Until recently, systems integration appeared to be a never-ending problem for hotel operators, but enormous strides have been made over the past two years in the direction of open-ended architecture. Hospitality Technology Next Generation (htng.org) and the Open Travel Alliance (opentravel.org) initiatives are spearheading these efforts, providing interface specifications and compliance guidelines in the move towards seamless integration.
The next generation
"Hotel systems integration ultimately falls to the hotels themselves to design and accomplish, because no one vendor can support it,"explains Doug Rice, executive director of Hospitality Technology Next Generation (HTNG). "Every single hotel anywhere in the world with more than one system has to be in the integration business whether they like it or not—and they don't."Reasons for this problem include a fractionated vendor community, and the fact that the average hotel currently needs 50-60 technology systems to function. Proposed solutions include enterprise-wide systems, and best-of-breed solutions that work together. "There is no enterprise-wide system in this industry yet. Some call it that, but they don't cover more than three to five of the 60-70 systems per hotel,"says Rice "Because there is no one company responsible for making two systems work together, vendors are blaming each other for failures."
We are starting to see varying types of consolidation, with third-party integrators and vendors working together to offer different, but compatible, products. Hotel CTOs want this, especially for systems delivery, communications interfaces and support. Progress has been at the margins, with some vendors providing support for three or four other products (at the operator's request), and remote diagnosis and support for newer systems increasing each year.
HTNG has some overlap in the distribution area with the Open Travel Alliance (OTA). Of HTNG's three active workgroups--in-room technology/guest room of the future; Web services/inter-systems communication; and property distribution/interoperability of reservations, PMS, and RMS— the third area is using OTA specifications for exchanging and distributing information.
Back to the future
The OTA now has a fully featured and functioning specification for PMS, reservations and inter- and intra-partner communications, which has been adopted by all the major global distribution systems, hotel chains, airlines, and car rental companies, according to OTA chairman Mike Kistner. "Now OTA compliance means creating business rules, adoption and certification, around the spec—not rigid adherence—which is why we chose XML (extensible mark-up langauge) for our core interface spec,"he explains. Kistner credits both HTNG and Microsoft for their smarter computing initiatives, which put more pressure on PMS vendors, "and dragged them kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Operators are now saying, It's crazy for me to support 14 different interfaces and employ many different programmers for a PMS, when the information is basically the same."
Kistner, who is also CIO and senior VP of distribution for Best Western, has been able to reap the benefits of the OTA specification for the hotel chain's 63 PMS on a global basis. He cites among Best Western's successes the fact that five PMS vendors are now certified with a true two-way interface to their reservation system, and that they now have an industry standard approach, with vendors signing a service-level agreement (SLA) which includes maintenance, response times, and interface enhancements. They also have international affiliates embracing a true two-way interface, and their technical people have shortened the list of international PMS vendors from 363 to 40. Kistner feels that today's integration problems also stem from reengineering legacy systems with grafting capabilities, while newer systems leapfrog over them.
How will all this look in five years' time? "I see the industry going back to the future, with the Internet providing reliable bandwidth for the ASP model from the property to a centralized data store. The CRS and PMS will become one, or more tightly coupled, with the PMS as a window to that database, eliminating another duplication of data. Operators will have access to a centralized system rather than managing it themselves, providing a single inventory,"Kistner explains. As advice to other operators, he recommends that they don't use technology to
automate pre-existing bad practices, like having 600 different rate plans for one 80-unit property. "Understand room types and rate plans, then onward distribution channels. Also check vendor testimonials: Do other customers swear by it, or swear at it?"
Things are definitely starting to come around in this area. "We've seen enormous progress from our vendors in the last two years--a quantum leap,"enthuses Steve Watson, VP of Finance for the Biltmore Estate. "We were wondering: How are we going to get out of this quagmire?' but now they're opening up their back ends so we can get to our data more easily."In May 2004, the Biltmore integrated its back-office functions, through Epicor's (epicor.com) Cash Receipts Module, with its POS and PMS systems. Previously they'd been inputting financial data manually or into Excel spreadsheets. "Now, our account clerks and number crunchers have become auditors and analysts, and drastically improved accuracy and speed,"Watson explains. The 213-room, 4-star hotel, which opened four years ago at the request of visitors to the Estate, is 20 percent of the Biltmore Company's business, which also includes four restaurants, a working farm, a nursery, and a 1.2 million-bottle-a-year winery, in addition to the House itself.
For the implementation, they formed a small, dedicated task force with decision- making power, a detailed as is' document, and a test plan for users, who were their revenue auditor and staff accountants. They also ran parallel for a few days before the launch, according to systems analyst John Ellis, who spearheaded the project.
The Biltmore now has 64 different software systems and 10 major applications, and the next step planned is to automate data capture. Both the hotel and its vendors are active members of HTNG, and are moving to XML and standards- based open architecture.
"HTNG is core to where we're going,"says Ellis. "Our goal is to have all systems inputted efficiently into GL with a nice audit trail and the accuracy and speed to be able to pull a P&L that day. Long term, we're looking for seamless integration of all systems—plug and play—yanking out old and putting in new. We know the industry is going in the direction that's needed, but how long will it take to get there? Open-ended architecture is an extremely expensive undertaking now."