Property Management Goes Mobile

By Tammy Mastroberte, Contributing Editor | May 10, 2012

Locked inside property management system are nuggets of gold: house counts, room statuses, pending work orders, reservations. For hotel managers and their teams, the promise of access to this information from anywhere, at any time, can offer a significant competitive edge. That lure is fueling not only interest, but also innovation, in mobile property management solutions. Beyond a flash report on the day’s key performance indicators, more and more hoteliers want to use mobile devices to perform typical PMS functions whenever and wherever they are needed.

Developers are focusing efforts on making PMS functions accessible via mobile devices; but it’s not an easy task, especially for PMS systems that do not reside in the cloud (which is most of them). Developers have critical decisions to make, and want to pour their resources into mobile-enabling those functions that are going to offer the most impact for hoteliers on-the-go.

The functionality wish-list
For some niche properties, the ultimate wish is to have no front desk, and mobile PMS makes that happen. That’s the case for Tremblant Elysium (www.tremblantelysium.com), which manages rentals of 35 luxury vacation homes near Quebec’s Tremblant ski resort. Guests pay for their stay in advance and receive a letter a week ahead containing a private door code, allowing them to drive right to the home rather than stopping by a rental office. A half hour after their arrival, a mobile concierge visits, toting a pre-printed registration card (for signatures) and an iPhone. The concierge accesses Tremblant Elysium’s PMS, the cloud-based FrontDesk Anywhere, (www.frontdeskanywhere.com) via browser for check-in and functions such as inspections, maintenance requests, rentals and reservation changes. Housekeeping staff members also carry iPhones.

“Our business model is highly personalized and mobile,” says Kamal Shah, president and CEO of Tremblant Elysium. “Guests love it because it’s simple and easy, and from a cost-savings standpoint, we don’t have staff waiting around for people to check in.”

According to MSI Solutions (www.msisolutions.com) and FrontDesk Anywhere, the most in-demand mobile PMS functions include GM access to KPIs, CRM and room availability, and front desk staff access to guest information such as comments and special requests, room/work order status and consolidated messaging among staff. Sales folks want to enter transactions and see up-to-date pricing. Housekeeping and maintenance want to view and update room/work order status easily while on the go, and chains/multiple property owners want consolidated reporting across hotels as well as access to individual hotel PMS systems and guest centralized profiles and preferences.  

Some properties also seek customer-facing mobile apps that allow guest self-service, including booking, self check-in/out, service requests, messaging to staff and phone-based locks. Another attractive feature: location-based services based on where the guest is on the property.
 
Navigating platform issues  
The enormous array of consumer apps for mobile devices makes such functionality seem easy, but the truth is, mobile-enabling a PMS is far from simple. The obvious solution would seem to be making functions available via a browser, but that’s not only challenging for most non-browser-based PMS code; it also brings trade-offs in performance and sacrifices some capabilities that can only be accomplished via apps that are native to a particular operating system, such as those using widgets, alerts, GPS or the camera. There are screen size challenges, especially with phones, and the user interface will be different than the fixed terminal version.

The bigger obstacle is which platforms to choose. Android and iOS are leading adoption, but Windows Mobile shares an architecture with many PMS solutions. Code must be re-written for each one, although there are tools like service-oriented architecture and html5 to help. Would-be mobile PMS buyers need to ask developers about the decisions they’ve made on development and their implications for users.

Pomeroy Group (www.pomeroygroup.ca) got a front-row view of MSI Solution’s mobile application development when director of information and training Susie Goodwin was invited to help them in developing iOS apps for WinPM functions. Pomeroy’s focus was largely on equipping executives and general managers with flash reports and enabling execs  and, eventually managers,  to check or change room status, perform inspections and annotate CRM files via iPads and iPods for 13 of its 16 Canadian properties using MSI. “One GM was working with a big customer and said it was so nice to go in the app and see the number of rooms they had with the company names on the rooms,” says Goodwin.

Goodwin asked MSI for customization capabilities, like the ability to set occupancy dashboard indicators (red, yellow, green) according to individual property standards. She notes that the apps have helped both operations and customer service. “It’s absolutely a competitive advantage,” Goodwin praises.

Questions for your technology partners
Operators will naturally have concerns about adopting a mobile PMS across properties. Before investing in a roll-out of new technology, decision-makers must ask the right questions. One major cause of apprehension is the question of whether or not users can access the other systems with which the PMS is integrated. PAR Springer-Miller (www.partech.com) is working with mobile development partner TripCraft (www.tripcraft.com) for mobile apps for its new cloud platform, and already has one for its spa management software.

Security is another hot button issue for hoteliers and raises questions about how data is protected at rest and on the move. Owners should also ask about PCI and other privacy and compliance issues, as well as how devices are protected. One solution is to consider device management software to support a large deployment. There is also the issue of mobile check-in and how guests can get keys. RFID is one option that has been successful for
many properties.

Another point owners and managers can raise when searching for a mobile PMS is, will this solution eliminate paper? WebRezPro (www.webrezpro.com), which currently offers mobile reservations and a housekeeping app, is looking to include signature capture for mobile check-in, as well as the ability to take an image of a driver’s license with an iPad and attach it to a reservation.

Other key points that hoteliers should be mindful of include: Does any PMS info get stored on the device? What are the pros and cons of this? Is it flexible to customize functionality and user access? What’s the business model? As more PMS systems are offered via cloud, monthly subscription fees are becoming more common.

The up-and-coming PMS
PMS and all of its integrations already make for a complex infrastructure. Mobile access to PMS data and functionality adds another layer of complexity on top of that. To make such a project successful, “you need to be realistic about what you can accomplish,” says Pomeroy’s Goodwin. She advises to make sure project leaders understand both software development and end
user needs.

In the consumer world, it seems like there’s an app for nearly everything, and that has set hoteliers’ minds whirling with new ideas. In addition to location-based services, executives are asking about signature capture, mobile wallet integration, more guest-facing apps and use of QR codes. These are still the early days in mobile PMS development, so those will likely have to wait until basic functions are mobile-enabled.

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