Systems integration was a top-of-mind issue at the recent Hotel Technology Forum (HTF). Held in conjunction with the first annual conference for Hotel Technology Next Generation (HTNG), a number of sessions hit upon the growing sense in the industry that more needs to be done to ensure that systems work well together.
While most hotels live with interfaces between key technology systems, few have the ideal of true integration. Even as HTNG discussed the practical steps towards true integration, most hotel CIOs must deal with the more mundane problems of getting systems to share information by any means necessary. To discuss the reality of interfaces and integration, Hospitality Technology convened a panel during the Hotel Technology Forum. I moderated the panel, which included Robert Machen vice president corporate and brand solutions, at Hilton Hotels; Len Wolin, Ritz Carlton's director of labor management; and Andrew Furrer, director of information technology for Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants.
While the size of the hotel companies (and IT departments) ranged tremendously, the panelists found much to agree upon. The three panelists covered a wide range of topics, ranging from the role of vendors in facilitating systems integration to the problems of coping with legacy systems. Here is an excerpted portion of the illuminating discussion.
Hospitality Technology: Legacy systems pose a real challenge when integrating systems. How do you approach this problem?
Andrew Furrer: At Kimpton once we adopted our new standard property management system, I thought that we were done installing, paying for or doing any interfacing with our legacy systems--that was until operations recently asked us to integrate the old PMS with a new sales and catering system to drive extra income into the properties. As a result, we are going to spend money in the short term to make money.
At some point in the not to distant future I will no longer do any more interfaces with the legacy system. Once we have converted over to our new enterprise property management system, our old legacy system be sitting there just so that we can pull data out of it. We have found that it is just too costly at this point to merge the data from the old system to new ones.
Robert Machen: Hilton is in a good place when it comes to our legacy systems, the core technology is just couple years old. We are working with a lot of new technology. The challenges are around the point-of-sale systems and the third-party interfaces that we need to create. Dealing with the serial interfaces used by the legacy technology is our biggest legacy issue.
We are still dealing with a lot of vendors who are in the RS-232 world. The RS-232 interface has become obsolete. With the rise of Web Services that connect in, there is a lot of power there. We are starting to ask questions around privacy and security and how comfortable we are putting a third party on an internal LAN and what the appropriate firewall is.
Len Wolin: Actually, I prefer the term legacy processes.' We also had to deal with legacy processes' which have been really interesting.
You can give a hotel manager the greatest forecasting tool there is and then sit down with them and ask them to show you how effectively they are using the forecasting system and they still take out the sticky pads or the Excel worksheet. They are still using these legacy processes.
In order to deal with the legacy systems and the legacy processes, change management has really become an important tool for getting the new systems to be used optimally. You always get push back from the end-users and the organization has to have a plan to train and communicate the efficiencies that new systems will generate.
HT: Is resistance a problem as you upgrade systems?
AF: There is always some resistance and a traditional way of doing business. I still have general managers and IT managers who fall back to the basics; spreadsheets, and DOS based programs. People fall back to their first basic instructions.
RM: From my perspective, this is the key issue that we as technologists need to address. We have done a great job in terms of the technology--we have great technology today--but ultimately it is about adoption. You can provide the best tool in the world, but if people are not going to take the time to learn how to use it then it is all for nothing. It has been a challenge with a couple of key systems and we have learned the need to focus on adoption.
We feel like there is another key concept to consider: performance support. Let's put out a tool, but let's make sure that we have somebody sitting in the passenger seat to make sure the operator is using the car' to its full capabilities and getting the maximum amount of value.
It is also about communication. How do you communicate the value proposition of the additional work the person is going to have to do to learn how to use the new technology or make the change? How do you convince them that the return is great enough and not just in the form of a mandate? From our perspective adoption is a huge issue.
LW: I agree with Robert in terms of performance support. A lot of times we just throw training and more training at the end users and it becomes training overload. No matter how much you train them, many end users are not going to be using the systems to 100 percent.
Through performance support and in our case we have been doing a lot of certification and we say, alright you've taken the training and now we somehow want you to be certified, whether that is a Web-based tool or just a questionnaire. It really helps drive the training and results a little more.
HT: While in some ways we are talking about changing business processes, it sounds like the burden for that training is actually falling on IT. Is it true that it has become the technologists burden to train people when they change business operations?
RM: It is ultimately about joint ownership. If that truly is a situation you find yourself in, then you probably don't have a strong owner who is pulling for the system that you are putting in place. It really is a joint responsibility of working with operations to figure out what the right value proposition message is to make sure your systems are adopted as needed.
LW: You always need to have a business sponsor. You really need to have that sponsorship to truly push it because that is how you get the GMs and the regional teams to be more involved in it, rather than just a technology perspective.
AF: Most of our technology implementations are new technology. It takes us a while to adopt it so our general manager, controllers, clerks, and sales people are excited about the adoption and willing to go to the training. We go back and revisit the training and determine if there are areas we missed or that need to be enhanced.
HT: What do you expect from your technology vendors when building interfaces and making systems work together?
RM: There are some partners who are fantastic. We trust that they have change-management processes and we know that the interfaces aren't going to change by surprise. Others are a little less reliable at times. There needs to be a higher level of control on our side in terms of that interface.
LW: There needs to be a partnership between hotel operators and vendors. I have also seen cases where we truly need to make sure that we create the partnership between two different vendors in order to make sure they are supporting us. That can be a big challenge; making sure these two vendors are working together to provide the support that we want.
Secondly, there needs to be a balance in terms of risk taking. We can't always expect the vendors to take all of the risk. Sometimes we take more risk and other times the vendor does.
AF: We have thirty-nine hotels and thirty-six restaurants and it is hard for me to have a team of people that are specialized in building interfaces. We do partner. We do take partner Y with partner X; get them together; develop that partnership and then it becomes lucrative for them to be partners in future endeavors at other hotels.
HT: How important is the operating system or Web Services for improving integration and interfacing?
RM: I think one of the beauties of Web Services is to take operation systems out of the equation so it allows you to continue to operate. We are piloting Web check-in where guests using our Unix base, dot com technology can go in, 24 hours prior to arrival, and pick their specific room number. To realize this we've got a Unix platform talking to a Microsoft .Net platform.
AF: Presently we have Novell in our hotels because of our legacy property-management system. We are moving to a hosted enterprise system to be based on a Microsoft platform. We are still going to have some Linux and Unix systems out there. My goal is to go completely over to Windows 2003 and build upon that. It allows us to have a lot of flexibility. We can go to Linux if we need to. We have those platforms out there, but our hosting center is going to be built totally around Windows 2003 and Citrix.
HT: What do you see as the future of systems integration five, ten years out?
LW: I would like to have real-time access to labor-management information. Having all of these different systems integrated into our labor management. Currently the data seems to be delayed.
We have our housekeeping managers checking floors to make sure the housekeepers are getting rooms done. If they were able to view this data from behind a desk or on a handheld device they could be far more efficient with staff.
AF: Kimpton's future is one screen for our people at the front desk to be able to manage guests when they come in. If I check into the hotel, I give them my guest-loyalty card or I say my name. They pull it up and they know where I have stayed, they know my preferences and what I have eaten at the restaurant; all on one screen.
RM: We are in business to take care of guests, to provide exceptional experiences. What I get most excited about the customer technology that will be enabled. We have abilities, through technology, to create emotional relationships with our guests.
Through the various interfaces, we're getting a tremendous amount of customer information. We'd like to use that information to enable stronger relationships with our third parties; our POS providers, video on demand providers and other providers so that we can provide even more compelling services. That is one of the biggest opportunity areas that we see.