Business Brilliance

This story summarizes The Lodging Hospitality Technology Roundtable held June 27 at the Doubletree Hotel Orlando during the Hospitality Information Technology Exposition & Conference. The fifth such LH-PRPro gathering convened 19 experts in hotels and the technology hoteliers need for their increasingly complex and challenging operations.

The moderator was Ed Watkins, editor of Lodging Hospitality magazine. Here are the participants and their companies: Dave Berkus, Hospitality Automation Consultants; Steve Blidner, Telephone Technologies Inc.; Brenda Burke, Hilton Hotels Corp.; John Burns, Hospitality Technology Consulting; John Edwards, Millennium Hotels and Resorts; Mark Haley, The Prism Partnership; Don Hay, Digital Alchemy; Mark Heymann, Unifocus; Jon Inge, Jon Inge & Associates; Saeed Kazmi, Vertical Systems Inc.; Robin Koetje, The Hotel Group; John McMillan, Fairmont/Raffles Hotels International; Pascal Metivier, ASSA ABLOY; Mark Ozawa, Accuvia Consulting; Kevin Smith, The New Yorker Hotel; John Tavares, INNCOM International; Steve Woodward, Centrada Solutions LLC; Andrew Yorra, Eleven Wireless. You can further experience the Roundtable at www.LHonline.com, LH's website.

Opinion shapers spanning technology gurus, hoteliers and vendors engaged in spirited conversation about a rapidly evolving, youth-driven lodging technology landscape during the fifth annual Lodging Hospitality Technology Roundtable, held at the Doubletree Hotel Orlando during the recent HITEC. Focus shifted from e-mail marketing to property management systems to business centers to guestroom infotainment to developments in security technology to being green.

Don Hay, CEO of digital marketing specialist Digital Alchemy, said e-mail marketing has come a long way. “I think the resistance (to it) is gone,” he said. “Most people recognize they're going to get something from the hotels that they want. We're seeing that for properties that care, a 60-percent capture rate is not uncommon for our customer base.” But spam remains an issue, with customers unwilling to give their e-mail addresses for fear of it. Once they get a reservation confirmation by e-mail, however, they're more open to e-mail marketing.

Kevin Smith, vice president and general manager of the New Yorker, a 910-room Manhattan hotel, said problems can arise when different companies handle e-mail marketing and reservation confirmations. While his hotel has collected about 40,000 e-mail addresses in the past four years, “that's not a very good number” relative to its quarter-million annual bookings. The Hotel Group's IT director, Robin Koetje, voiced related concerns, and Ted Horner, president of E. Horner & Associates, said complications also arise over varying standards of different booking engines.

Watkins moved on to personal digital assistants, asking John Burns, president of Hospitality Technology Consulting, whether cell phones will be “a new frontier in marketing applications.”

“The rest of the world is far ahead of us in terms of shopping for services” through PDAs, Burns said. “We're still unaware of the growth of mobile technology. There's a lot there.”

Floor Bleeker, a Jumeirah Group executive in the audience, said that in the luxury hotel company's home base of Dubai, there are no rules for e-mail marketing via PDA. But in Britain, where Jumeirah also operates, the brand's IT director said “you have to have the opt-in from the customer to capture data.” Dave Berkus, the industry veteran who heads Hospitality Automation Consultants, said a key challenge is aligning e-mail marketing to customer relationship management. The underlying issue with CRM “is to make an offer that makes sense to the person receiving it.”

THE MORPHING OF PMS

Excess functionality burdens many property management systems, said Steve Woodward, Centrada Solutions president. That's why Centrada has devised a PMS that's economical, scalable and lean, also enabling hotels in the same management portfolio to share information.

“Do you see other holes in the PMS landscape that need to be filled?” Watkins asked Jon Inge. Property management system manufacturers “still have education challenges,” said the president of Jon Inge & Associates, and “it's a good time for innovative PMS solutions.” Berkus said he thinks PMS will split into reservation systems, primarily for use by chains; to on-site devices, mainly for accounting; and for CRM information both brand and property need. John McMillan, IT manager for Fairmont/Raffles Hotel International, and The Hotel Group's Koetje said they crave PMS solutions that provide “standardized integration” across a portfolio.

Mark Haley, partner in The Prism Partnership of Boston, said “the commitment you made to the guest is consistency of service, and that means consistency of service delivery.” Wholly integrated PMS is key, he said, passing the ball to Brenda Burke, director of hotel technology products for Hilton Hotels Corp. Servers are outdated, she said, and the “next step in PMS is about property.”

Burns said hotel companies routinely say they use only 30 percent to 40 percent of their PMS. “Here it is, a heavy-duty machine people don't understand, aren't trained on and don't use,” he said. “All that horsepower leads to usability issues.”

Hay noted that Hotel Technology Next Generation (HTNG) is working on systems integration, and information that once took hours to share now takes minutes. “Property management systems are essentially accounting systems,” he said. “If you want to do marketing, get a marketing system.”

SPOTLIGHT ON BUSINESS CENTERS

Burke said there's no standard business center model. “What goes into a Hilton may not be what goes into a Hilton Garden Inn,” she said. “There's a little bit of everything out there.”

Some centers occupy real space; some are virtual. Steve Blidner, president of Telephone Technologies, said printing boarding passes at kiosks remains popular, but the latest trend is enabling guests to print from their PDAs. He touted a “virtual concierge,” a machine activated through arrangements with various vendors. A tourist can punch in an attraction or commodity, get information and make a buy.

Still, the human touch matters, suggested the New Yorker's Smith. His hotel just ended a relationship with its second business center provider and wants to operate one in-house to retain control. “We have a 15- to 20-percent international clientele and get different kinds of requests for what they need,” he said. “What we're leaning toward now is actually having someone in the business center.” In addition, the New Yorker wants one provider for all the software.

Sheraton is “bringing the business center out of the closet and into the lobby,” said Andrew Yorra, chief operating officer of Eleven Wireless. In some Sheraton lobbies, Starbucks and PCs effectively merge, differentiating the Starwood flag, he said.

What might change the business center landscape is surface computing,said Mark Ozawa, managing director of Accuvia Consulting. Microsoft delivers its new technology on a kind of table on which you can put your PDA. The table pulls images from the PDA, which appear “like they were photographs. You can take them and manipulate them and expand them and spin them,” Ozawa said. This technology could show local attractions and offer other information guests could move to their PDAs.

Sheraton is piloting surface computing applications; Bluetooth could facilitate device-to-device communication over such a platform, Ozawa suggested. “The world around us is people working at Starbucks or Panera or doing stuff out and about,” he said. “The office is a lot different than it used to be.” True, said Berkus, but surface computing technology is unproven — and expensive.

TECHNOLOGY ON THE MOVE — AND GREEN

Discussion moved to the guestroom, where, Haley said, “jack pack devices” enabling display choice and multiple plug-ins are starting to make the space “as work-friendly as comfortable chairs that actually fit under the desk.”

A PC in the guestroom? Saeed Kazmi, Vertical Systems president, considered that but “could not figure out who was going to pay for it.” Inge said the issue isn't more displays but better integration. Also critical is the ability to troubleshoot and then fix problems when they arise.

A brand approached Eleven Wireless chief Yorra to devise a system of “check-out laptops” available at the front desk. Armed with anti-theft software, these proved a hit with guests. “They had no breakage, no theft — and this was a hotel that had very limited business-center access,” Yorra said.

The conversation turned green when John Tavares, INNCOM International's marketing VP, noted that hotels are trying to “squeeze a lot of energy savings out of guestrooms” while outfitting them with “energy hogs” like plasma screens, multiple-lighting circuits and a plethora of entertainment devices. “We have to reach a balance of how we can help guests be green — and entertained,” he said.

Pascal Metivier, president of ABBA ABLOY Hospitality for EMEA and Latin America, said near field communication (NFC) technology will soon be available through the cell phone, giving that device a new security application. In 2008, NFC phones will become available in Europe, allowing their users to make payments over the phone. Meanwhile, radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology is infiltrating lodging by way of resorts with water parks.

“The challenge is which technology to use,” Metivier said, noting three different RFID standards. Horner, meanwhile, said Asia and Europe are ahead of the U.S. in adopting standards and new technologies. “It's not the hotel industry this time that's driving debate,” he said. “It's the consumer who is moving to a mobile-centric environment.”

Horner, noting his native country of Australia is the world's largest exporter of coal, said he thinks hotels promoting their greenness have significant marketing opportunities. The “green button” on INNCOM's latest digital thermostats can register a guest's greenness, making the stay more interactive, said INNCOM's Tavares. Berkus said today's students demand green buildings, and Ozawa said young people today are more steward-like than their elders.

Mark Heymann, president of UNIFOCUS, noted hotel employees have to get with green programs, prompting Hay to note that no hotel employee ever got fired for using Federal Express. “You can get in trouble for not replacing that towel,” he added. “That's why they do it. Let's get them to stop turning the air conditioning down to meat locker when they work on the room — and then leaving it there.”

What's the future of business intelligence? Watkins asked Haley. “More and more of it.”


For more information and related articles, visit www.LHonline.com.

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