Computers, Seamlessness Roundtable Issues

The computers his firm installs in the public areas of hotels and resorts are heavily used, said Victor Alikin, president and founder of GBC Blue, an in-room computer company. That statement triggered a long discussion of the hotel computer environment.

IN-ROOM COMPUTERS

“Victor, I'm going to ask you to talk to everyone about your offerings in regard to in-room and lobby PC use,” Ed Watkins asked Alikin.

“How many people here actually carry a computer when you travel? On business, let's call it,” Alikin asked the group of hoteliers and technology experts gathered around the table in a Wilshire Grand Hotel conference room.

Quite a few raised their hands. “All right,” Alikin said. “How about for pleasure?” Fewer people raised their hands.

“Explain this pleasure thing,” quipped Affinia CIO John Cahill. “Do you enjoy your job?”

Alikin continued, “How many people would rather not carry their computer with them — and then have to?” More hands shot up than after the previous queries.

“What we really did is we actually provide a guest computing system,” Alikin said. “Whether it's in the guestroom or in the lobby or public areas — our public-area systems get a lot of use — when we put them into a property we see that usage rates, especially in resort properties, are extremely high. Business center properties, convention center properties — there's extremely high usage in those systems.”

Alikin said statistic suggest 25 percent to 50 percent of business travelers carry computers when they travel. “We don't really know that for sure, and it really depends on the demographics,” he cautioned. “The one thing we do know is that whatever that number is, the inverse number don't carry a computer with them.

“But do they need that computer? The answer is yes.”

He said GBC Blue is beginning to deploy more systems into guestrooms and is “now tracking on a raw level of about 30-percent usage, which is about twice the rate of straight high-speed Internet use.”

These usage rates suggest that “people have a great need for computer systems,” he said. “You probably know that if you're off your e-mail for even a day, you may come back and see 100 e-mails…anybody here at the (HITEC) conference today would have noticed that it's hard to get onto one of those systems upfront.”

Because his company is centrally managed and monitored, Alikin said GBC Blue can tell when one of its systems is down, “and a lot of times, we might be the leading indicator for hotels…so we'll call the property and say, Your high-speed is down, do you want us to call your provider for you?

“We entered the business knowing the hospitality industry and saying nobody should ever have to come to the front desk and complain about our systems not working.”

Privacy and security are key issues, however, said Prism Partnership Principal Mark Haley. “If you're going to have public use of PCs, you need to do some modifications so the browser isn't going to retain somebody's password,” he said. Although he said a public-access terminal is a valuable amenity, Haley also questioned the economics.

A different kind of security concern surfaced far later in the Roundtable when Vingcard Elsafe's Josh Lane said her company's safes guard against laptop theft. Now that Wi-Fi is widespread, laptop security is a growing concern. “You look at all the hotels with Wi-Fi,” Lane said, and “boom, there's a target right there. You just advertised it (the presence of laptops) right on your billboard, basically.”

Meanwhile, Affinia's Cahill suggested that some hoteliers feel the guestroom should “be an oasis (away) from technology as opposed to having it basically (be an) in-their-face kind of thing.” Not that long ago, in-room printer-fax-copiers were the big push, but no longer. Some say that in five years, “only power users and developers will be carrying laptops,” and other business travelers will depend on “multiple handheld devices,” he said. “It could be a camera, it could be the BlackBerry. It will be all in the palm of your hand.”

Alikin said hotels that use his system charge $14 to $15.95 for 24 hours and $8.95 for an hour's use. “Even with those $8.95 uses, after about a month, it's easy to cross the threshold of what the system is in that room and also generate some revenue,” he claimed. In addition, GBC Blue is more than a computer, it's a “local information device” that can enable a hotel to do marketing of, say, a spa treatment or golf opportunities. GBC Blue plans to incorporate more “advertising into our interface,” he said.

IS THE FUTURE OF PMS ASP-BASED?

Web-based property management systems are the future, said various panelists. “We have the benefit of looking at mistakes that have been made, and there's better technology in communications and better technology for developers to deliver applications directly in a web-based environment,” said Mark Houser, CIO of Multi-Systems Inc. Soon, Houser said, “web PMS (will be) a solution for many different hotel types, not just the smaller ones.”

Jon Inge, too, is encouraged. Users don't care whether a PMS is web-based or simply web-enabled, he said. “It doesn't matter as long as the system has the functionality and data capture they want…It's more flexible technologically and provides better integration, and I'm certainly seeing a lot of interest in that centralized operation.”

He said he frequently encounters overlap between CRS and PMS systems and neither is the most strategic by itself. What's critical is making the guest profile database up-to-date and accurate, and the “best way to get that is to standardize the operation as much as you can. Clearly, that's why so many brands have standards PMSes they prefer. It's a lot easier to have a standard data entry even if those standards…are hosted somewhere else. It's definitely a trend of applications to move toward a centralized operation.”

“Professor Connolly, where do you see this web-based future?” asked moderator Watkins.

“I think it's very promising, but it still has some time before it will take off,” said the University of Denver professor. Although ASP environments are appealing, there's a question of control. “Senior management is not ready to give up that control,” Dan Connolly said. “They want to know that their guests stay in their hands, not somebody else's.”

Despite Connolly's skepticism, ASP had its proponents. Among the most outspoken: Luis Segredo, the M-tech executive who said his company had drunk “the Kool-aid of the Internet” years ago. “In our world, we've been moving to the ASP environment and we've been able to show how we could provide greater up time, how we could provide greater security,” said the software chief. “And people are willing to listen…the numbers are growing by the day.”

But there's resistance to the ASP model, said Steve Jacobs, CIO of US Franchise Systems. “I can tell you from personal experience… that it will be a long day in coming,” he said. “Conceptually, it's an easy sell.” But replacing conventional infrastructure is challenging.

Brenda Burke, director of hotel technology products for Hilton, said serial interfaces still dominate, “and I think it's going to take a little bit of time before you get rid of all that technology.”

“We're doing a deployment right now where we're painstakingly rolling out to four different PMSes at 50 different sites,” said Segredo.” The installation will take a year, he said, but “we'll be going from 50 different interfaces down to one and that's the type of change that we could effect by moving the applications online.”

SECURITY, PHONES MOVE ONLINE

Online applications are growing in safety and security, too, said Josh Lane, of Vingcard Elsafe. Although radio frequency and bi-directional technology is expensive, she said costs are coming down. And such technology is versatile.

“(Say) I'm a room attendant and I see the light bulbs on, I hit the lock with the light bulb card, it talks to your workflow management system, it creates a work order, and boom, it's automatic,” Lane said. “It's great for locks, it's also great for” the businessperson traveling with a laptop.

“How many people carry laptops?” Lane asked. “How many have had their laptops disappear out of guestrooms? How many have had to compensate their guest for that?” Several hands shot up.

Despite this concern, hoteliers won't spend enough on security, she said, because “they look at it as an amenity, not a security item.” Prism Partnership Principal Mark Haley suggested security is an issue from the guest's vantage, too. “Guests don't want to talk about it,” he said. “They don't want to advertise” that they have something valuable to store in a safe.

The use of radio-frequency technology for security will grow over the next five years, Lane suggested. But costs have to decrease and stability has to be proven.

Another technology on the rise is voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), or online telephone communications. Frank Melville of PhoneSuite said his VoIP-based company targets properties of 220 rooms or less. He predicted that it will grow like high-speed Internet access, from the workplace to the home and then to the guestroom.

Affinia's Cahill noted that some of his properties have PBXes that are nearly 20 years old, but “three years ago, I lost 28 percent of my revenue, two years ago, 20 percent, this year, 18 percent.”

Even though VoIP is “probably going to happen,” Cahill said, “how can I sell that to management? Saying let's spend all this money now because five years from now there may be a killer app we can use while (management is) looking at the bottom line and the telephone revenue is going in the toilet is a tough, tough sell.”

US Franchise Systems' Jacobs said the economics of VoIP telephony, which USFS has deployed throughout its 270 properties to enable it to offer customers free long-distance phone calls, is persuasive. “Hotels are, by and large, very good at the guest transaction,” he said. “They are horrible telecommunications animals.”

A highly technical discussion of telephony followed. “I'm curious as to where this in-room technology advice is going to settle,” Inge said, noting a “mental distinction between an entertainment device and an information device.

“With IP phones and screens getting larger and more capable, there may be some overlap between that and putting a full PC in the room,” the consultant said. Some vendors also offer a “kind of dedicated thin client” computer system “that would give you Internet access in the room rather than the full PC, which might be a bit more cost-effective to maintain.”

“It really goes back to familiarity,” said GBC Blue's Alikin. Computers are used every day, but IP phones are not — at least not yet.

“Here's a question for the hoteliers,” said audience member Steve D'Erasmo, manager of information technology at Walt Disney World. “Are you thinking at all about the fact that we're eventually super-saturating our guests with technology…and we've lost the focus on hospitality and we've become the Best Buy for the bed?”

“I think we're in no danger of that at Best Western,” said Scott Gibson, Best Western CIO. “You're staying at a different hotel than I am, no question about it.”

Visit www.LHonline.com for more information and related articles.

This is the last of two reports on the Lodging Hospitality Technology Roundtable held June 22 during the Hospitality Information Technology Exposition & Conference in Los Angeles. The second such LH get-together convened 20 experts in hotels and in the technology hoteliers need for their increasingly complex and demanding operations. This deals with computers, ASP, property management systems, security and telephone systems.

The moderator was Ed Watkins, editor of Lodging Hospitality. Here are the participants and their companies: Dave Berkus, Hospitality Automation Consultants; Daniel J. Connolly, University of Denver Daniels College of Business; Mark Haley, The Prism Partnership; Jon Inge, Jon Inge & Associates; Sally Kelly, Bearing Point; Mark Ozawa, Accuvia Consulting; Brenda Burke, Hilton Hotels Corp.; John Cahill, Affinia Hotels; John Edwards, Millennium Hotels & Resorts; Leslie Genske, InterContinental Hotels Group; Scott Gibson, Best Western International; Eve LeGrand, Luxe Worldwide Hotels; Steve Jacobs, US Franchise Systems; Todd Maxwell, Larkspur Hospitality; Mike Schmitt, Clairvoyix; Don Hay, Digital Alchemy; Victor Alikin, GBC Blue; Mark Houser, Multi-Systems Inc.; Luis Segredo, M-Tech; Frank Melville, PhoneSuite; Josh Lane, VingCard Elsafe. You can hear the whole Roundtable at www.LHonline.com, LH's website.

THE BIG IDEAS

Devising a blend of the information device and the entertainment device is a challenge. The question is, what if such a blend isn't the answer? ASP-based solutions are on the rise. But convincing management to abandon legacy systems for ASP solutions is a major challenge.

Voice over Internet protocol is the new telephony wave. The prediction is the rise of VoIP will mirror the rise of high-speed Internet access. At the same time, management is reluctant to abandon legacy systems for a technology with so little track record.

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