Integration Update 2011: Slow but Steady
By Lisa Terry, Contributing Editor
It all sounds so great: the flexibility, adaptability and lower integration costs promised by open platforms and industry standards. By all measures, the hospitality industry is making progress toward this vision – but not fast enough for anyone’s satisfaction, even those developing the solutions.
The frustration expressed by Meyer Jabara Hotels speaks to the heart of the issue: it's not about vendor push-back, per se, rather the complexity of vendor-to-vendor relationships and standards creation in general. “Our biggest challenge, especially for our independent hotels, is lack of live time for outbound messaging,” says Dennis Morris, director of revenue development for six of the 25 Meyer Jabara Hotels (www.meyerjabarahotels.com), which operates both independent and branded properties. “For example, Maestro (www.maestropms.com) sends out outbound updates every 30 minutes, but in our world today a lot can happen in 30 minutes. If the timing is off, that room type is sold and 30 minutes lapses, that can potentially break the whole operation down.”
Meyer Jabara has found Maestro’s creator, Northwind, fully receptive to building interfaces to solve the problem. “The challenge is the vendor-to-vendor relationships and the cost behind the support of the interface,” says Morris. And, it’s difficult to get leased operations tied into the PMS for its boutique hotels.
Vendors Face Challenges
For major vendors it’s rarely about resisting the pressure to move to open systems and standard interfaces. With their deeper pockets and sizeable clients, the largest vendors are often well-entrenched in the integration efforts championed by Hotel Technology Next Generation (HTNG, www.htng.org) and OpenTravel Alliance (OTA) (www.opentravel.org), and are well along the path. Smaller software developers often lack sufficient resources to keep pace. But, all face some surprising obstacles to wholesale adoption of these architectures and interfaces. HT spoke to Micros (www.micros.com), PAR Springer-Miller (www.smsworld.com), Newmarket International (www.newmarketinc.com) and other key players to find out what can hinder the process. Here's what some vendors are faced with:
1. Time Pressure and the need to create an extension or modification of a spec to meet the need. Once a vendor has a working interface, it’s difficult to secure funding to modify it to make it 100% certified.
2. Support. Open architecture enables additional functionality on top of the standard, but then support personnel are no longer familiar with the product, complicating support.
3. Interpretation of Specs is not always black and white.
4. Vetting a Specification can be a lengthy process.
5. Other Vendor Resistance. Vendors who have not embraced standards pose the same problems for standards-savvy vendors that they do for hoteliers, when the latter need their cooperation to deliver the results operators are seeking.
6. Hotelier Resistance. A vendor invests. Independent hotels don’t necessarily adopt. In such a case, the vendor is forced to continue using legacy or proprietary interfaces.
7. Threat to Business Models.“With open systems, software works differently, and the business model may not make sense – what to charge for, how you package the product,” says HTNG's Rice. “How do you preserve revenue when the things you make money on are not sold separately anymore?”
Making Standards is a Messy Process
In the vendors' defense, making standards is also a complex and challenging process. For example, an HTNG workgroup looking to combine cell and WiFi coverage in one access point encountered resistance from carriers. “They’re redefining what they’re going to produce [as a spec] based on what they learned,” says Rice. In then end, the objective is to produce specs that vendors (or hoteliers with in-house systems) have committed to support.
HTNG is also struggling with how to tackle the fast-evolving mobility space. “We need a year to solve the problem, and by that time the solution will have changed,” says Rice. Hoteliers “are not going to wait for standards.”
The Cloud: An Integration Panacea?
Cloud computing is being hyped as the answer to hotels’ IT challenges. But in terms of integration, it solves some problems while introducing others.
On the pro side, it reduces the burden of maintaining interfaces among applications at multiple hotel sites; instead of deploying, maintaining and upgrading interfaces, system logs and backups at each site, it requires only one instance of the interface at a single site staffed by IT people. “It’s not fewer interfaces, but fewer deployments of
interfaces,” says HTNG’s Rice. Amadeus (www.amadeus.com) says a hosted approach means its clients are fully abstracted from the operational needs of the solution. Migration is also faster, and cloud can mean less on-site training.
But a con is the fact that many hotel systems were not designed for uninterrupted 24/7 operation, complicating end-of-day processes such as shutting down POS and holding that while PMS is shut down to start night audits, then starting up a new day. “You need an automated end-of-day synchronization, therefore it’s a more complex interface,”
David Heckaman, VP of technology, hotel development at Mandarin Oriental Corporate, agrees that when it comes to integration, moving to the cloud is a mixed bag. Mandarin, a PAR Springer-Miller user, is tackling its integration headaches in two phases. First is an Enterprise Service Bus to provide a common platform to share data among applications. At the same time, Mandarin is working on a longer-term plan with Microsoft (www.microsoft.com) to move as many applications as practical into the cloud, placing particular importance on creating a central repository for guest data. “We will have to write or rewrite interfaces” as a part of that process, explains Heckaman. “It may make [integration] more difficult for things like the video on demand platform or the phone system. There are a lot of lessons to be learned.”
NEW HTNG WORKGROUPS
Despite the obstacles, progress continues on developing standardizes, and therefore less costly, methods to move data. This year Hotel Technology Next Generation (HTNG) launched new workgroups to begin work on these standards:
• The Hosted Payment Capture Systems Workgroup
is seeking ways to collect customer payment information from partners’ systems while operating outside the scope of PCI. “The big piece that’s missing is a way to use tokenization across companies as opposed to within companies,” says HTNG's Rice.
• The Customer Profile Workgroup
is building atop an existing OTA standard to add detail in a consistent format to the profile; it will be contributed back to OTA upon completion.
• The Event RFP Submission Workgroup’s
standard will automate the delivery of RFPs from meeting planners, through intermediary systems, directly into hotel sales and catering systems, building on work from Marriott. “This will allow first-level RFPs to be processed automatically,” Rice explains, so hotels can respond more quickly.
• The Folio Detail Exchange Workgroup
is focused on making line-item folio details available to external systems for uses including data mining, business intelligence, corporate expense reporting, customer analytics, loyalty solutions and VAT tax reporting.