The Technology Conundrum

Technology is a fickle beast, at times empowering but also often frustrating. Particularly in the hotel business, technology isn't a cure-all, the answer to an industry or personal problem, or a substitute for human brain power and interaction. Yet, it's very clear to me that technology in all its forms has been the most important catalyst of change in all businesses, including the historically low-tech hotel trade.

Often, the benefits and challenges of technology go unrecognized, or it's not easy to recognize which is a benefit and which is a challenge. Mike Leven told a story at last month's Strategic Conference on Hospitality Operations and Technology that proves how technology can terrify those who don't understand it and its potentials. Leven, who recently retired from the hotel business after a nearly 50-year career, entered the industry in the early 1960s as a salesman for the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City.

All was progressing smoothly until one day the general manager summoned the property's executive team into a boardroom for an emergency meeting to ponder an imminent crisis facing the hotel and, in the GM's mind, the entire New York City hotel industry, and probably hotels everywhere.

The day before, the first jet airliner landed at La Guardia Airport carrying passengers from Chicago to the Big Apple. In the manager's narrow mindedness, this development represented the biggest threat to the business since the invention of the recreational vehicle. His thought, and perhaps it made sense to him at the time, was that this new technology — jet plane travel — would enable businessmen from Chicago to fly to New York in the morning, do their business and fly home in the afternoon. Why would they need a hotel room?

Sure, that happens, and we've all taken those same-day trips that require eight hours of travel door to door for a one-hour meeting or lunch. But this GM obviously missed the big picture on what opportunities better transportation would mean for his property and all hotels. That first planeload of passengers was the first wave of an explosion in national and international travel that opened the world to people from all walks of life.

Now, not only can you do business face to face in New York, Dubai and Shanghai, but the common family vacation of the 1950s — an auto trip to the lake or to Grandma's house — has turned into a week on the Maya Riviera or spring break in Orlando or even a weekend in London. This is a clear example of a technology that's only had an upside for the hotel business.

Now let's consider something more modest — and more germane to your everyday life as a hotelier. At the same HOT Conference, a two-day event which Lodging Hospitality sponsors, a group of hotel company CEOs and COOs were asked about customer relationship management, a tool that a lot of tech companies have been saying for the past 10 years will revolutionize the business.

CRM can help you learn everything you need to know about a guest: his or her room preferences, travel history, transaction data, even the kind of martini he or she likes to order at the bar. All in all, it's a fabulous technology with a lot of opportunity.

But here's the rub, as so aptly pointed out by several of the CEOs: You can know every possible detail about a guest's preferences, and it can be made available to every relevant employee in the organization, yet if the hotel doesn't have the culture, systems and most importantly, properly trained employees to deliver on the information, the technology is useless.

Technology: It can be a cruel mistress.

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