Hotel Visionary Awards 2014

By Abigail A. Lorden, Editor-in-Chief and Dorothy Creamer, Managing Editor | June 27, 2014

Each year, Hospitality Technology presents a select group of lodging companies with its Hotel Visionary Awards. These awards acknowledge the technology risk takers, the innovators and the thought leaders who are working behind the scenes to create outstanding moments in service and hospitality. This year’s winning companies are Red Lion Hotels Corp., La Quinta Inns & Suites, and Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group. HT is honored to recognize these companies for their efforts. Here are their stories…

CUSTOMER-FACING TECHNOLOGY INNOVATOR:
RED LION HOTELS CORP.
New Face of RedLion.com Drives Bookings with
Retail-Inspired Engine & Hyper-local Content
BY Abigail A. lorden


Three years ago, Spokane-based Red Lion Hotels Corp. was losing ground to the online travel agencies. Over a trailing five-year period, total e-commerce room night contributions for the 53-property hotel company had increased by 25 percent, but bookings through the indirect channel were significantly outpacing the direct channel. The list of ‘whys’ was long: www.redlion.com didn’t offer native support for mobile devices, an inefficient shopping experience required too many clicks, and web architecture hindered both SEO and dynamic content. Social media and compelling local context were lacking at best.

The cumulative effect: redlion.com, which yields higher rates and better margins, was unable to effectively compete with OTAs. “We knew we were at a point where our website and CMS were outdated,” explains Bryan Hopkins, Red Lion’s director of software development. In 2011, Hopkins approached his CIO with a novel concept. Treat prospective customers not as hotel guests but as retail-savvy consumers whose online buying experiences have been shaped by Amazon. Hopkins was honing in on an e-commerce element that hotels typically don’t leverage: the shopping cart.

“Bryan was very intentional in thinking about this from the consumer’s point of view,” recalls David Barbieri, Red Lion’s senior VP and CIO. “If you start talking about the customer as a guest, you fall into a hotel silo. Bryan’s initiative was to talk about the guest as a consumer, and what they need from an e-commerce experience.” The new booking engine allows consumers to book multiple rooms in a single session, even across various properties and different stay dates. Rooms are treated as products in the way they are represented to the customer. “If you look across the industry you see the Expedia standard. We wanted to step away from that and follow the Amazon style; to treat rooms more like products,” says Hopkins.

Based on the philosophy that where you are going is more
important than where you are staying, Red Lion also chose to layer in a corporate-wide branding initiative called Local. Wise., providing hyper-local area information for each property. “Bryan and David had shown the bones of what they had in mind and I was really excited about it,” explains Harry Sladich, Red Lion’s EVP of hotel operations (then EVP, sales & marketing). Sladich drove the Local. Wise. campaign, honing in on data from the U.S. Travel Association, where he sits on the board. “Travelers feel they don’t have an advocate and are desperate for unique, local experiences. They really want to come back from a trip and feel that they learned something — that they bonded with friends,” Sladich says.

Although localism is already a hot trend in the lodging industry, Sladich believes that Red Lion’s emersion leads the pack. Each of the 53 properties’ sites now brings in local content curated by the individual hotel: favorite places to eat and shop, area attractions, recreation, etc. The local site for the Anaheim, Calif., hotel (www.anaheim.redlion.com) opens with this headline: “With all due respect to the rest of our website, this is easily our favorite page. It gives us a chance to highlight the difference between just staying in Anaheim and actually experiencing Anaheim — the places, the people, the things to do that only folks who love the area can really tell you about. Folks like us.”
Property sites exist independently from the corporate
redlion.com site , but the embedded booking engine keeps the shopping experience seamless. Red Lion’s marketing, distribution and development teams worked with TravelCLICK (www.travelclick.com) on site design, navigation and SEO.

Red Lion also recognized that its loyalty program could be a valuable asset in driving direct bookings. Redlion.com offers a guaranteed lowest rate — lower than any other unfenced rate available in any other channel — to frequency program members.  The frequency program is now deeply integrated into the overall website and booking engine, even while selecting rates during the booking process.

Initially a separate mobile site was planned to support mobile traffic. However, the unique nature of the booking process, the heavily integrated local content, and the best-rate guarantee drove Red Lion to use a responsive and adaptive framework. Each site is naturally optimized for the device. Red Lion’s CMS is built on the open-source Umbraco (www.umbraco.com) platform. “Because of the CMS, we are able to have the best of both worlds,” says Hopkins. “The sites themselves are responsive in the browser, and our back end is adaptive as well.”

At the end of Q1 2014, revenues in Red Lion’s direct channel were up 22% from the same quarter the prior year. At the end of 2013, three months in from completion, Red Lion had already achieved its 36-month goal for mobile conversion rates. With the old site, “contribution from mobile devices was anemic at best,” says Barbieri, “and that side has just exploded for us, which we all know is critical to our future.”



INFRASTRUCTURE TECHNOLOGY INNOVATOR:
LA QUINTA INNS & SUITES
Performance Engineering Ensures
Well-Delivered Applications
BY Dorothy Creamer, Managing Editor


With 800+ e-commerce sites and more than 20 vendors ranging from central reservation, financial and property management systems, La Quinta Holdings Inc. (La Quinta; www.lq.com) owner, operator and franchisor of La Quinta Inn & Suites and La Quinta Inn branded hotels, needed a way to efficiently offer support across these complex environments.

At the onset La Quinta was facing a number of challenges, including: needing to adapt its project delivery methodologies to support multiple systems that have been deployed over the past few years using cloud and SaaS models; ensuring high uptime system requirements were being met with well performing and highly reliable systems; making sure SLAs were met as well as business and customer needs; and supporting growing e-commerce traffic patterns and growing performance expectations from its customers all while maintaining low transaction error rates.

“What we recognize is the critical nature of application performance, especially on e-commerce website industry metrics. It’s been shown that as performance decreases we’ll see an increase in user abandonment and decrease in customer satisfaction,” John Mathews, director, IT performance engineering, for La Quinta, states. “With that in mind, we undertook a performance engineering initiative to ensure that we do deliver applications that perform well where our customers are pleased and the applications are reliable.”

While the website was the primary motivation, the La Quinta program expands to all applications even those targeted to internal users such as HR and financial systems. Prior to any upgrade, all business applications are run through the performance engineering test

La Quinta built on the solution for performance management one piece at a time, starting with the HP (www.hp.com) LoadRunner performance testing tool which generates load tests and measures and monitors results. Several years ago La Quinta added the HP SiteScope monitoring tool and most recently the Foglight system from Dell (www.dell.com) which involves several servers in La Quinta’s data center supporting the monitoring tools.

Using Foglight, La Quinta is able to detect issues affecting end-users in production, including error bursts and performance dips. Foglight analyzes error trends in production and can also exactly reproduce the steps followed by a user that experienced a problem. More than 4,000 monitors cover all major enterprise applications. These monitors include the typical infrastructure level monitors, but also are focused heavily on measuring UI end user transaction times and reliability, providing the end user perspective on application performance. Deviations from baseline levels trigger alerts from SiteScope, which are immediately acted on by support teams, reducing mean time-to-resolution for system problems.

“We built on these a step at a time and as we integrated each new step we gain a better understanding and see new gaps that we recognize and fill with new tools and processes,” Mathews asserts. Mathews explains that basically La Quinta has developed an integrated process with its 24/7 support teams. Once the monitoring tools identify an out-of-SLA condition, an email alert is sent that automatically opens a service ticket with the support desk. At that time the proper triage teams will be engaged to move forward with the resolution that might be needed.

“What’s increased over the last year or so has been the sophistication of what we can track and alert on,” Vivek Shaiva, EVP and CIO of La Quinta, states. “I think the key here is that the performance engineering is embedded in the development process itself. This is very different from a lot of other companies where it comes as an afterthought. We’ve embedded it not only at the end of the development process, but it’s happening as we go through different cycles of implementation.”

Mathews recalls a recent project to rewrite API service calls supporting the e-commerce website. While the functional testing passed successfully with proper data and parameters being returned, performance testing revealed a large scalability problem. “When we ran through our expected levels we’d see transaction times up to 80 seconds and our goal is one to two seconds,” Mathews notes. “Because we did test it before we went live we were able to work with the team to reproduce the problem and test potential solutions. In a short period of time we were able to identify the cause and address that with a new code.”

When La Quinta retested after the update, performance improved to less than two seconds. “By putting performance testing early in the cycle we prevented this poorly performing service from being promoted,” Mathews says. “We were also able to address it more quickly and troubleshoot.”





IN-ROOM TECHNOLOGY INNOVATOR:
MANDARIN ORIENTAL
HOTEL GROUP

Mandarin Oriental Builds Room,
Literally, for Innovation
BY Dorothy Creamer, Managing Editor


Rapid technology innovation, and in particular its impact on escalating guest expectations, has become a legitimate challenge for hotels. In fact, meeting guest expectations is now ranked as the number one challenge facing hotels’ technology projects, according to HT’s 2014 Hotel Technology Study.

To face this challenge head-on, Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group (MOHG; www.mohg.com) built a 1,600 square-foot Innovation Lab in Atlanta, Georgia. The facility has become a critical source of innovation and product evaluation for both guest-room and property-wide technology rollouts. Many of the brand’s technology standards are tested or evaluated in the lab environment prior to being deployed into operation. According to David Heckaman, VP of technology development, this is saving the company time, money and frustration.

“About four years ago we started down the path of the lab,” recalls Heckaman. “We started fairly slowly around the area of in-room controls and that was a year-long project. Last year we did the networking components with fiber connectivity to the room. This past year, we’ve been focusing on our television displays.”

There’s also a digital signage and digital art facility, and a multi-bay space for testing in-room entertainment systems. Heckaman explains that a real benefit of the lab is its continued evolution. MOHG has plans to add a spa environment, for example, where it will evaluate lighting, audio, ambience, heating, and related control solutions.

The functionality of the Innovation Lab offers MOHG the opportunity to test both production and roadmap versions of various technologies. “We’re able to take a single vendor solution and not only test the existing product, but also innovate without disturbing the production version,” Heckaman explains. For example, they created a TV environment that has both an already-approved version and a forward-looking test of the system.

To test in-room controls, two large cabinets were built, each with multiple compartments. One cabinet is devoted to a single vendor and features all the touchpoints that would be in a room from a controls standpoint, such as heat, lighting, draperies, etc. The other cabinet features a different in-room control vendor in each compartment. This year MOHG is testing solutions from CONTROL4 (www.control4.com), Interel (www.interelme.com) and Evolve (www.evolvcontrols.com). 

The company is also testing guestroom placement of Apple devices for their AirPlay capabilities. The next step will be to determine for which property the technology is best suited. In this case, the project was just implemented at a hotel in Barcelona. “Hotels are capital product-driven,” Heckaman explains. “When they need something, they need it. Our goal is to test it before they need to buy it, not the other way around.”

The Innovation Lab also helps ensure that uptime is not hampered by avoidable delays, for example finding out too late that a new part needs to be ordered. “That would have been really impactful if we had come in to an operating hotel with a bunch of engineers and said, ‘We have to replace these things in a week,’ and then find out it’ll take twice as long to do it,” he says. Working with Cisco Systems (www.cisco.com) on an early field trial basis, Mandarin tested Cisco’s UPoE network switches. This was used to assess remote powering of guestroom-located network switches and downstream IP telephones and access points from IDF UPoE distribution switches. “We were able to test and evaluate design concepts and then, in short order, deploy it in the field,” Heckaman says. “This is a good proof of concept, where the lab did what it was supposed to do.”  

The Innovation Lab has proven to not only be good for the brand itself, but the internal branding of the technology department, according to Heckaman. “We are solving problems, not just spending money for the sake of it.” The space allows other stakeholders to see first-hand, in a working environment, why the technology is important.

As technology is changing constantly — and more rapidly than ever — Heckaman realizes that hotels must innovate to stay competitive.  “As guests change, we want to change with them and the only way to do that is to look at what is coming and figure out how to make it work,” he says. “Our main focus is the customer and improving their level of experience.”

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