make it seamless for the customer.”
This was particularly important in the area of creating a consistent booking experience for guests. Without enough time to rebuild all of the booking components, and realizing that having two apps in various stores would result in an inconsistent message, the Conrad Concierge combines two apps into one.
While the guest-facing portion of the application was important, it wouldn’t have been complete without transforming back-of-house elements by adding interfaces between systems that did not previously exist. Conrad Hotels worked with Intelity (www.intelitycorp.com) to develop the interfaces that would link with existing vendors such as Hilton’s OnQ property management system. “Most Conrad Hotels also run on Micros from a food and beverage systems standpoint and it was imperative to make sure that all the properties were on a common platform so we could write an interface to that,” Loughman states. “There was a lot of behind the scenes work so we could link to what we call dispatch systems.” That work paid off, as Conrad Concierge has the distinction of being the first hospitality software platform completely integrated with hotel management systems across an entire brand portfolio.
Loughman believes Conrad Concierge is a true global application, in part, because it allows guests to select from 13 languages and stores their selection for future use. “Once we had the translations, we had to go back to individual hotels and make sure they made sense,” Loughman recalls. “We wanted to make sure that the voice of Conrad as a brand came through, regardless of translation, in every language. We worked with the marketing and PR folks on a global level to make sure that the translations sounded, felt and looked like they were coming from one place.”
Speed to market was a top priority. The Conrad Concierge went live on November 28, 2012 after four months that included conceptualization, design, development and testing. Since its launch the company reports significant upticks in satisfaction. “Guests can do things and get things with ease and if they didn’t want to communicate with our team, they didn’t have to,” Loughman explains. “The number of requests per guest has doubled from guests using the app.”
The Conrad Concierge rollout provided useful lessons for Hilton in rolling out global applications for other brands. “This was really the first step for Hilton Worldwide into what we want to do from a mobility and application standpoint for our customers,” Loughman admits. “At the forefront, it’s a shift in how customers will interact with hotels. There is little room for error and our employees have rallied around that. I think our team members have embraced the challenge that these are requests coming directly from the customer.
INFRASTRUCTURE INNOVATOR: Hyatt Hotels Corporation
Hyatt Gains Competitive Edge with Group Billing System
Catering and convention services are a big part of business for many hotel companies, but often the processing of group bills is clunky, time-consuming and prone to inaccuracies that can result in lost revenue. Hyatt Hotels (www.hyatt.com), which boasts 60% of total North American revenue in 2012 coming from groups/catering, recognized that the process for meeting planners to invoice and resolve bills was poor, in the sense that group bills were arcane at best – often basically photocopies of documents including checks with limited itemized descriptions from the POS. “It was not only hard to read, but hard to reconcile as well.”
The legacy process that was in place was complex and time-consuming for convention services managers and Hyatt sought a solution that would save them valuable time that could be better spent prospecting future customers, generating sales and planning for incoming business. The challenge for Hyatt was how to generate an accurate and timely group bill that was easy to read and tied closely to the actual order itself. “We started to think about opportunities to provide a group bill in which menu descriptions are exactly the same and quantities are represented exactly the same, so when it comes time to reconcile, you’re basically just flipping pages,” Cowell explains.
As the Hyatt team worked to deliver a solution, they realized that many inefficiencies were caused by a lack of integration between systems. The project, a custom development initiative managed internally by Hyatt IT, required the integration of five separate vendor solutions with the Group Bill application. Event planning and detailing information is captured in Hyatt’s Envision sales system and the Newmarket Daylight Catering System (www.newmarketinc.com). The event detail is then fed into the Group Bill system which automates activities that were historically done manually – or not at all. The Group Bill function associates event details with actual charges entered into the POS and PMS, shows exceptions between event details and what was actually charged in real time, and formats the bill.
One of the major areas of improving efficiency is what Cowell refers to as reconciliation. “A lot of charges go into the Agilysys, (www.agilysys.com), Infogenesis POS, while some like room charges come from the Micros PMS, (www.micros.com), and all this gets brought together into a common bill and gets verified against the order,” he notes. “We’re leveraging the order not only for presentation, but for reconciliation against what was actualized.” Cowell notes that exceptions (things on bills that haven’t been actualized) are often raised and the Group Bill highlights this, allowing the convention services managers to actually focus on real issues instead of doing discovery.
The Group Bill was beta tested in May and June and started an aggressive rollout in late June. The solution was deployed across 107 full-service properties in a three month period, at a little over 30 hotels a month, or seven to ten a week. Cowell admitted that the relatively extensive beta period was a big help in working out kinks, of which there were only a few, he attests. One issue was mapping – primarily between what information comes out of a banquet order and what goes into a POS. “Items there tend to be more cryptic,” Cowell notes. “But that’s the nature of a POS system. You have to make sure the mapping is strong – when it’s not, you get more exceptions and have to go regenerate checks.”
The Group Bill has averaged a time savings for banquet captains of up to an hour a day just in the entry of bills. “It doesn’t mean that you’ll get fewer banquet captains, it means instead of going home at two in the morning, they go home at one,” Cowell reminds. “They are happier we’ve made their jobs easier and they can focus on other things.”
On the catering side, convention services managers are actually getting bills out within seven days compared to 28 days. “Another point is that the Group Bill has made the finance department happy because we are getting payments faster as a result of the ease of reconciliation on the customer side.”
According to Cowell, Hyatt is considering the Group Bill to be a competitive advantage in the group sales space. “I don’t know how long that is sustainable, but group business is a key component for Hyatt for its full-service properties and we are looking for ways to continue to differentiate ourselves in that market.”
INFRASTRUCTURE INNOVATOR: Red Roof Inn
Red Roof Inn Challenges the PMS vs. CRS Paradigm
Like most hoteliers, Red Roof Inn (www.redroof.com) used an eclectic, multi-vendor portfolio of software products and services to address its operational needs. A mixture of complex interfaces — data mapping, translation tables, and business logic applets within network layers — created an illusion of seamlessness. Even with its elaborate interfaces, Red Roof still had to manually update each individual system daily with data not supported by the interface layer. As a result, the system required excessive manual intervention, long lead times for new functionality, costly and vulnerable data security procedures, and perhaps most challenging for the properties: inaccurate reservations.
The bulk of Red Roof’s challenges centered on their multi-vendor CRS and PMS platforms, meaning guests could show up with a reservation that never made it to the property level, or with a room rate discrepancy. “We book 25,000 to 35,000 room nights per day. All I need is a one percent failure rate and I’ve got a big problem, as every one of these guests is important and we treat any failure as unacceptable. And we’re one of the smaller guys,” says Jeff Linden, CIO, Red Roof.
In 2010, Linden mobilized his team to find a technology partner whose solution was cloud-based, and who was willing to help Red Roof challenge the age-old paradigm of separating the PMS and CRS. Linden believed that the rationale for maintaining two unique platforms was no longer valid, given advancements in web-based architecture. “Why can’t one system be used to service both the PMS functionality and the CRS functionality?” he asked, “so we don’t have to spend all this time and energy keeping two systems in sync.” His logic was based on the notion that both the CRS and PMS have rate/price inventory structures and processes, both have content management functionality, both hold the same reservations, and both aspire to maintain a customer database.
The search confirmed that no one in the market had figured this out yet, especially at a brand/enterprise level the size of Red Roof. Linden identified a like-minded partner in Sabre Hospitality Solutions (SHS,www.sabrehospitality.com). Executives at SHS shared Linden’s belief that the lines between PMS and CRS were blurring, and that a convergence trend was on the horizon. With its SaaS-based CRS and recently-acquired SoftHotel PMS, SHS had the requisite systems to begin the project.
Between June 2011 and June 2012, Red Roof and SHS collaborated on the creation of a cloud-based platform that integrates PMS and CRS functionality. RedRoof has deployed the platform under the private label name RediStay. Seamless interfaces exist with the Red Roof’s call center, group sales, and redroof.com, and with its Libra CRM (www.libraondemand.com). It also integrates to GDS/OTAs, and has a back-office accounting interface centralized with accounts receivable. Red Roof installed over 350 hotels in less than 160 days with only 15 remote trainers, and in June 2012, turned off its legacy CRS. Now all rates, inventory, content, reports, and processes are generated from a single database using the same business logic throughout.
“I think it’s probably a cultural paradigm that we’re challenging right now,” explains Linden. “Traditionally the brands have focused on central distribution with their own homegrown product and have relegated the PMS to a purchased, third-party system required at their properties. That’s been the typical paradigm, but with cloud and SaaS, brands can and should be in a place of providing the property management piece.”
Consolidating the data platforms has allowed Red Roof to cut costs in multiple areas, including a 50% reduction of SQL licensing and hosting costs, a 60% reduction of web server hosting costs, and a 20% reduction in on-property hardware costs. Also at the property level, guests are no longer met with missing reservations or inaccurate rate quotes. Central group sales can now provide an end-to-end booking contract without requiring the hotel’s intervention, and yet have the ability to auto-generate alerts to the property notifying them of the bookings.
“As the marketplace evolves, it’s just logical for these things to be brought together,” says Linden. “We saw the benefit to our business and our customers, so, where others are dabbling in it, we took the leap. Once you put your toe in the water with centralized systems, bringing the other stuff on board is such a natural fit. Eventually, we’ll all look back and say, ‘why wasn’t this always the case?’”