Web of Data

By Ed Rubinstein • Contributing Editor | April 01, 2006

As hotels and restaurants seek to improve efficiency and streamline accounting, inventory, food cost, and other back-office reporting requirements, more and more are turning to solutions that offer lower total cost of ownership with small footprint applications running at the units.

Consistent with that endeavor, one choice that shows no sign of abating is browser-based applications that allow corporate offices to keep an eye on data, while at the same time giving anywhere, anytime access to managers.

Others that may still have security concerns or want to keep their reporting options flexible, continue to tout the benefits of thin-client wares that may be more ironclad in terms of security, and eliminate the so-called single point of failure that can be associated with an Internet connection.
Irrespective of the path, back-office applications are empowering decision-makers by giving them greater say in the overall success of the property, whether it pertains to revenue enhancement or expense management.

Power of the web
"The immediate benefit of the Web is data availability and business intelligence that help managers exceed their budgets," states Warren Winslow, corporate controller at Memphis-based Peabody Hotel Group, which for the past two years reports encouraging results from a self-hosted version of the Execuvue business intelligence application from Aptech Systems (aptech.com) at its 10 properties.

According to Winslow, the solution, which is built on the PowerPlay data cube platform from Cognos (cognos.com), provides each line of business at each property with daily P&L statements, along with numerous key performance indicators. This allows managers to make more informed business decisions on revenues and expenses, and adjust accordingly before actual monthly P&Ls are finalized.

A built-in reporting writer allows general managers to create their own reports. Reports can compare purchases and inventories, calculate food costs by outlet, or analyze business meetings at the Peabody property in Orlando, which is a stones throw from the city's convention center.
The hotelier also makes use of Aptech's Profitvue, which integrates the business intelligence tool with all accounting modules, such as budgeting, forecasting and financials.
Winslow cited other examples of how end users, including those in non-financial departments, would make use of Execuvue/Profitvue data. "Take the rooms department. They know what profitability levels they should reach each month, but they can now see the GL for all purchases, payroll costs, etc., calculate what their month-to-date profit is and then budget accordingly for the remainder of the month."

Client choices
Many multi-unit restaurant operators are taking advantage of smart-client solutions that allow them to deploy configurations that are either fully centralized or distributed. Such flexibility appealed to Tony Roma's operator/franchisor Romacorp 18 months ago when it sought to replace its DOS-based legacy back-office software with a Web-enabled and hosted solution for its 22 company-owned units.

"We got a lot of mileage from the home-grown version, but our operations folks found it difficult to retrieve reports and we had to manipulate data using pivot tables which was cumbersome," recalls Romacorp IT director Timothy Douglas.

The operator opted for the .Net version of the MenuLink (menulink.net) back-office solution, which is hosted by the Radiant Systems (radiantsystems.com) subsidiary. Douglas comments that the real benefit of the solution is that "everything is done in the client, but resides at the MenuLink data center." The newest version of MenuLink is built on the Microsoft (microsoft.com) .Net framework that enables a high level of software integration through the use of Web services--small applications that connect to each other and to larger applications over the Internet. This means that each Tony Roma's unit has a small application running on the back-office computer, primarily for graphics, but have the same availability, features and functions of the MenuLink legacy product, which Douglas noted makes it seamless and much easier to manage.
Other feedback that Douglas has received from his operations team is that the MenuLink report writer is very flexible and easy to use. "We're getting consistent and accurate food cost and reporting. And the area directors don't have to travel from store to store to grab their numbers," he adds.

Resisting the change
Of course, there are multi-unit operators who have no intention of utilizing the Web for their back-office reporting needs. Perhaps it's from force of habit, the need to have manual intervention, or even the innate desire to work with Excel Worksheets. Whatever the reason, don't expect these holdouts to convert any time soon.

One such contrarian is New York-based Jean-Georges Management LLC, the company that manages the gastronomic gems of chef Jean Georges Vongerichten, including the namesake restaurant along with Jojo, Vong, Spice Market, 66, Mercer Kitchen, and the latest addition, Perry Street.
The company takes a thin-client approach to unit level polling as all restaurants are connected to a Citrix (citrix.com) server. The point-of-sale software is polled nightly and information is then downloaded directly into the company's accounting and financial software from Compeat Restaurant Accounting (compeat.com).

"It's a very strong accounting and A/P product but I regularly interface it with Excel. That comes in handy because of the way we manage the restaurants," says director of finance Robert Goodman.

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