Today's hotel applications deliver lots of functionality, but it's in leveraging their collective capabilities that hotels gain more than the sum of their parts. Getting applications to talk, though, has long been a considerable pain point for hoteliers.
Industry efforts including Hotel Technology Next Generation (HTNG) and technologies such as Web services and service oriented architecture (SOA) hold promise for significantly minimizing this pain in the future. Today, however, most hotel companies preside over a range of applications of various sources and vintages. Even those embracing pre-integrated application suites still must interface with third party applications, such as telephony or global distribution systems.
As the evolution toward industry-wide standards continues, hoteliers offer these best practices to overcome interface hurdles in the near term.
1) Know your priorities
Have an end-state in mind for how you want systems to work to satisfy business goals, and then prioritize the interfaces that make the most progress toward that state. Clearly define what your goals of integration are. How realistic are the perceived cost/time savings, and what level of integration is really necessary? Ask, for example, if your property requires a one-way or a two-way GDS integration; should the front desk clerk be booking tee times in the golf system, etc.
2) Get the best from vendors
Seek cooperative vendors fully committed to the success of the interface. "Both parties have to be willing," says Chris Shroff, owner and operator of Myrtle Beach Seaside Resorts (www.myrtlebeachseasideresorts.com
), a Northwind Maestro (www.maestropms.com
) user. "Each system has different quirks, and every install can have different quirks."
He also advises staying involved as vendors work out interface issues. Take responsibility for scheduling all the relevant parties and coordinating dates. Someone on property will need to understand how the interfaces work and how to restart them. This is an added operational responsibility that needs to be considered. This person will also need to be able to stop the interface in the event of a guest service issue.
Hold vendors accountable for promised interface work. Mohonk Mountain House (www.mohonk.com
), a 256-room Victorian Mansion in New Paltz, N.Y. and one of America's oldest family-owned resorts, required that one of its tech vendors pay its transaction fees for a year, until a promised payment gateway was delivered.
Push your vendors toward industry standard protocols such as HTNG, OTA and GSA. "As hoteliers, we are obligated to bring to the attention of vendors that this is how we want this to work,'" says Jim Bina, director of IT at Rosen Hotels and Resorts (www.rosenhotels.com
), with seven properties in Orlando using Agilysys' VisualOne PMS (www.agilysys.com
3) Plan thoroughly
The most successful interfaces are well-defined at the outset. "Envision every possible scenario you can think of, not just yourself, but involve the accounting department," says Joe Barton, IT director at Mohonk Mountain House, which uses ResortSuite PMS (www.enablez.com
). Don't forget to budget for interface development when planning an upgrade or a new application.
Ensure your physical infrastructure is sufficient to handle the new demands. High-performing integration and interfaces require sufficient network bandwidth and computing capacity.
Seek applications that are already interfaced with your property management system, but probe deeper and look for a track record in that type of interface. Ask for the specific make, model and version that has been integrated, since software versions can vary by decade.
Spend sufficient time upfront on configuration. "Fully understanding the configuration of systems avoids a lot of the headaches that follow you, and affects the information you get out of any software," advises Azi Azami, VP and treasurer at Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club, Naples, Fla (www.naplesbeachhotel.com
). If you turn that feed off at configuration time, it's not available when another application calls for that data.
4) Leverage technical advancements
Newer technologies are aimed squarely at taking the complexity out of interfacing. Some can be used even with legacy applications. Naples' Azami suggests leveraging TCP/IP where possible. "Take hardware failure out of integration, and try to eliminate as many one-way interfaces as possible," says Azimi. "You want a complete handshake so both systems know the data was received. You have to really investigate to make sure that's available" in a proposed piece of software.
Look for systems that integrate using Web services, and more specifically, use a request/response type of protocol. Applications that store other systems' primary key numbers and then perform real-time queries for detailed information are more successful in meeting integration goals. Shy away from custom interface development as much as possible.
Consider middleware applications to enable two-way messaging when the interface is important and upgrade plans are far off, suggests Chuck Marratt, vice president, information technology at MTM Luxury Lodging (www.mtmluxurylodging.com
5) Consider a suite
After operating properties with multiple interfaces and paying the price, Ajay Patel, owner of the new Best Western Atrea Lackland in San Antonio, Texas, opted for a suite from MSI Solutions (www.msisolutions.com
). "I felt like if everything comes from one vendor it's easier to troubleshoot," Patel says. Buying a set of applications built together has been a favored route for those hoping to reduce interfaces.
Some hoteliers find that integrated systems require more planning and more time to install properly than non-integrated systems. Because more data must be shared, properties have to brainstorm how the increased data flow is going to impact business. Increased data flow capability is great, but if not properly planned, it can yield the same results as non-integration, which defeats the purpose of purchasing integrated systems.
Even suite users stand to benefit from interface standards. "I personally think that [standards] make a suite like we're using better and enhance what surrounds the suite," says Rosen's Bina.
6) Embrace standards where possible
Hoteliers and vendors are beginning to adopt the fruits of standards efforts such as HTNG to ease interface pain. Today's interfaces enable a much richer exchange of full guest profiles and details versus traditional, limited "posting" interfaces.
But don't take "HTNG Certified" at face value. The standards allow room for variation; for example, the OTA standard for reservations delivery has five to six different places to put a guest within the message, and there are lots of ways to manage rates.
The younger the standard, the more likely there are to be variations in its use; HTNG standards for distribution and guest itineraries, for example, are more mature than those for backoffice integration and open data exchange.
In addition, "When you have a certified HTNG interface, you typically implement one side or the other, but usually not both," adds Douglas Rice, executive vice president & CEO at HTNG. "You need to make sure your system is certified for the side you're interested in."
An HTNG-based standard underlies integration between Naples' Micros (www.micros.com
) suite and OpenCourse (www.opencourse.com
) golf system, enabling tee times and other activities to be reserved through the PMS, with gift certificate and itinerary capabilities coming soon. "I don't think that would have been possible without HTNG," says Azami.
MTM Luxury Lodging uses a bi-directional HTNG interface between its PAR Springer-Miller PMS (www.springermiller.com
) and Inncom (www.inncom.com
) energy management system, enabling remote setting of room conditions; the hotelier can also use the interface to passively capture guest settings to record in guest preference records. Another interface allows front desk staff to access guest checks in Agilysys Infogenesis POS and Agilysys food and beverage systems. Development is faster and less costly using HTNG, Marratt says. "The building blocks and message sets are already in place."
Standard interfaces and component-based architectures mean one day, interfaces will be cheaper, faster and easier to attain. But until then, hoteliers can leverage today's best practices while migrating towards tomorrow's.