Leading an Industry

By Abigail A Lorden | June 01, 2007

What does it mean to exceed guest expectations? For the ultra-luxurious lodging company Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, it comes down to two concepts that are simple in nature and yet the mastery of their execution remains elusive enough to separate the visionaries from the rest of the pack. These two concepts are 'surprise' and 'delight,' which ultimately mean knowing what the guest wants before the guest does.

The company operates some of the world's most prestigious luxury hotels and resorts in the worldÃ.‚¬Å¡Ã‚¬ currently numbering 20 with an additional 14 under development. "At our end of the industry, meeting an expectation simply isn't good enough," explains Nick Price, CIO/CTO. "The expectation is to beat it."

Mandarin Oriental has mastered guest surprise and delight via tactics and processes that are both technologically impressive and splendidly simple. The company strives to have an understating of a guest's personal preferences in order to infer what they might like. This means reordering television channels for a Japanese guest so that Japanese channels appear at the top instead of buried in the 100s. This type of experience draws out from the guest what Price refers to as, "Wow, I never expected to see that here," moments.

At the heart of the Mandarin Oriental approach is a comprehensive profile of each guest. Profiles vary based on guest VIP level and can include everything from researching a favorite drink so it may offered before it's requested, to including the guest's photo in his or her profile so that staff can recognize the individual and greet him or her personally.

"We capture and store information about our guests," explains Monika Nerger, Mandarin Oriental's VP of technology for the Americas. "Some of this information is gleaned through previous stays. We may also use Google or whatever tools are available to learn more about the person's preferences," she notes.

Each Mandarin Oriental staff member that would have an opportunity to interact with the guest ¬ the capture phase- has the ability to store that data. The company uses PAR Springer-Miller's property management system ( www.springer miller.com), which on the guest delivery side is coupled with MTech's HoTSOS mobile solution on handheld devices ( www.m-tech.com). HotSOS lets Mandarin Oriental distribute guest preferences and requests in a real-time, web-based environment.

"In New York, for example, our hotel doesn't start until floor 36 of the Time Warner Center," explains Nerger. "The guest is greeted at the street level by Mandarin Oriental staff who immediately use HoTSOS to inform bell and valet staff that Mr. and Mrs. Smith have arrived. As the elevator door opens to the Mandarin lobby, the Smiths are greeted personally."

Additional personalization includes such touches as including the guest's name in a welcome message posted on the in-room entertainment system. If housekeeping has noted that a guest prefers the room be set to 70 degrees, it will be adjusted as such in preparation for arrival. When ordering room service, the staff member taking the order might see the dietary preferences of the guest via a VoIP phone system. If that guest is known to be a vegetarian, the staff member will highlight appropriate offerings without needing to be prompted by the guest.

Mandarin Oriental attributes much of its 'surprise and delight' success to being on the cutting edge of technology. "IT is very core to our business strategy and considered a pillar and a differentiator," says Nerger. "We are willing to invest and be innovators, which takes both a certain amount of risk and a commitment." Mandarin Oriental has embraced both of those. "We have to be brave enough to try," Price agrees. "It's logical that we be on the cutting edge. When you're a leader in the industry, your guests expect and want that you should know something about them."

2007 Hotel Visionary: Ginn Resorts
Award: Overall Technological Innovation

Ginn Resorts is unique in the hospitality industry. At its core, Ginn is a land developer specializing in building and operating exclusive, high-end luxury resorts and lifestyle communities that are also completely family friendly. It's one of the largest privately-held real estate development and management firms in the Southeast United States with nearly 40,000 acres of land currently under development.

Ginn Resorts' properties sprawl over hundreds ¬ even thousands ¬ of acres and include such features as residential units, boating marinas, golf courses, concert venues, spas, convention space and multiple restaurants. Units are sold to those looking to make a home on the property and owners may choose to include their unit in the property's rental pool (and about 40 percent to 60 percent of them do) allowing Ginn to rent the unit to vacationers during mutually agreed upon time periods.

This unique business model creates a scenario where IT investments are funded, in some cases, by unit owners, depending upon what's being installed where. For example, all units that will be included in the rental program are built with what Ginn calls the Entire Furnishings Package. The package is part of the unit's purchase price and includes all furniture, house wares/kitchen/laundry items, and all technology. For the IT part, it includes such features as iPod docking stations, plasma televisions, video on demand, multiple DVD players, a Bose surround system, and an integrated remote control that even ties into the unit's lighting and can be managed centrally by the property in the event there's
a malfunction.

"We're not making the investment, our owner is," explains Darrin Pinkham, Ginn's vice president of technology. "We've sold the owner on why this is so important." This dynamic requires that Ginn Resorts delivers only the best solutions to its unit owners to earn their trust.

The sprawling properties also have wireless HSIA access throughout. "We tout ourselves as offering wireless everywhere," says Pinkham. Accomplishing this, he notes, was no easy task. "Infrastructure was a huge issue for us," he recalls. "We put fiber into every unit so that we could get 15 megs of bandwidth for HSIA, 170 plus television channels, and security monitoring." Ginn puts wireless access points wherever necessary to achieve this connectivity, including mounting them on street poles. They're even testing placing wireless access points on golf carts for an upcoming tournament.

Resorts are completely cashless and have a "no tipping" policy, so when a guest makes a reservation, a credit card number is added to the account. Once checked in, a guest is given a magnetic stripe key card that works anywhere throughout the resort and places all charges on the guest's folio. Children and teens can be given cards with incremental value to safeguard their spending.

By the third quarter of 2007, resorts will offer owners an RFID-enabled card which will provide access to the property and venues within it. Like the mag-strip cards, the RFID card will route charges directly to the folio. The company is holding off on providing the RFID-enabled cards to guests until the technology becomes more affordable (at present, it's four times as expensive as the key card solution the resorts currently use). In the mean time, guests will continue to use the magnetic stripe cards with the VingCard ( www.vingcard.com) locking solution. Additionally, biometric finger print readers are used for locker access in a few locations.

"At the end of the day, our owners are investing in a location that they're most likely going to retire to. They are looking to purchase a secure experience where all their needs are met. For that reason, everything we do is done to a very high-end scale," explains Pinkham. "If you never had to ask for something when you're at a property ÃÆ'Â.Ã.Ã.‚¬Å¡Ã‚¬" everything was taken care of ÃÆ'Â.Ã.Ã.‚¬Å¡Ã‚¬" you're going to remember that."

2007 Hotel Visionary: Hilton Hotels Corp.
Award: Excellence in Business Intelligence

If there's any company in the lodging industry that has identified the importance of business intelligence to serving its guests, it's Hilton Hotels Corporation. Business intelligence is a term that's relatively new to the hospitality industry, though the concept it describes has been around for some time.

Business intelligence (BI) refers to the applications and technologies that are used to gather, provide access to, and analyze data and information about company operations. Many operators employ BI tactics informally, tracking customer relationship management data, for example. A formalized BI strategy, however, requires robust data tracking, storage and organizational tools. Data should be more than a conglomeration of facts or stats ÃÆ'Â.Ã.Ã.‚¬Å¡Ã‚¬" it should be actionable and allow a company to respond in real time to guest preferences and service delivery issues.

Hilton has done just that ¬ the company has created a platform to collect, store, manage and leverage data. The proprietary platform is dubbed OnQ and stretches across all Hilton Hotels Corp. brands. It's a reservation system, a data warehouse, a property management system, a revenue management system, and a guest profile manager all in one. Having one tool to track, store and analyze all of this data allows the company to provide a single view of its guests across all properties. OnQ gives guest information to Hilton staff on demand, prompting them to act on queue to guest preferences. It expands upon storing just room preferences (such as bed size, smoking or non-smoking room, etc.) to also store guests' travel purposes and offer applicable add-ons, such as an exercise or pamper package. The system also records preferences for earning loyalty points, such as 500 bonus points or complimentary in-room snacks and beverages.

"We want to empower our team members to serve our guests," explains Bob Baker, Hilton's vice president of OnQ solutions. "If we know about some of the things they like in their room so they don't have to ask for it every time, we can offer that."

The tool also allows Hilton to look at trends over time as well. "Our guests have different needs at different times, so we monitor how we can associate those needs with the experience," says Baker.

The tool also empowers Hilton staff to respond to service delivery issues in a prompt and sensitive manor. A mix-up at the spa, for example, can be detailed in a guest's profile. The host at the on-site restaurant can have access to that information and take extra care when seating and serving that guest.

Though OnQ has allowed Hilton to make great strides in its business intelligence and guest experience initiatives, the company is by no means ready to rest on its laurels. "It's a never ending journey," explains Baker. "It's something we're always improving. As we learn more about our guest, we learn more about what we can do to serve them."

The company is moving toward being able to shape interactions based on a guest's particular interests. "I would see us evolving to offer a vacation to a customer based on who they are as opposed to where they're going or what's available," says Baker. In this scenario, Hilton would suggest a property based on the type of experience the guest wanted: a mountain retreat, a beach vacation, a wedding venue, etc. "We'd sell to our guests based on who they are as opposed to simply where they are going."

At the end of the day, business intelligence allows a lodging company to provide better customer service, and that service is a valuable differentiator. "All hotels have beds, and of course we need to make sure that ours' meet the needs of our guests," says Baker. "But we really can differentiate through service. Sometimes being more hospitable to our guests comes from knowledge that we can impart through technology."

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