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Looking Forward, Looking Back

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June 11, 2015
In the Rearview Mirror
Jon Inge

This isn't one of my usual articles on industry trends, mostly because it's my last. It's been 20 years since Rich interviewed me for Hospitality Upgrade (or Hotel & Restaurant Technology Update as it was called back then) and this seems like an appropriate time to bow out of the industry that’s been my life for the last 39 years. Ten years with pioneer PMS vendors Micor (not Micros!) and NCR, 10 years with pre-Starwood Westin at its corporate headquarters in Seattle, and 19 years as a consultant have made for a wonderful run, taking me to 42 states in the United States and to 38 countries worldwide.

I feel very blessed to have been part of this industry for so long, but it’s time to devote more time to my other passion, photography, and to traveling more with my recently retired wife, Lindsay.  Some of you already know of my love for photographing the patterns and textures of the Earth from the window seats of commercial flights, and of my annual calendar.  I hope you’ll continue to follow my work on www.joningephoto.com. I’ll still be around for a few more months as I complete my existing assignments.

In the meantime, I wanted to share some thoughts about the industry, mostly as a summing up of where we've been and where we're going but also to have a bit of fun. Science fiction writer Robert Heinlein had his comments published posthumously under the title “Grumbles From the Grave,” but I didn’t want to wait that long.

Changes I’ve Seen
Sometimes the pace of technology change seems overwhelming, sometimes I'm not so sure.  A year or so ago a researcher asked me to list the three major changes in hospitality technology for every five-year period from 1995 to date, so I went back and looked at what I was writing about in the late ‘90s. 

Guess what?  I was using a hand-held device to send and receive messages (a Palm VII), hotels were checking people into their rooms using mobile workstations on their airport shuttle buses, ODBC was linking data from different vendor systems to consolidate guest and operational information, and we were all concerned that there wasn't enough Internet bandwidth in guestrooms. Huh. 

On the other hand, 20 years ago we couldn't use our phones to book hotel rooms, watch videos or ask housekeeping to bring up more pillows. Technology still changes fast enough to make not keeping up a handicap. 

Bill Gates said, “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next 10. Don't let yourself be lulled into inaction.”  We don’t need to react instantly to new developments out of fear that we’ll be left behind as everyone else adopts them, but leaving it too long definitely puts us at a disadvantage. Bob Lewis, my favorite technology consultant, put it another way in a wonderfully mixed metaphor: “Pioneers get arrows in their backs, but the last pig to the trough goes hungry.”

All that said, the three biggest changes I’ve seen are:
1   Massively better integration between systems, which has led to significantly more comprehensive and accurate data on guests’ history and preferences and on operations. This has been accompanied by an equal growth in analytics and reporting flexibility to help us make more sense of it and identify the exceptions we need to address. We’ve used this to become experts at targeting microsegments of guests for marketing campaigns, but haven’t tapped it to improve operational efficiency as much as I expected.

2   The move back to centrally hosted systems. Yes, I’m old enough to have started on time-shared systems, using a Teletype terminal to access a mainframe computer in London. The power and flexibility of desktop PCs taught us what computing could do when we could translate our imaginations into action immediately. They also taught us the complexities of maintaining ever-increasing quantities of hardware on premise, and the challenges of consolidating data from many slightly different versions of the same system. The move back to centrally hosted systems (cloud based, if you must, though the term is horribly abused) with current programming techniques is bringing greater supportability and data consistency, without stifling creativity.

Universal access to this data from mobile devices, providing far more freedom in how our guests can interact with us and in how we respond to them and manage our hotels.  Driven entirely by consumer technology, this has had the added benefit of encouraging more streamlined and appealing user interfaces for our systems in general.

Disappointments and Regrets
Slow adoption. The industry’s generally slow pace of upgrades has been a constant source of frustration, even if it has guaranteed my job security for nearly two decades.  I wrote about the problems with delaying technology updates in a column a couple of months ago, and it remains a serious handicap to effective hotel management.  Better tools are easily available and can transform an operation.

Lack of interest. Other than the financing issues perpetuated by the owner/manager/franchisor structure governing many properties, a major factor in this has been many hoteliers’ lack of interest in using technology.  I understand that in the hospitality industry the emphasis must always be on the guest experience, and attractive public and guestroom spaces are essential.  However, it’s so much easier for the staff to provide the warm, welcoming service and smiles that make a visit truly memorable if they have access to the right tools and information, and so much easier and efficient to manage a property with access to complete and accurate data.

Unintuitive systems. Granted, we don’t make it easy for hoteliers to warm to technology, and another disappointment has been the unwillingness of many established PMS vendors to make systems more user friendly. We really need this; too many systems still struggle with visually jarring, awkward screens and don’t provide easy-to-read – or even usefully complete – reports without resorting to Excel.  The rise of tablets is helping a great deal by forcing a closer focus on the minimum set of data essential to do the job, and on visual appeal and clarity in a limited screen size, but there’s a long way to go.  Especially at the limited-service end of the market, overworked hotel managers need useful guidance, not to have to build their own reports from three or four unintuitive systems. Wyndham’s rollout of an automated revenue management approach to more than 4,500 hotels is a good example of where things need to go.

SaaS will be the norm. Pretty much all systems are already available in this format and most hotels are very comfortable using them – except for PMS. Sometimes this is for psychological reasons of personal comfort with having the data on premise; sometimes there’s a genuine difficulty in obtaining reliable, cost-effective communications links. Nonetheless, I am certain this objection will fade over time. Oracle in particular has announced that it will only sell the new version 9 of Opera on a remotely hosted basis, setting the tone for the rest of the industry.

Personal technology integration. There’ll be more widespread integration of travelers’ personal technology, especially smartphones and watches, to provide very personalized notifications and guest service. This will be greatly facilitated by these devices allowing their users to specify privacy limits around their personal data quickly and intuitively, defining what data they’re willing to share with various types of service entities under what circumstances.

Free, auto-configuring interfaces. We’ll see more self-configuring interfaces between hotel systems. While hotels will always want to customize their links between critical systems to gain some operating edge, I believe that the basic system sets will become self discovering, automatically finding the other systems they need to talk to and configuring themselves to exchange information. We don’t think about buying an interface for a printer or disk drive when we add these to our networks; we can use them immediately because the main systems consult a standard library of interfaces and options and set them up for us. The same should be true of many of our sub-system interfaces, such as PBX, call accounting, voice mail, POS charge posting, etc., whose messages have been defined for decades and have no reason to change.  We don’t pay Microsoft a license fee or annual support costs for printer interfaces; charging for these straightforward hotel system links is similarly indefensible.

Less customization. The age of expecting major PMS vendors to agree to significant enhancements for individual hotels is over.  The smaller vendors will probably continue to do so, but it's not feasible for the larger ones. We don't expect Microsoft or Apple to customize their systems for us when we're ready to buy something new, we just adapt to what they offer. The same's true for Oracle, Infor and the other major PMS vendors; their systems are powerful and flexible enough to be useful in most situations. If you want something very specific you'll always be able to find a vendor who'll customize its system for you, just as you can run your own PC on Linux configured just the way you want it, but mainstream will be good enough for most.

High barriers. International vendors will continue to see the United States as a highly desirable market to be in and will continue to have trouble establishing a presence there except by partnering with a well-established U.S. vendor, as Fidelio did with Micros. This will continue to be true despite the growth of SaaS systems.

Fresh ideas continue. Developing a new PMS will continue to be an irresistible challenge. It used to be a standing joke that there were always 73 PMS vendors every year at HITEC. Not necessarily the same ones, but always 73. We've come down a bit since then, but I'm constantly surprised at the number of new ones popping up.  I just did a quick mental count and came up with 38 on the market today, and I know I've missed many in Asia.  Modern development techniques mean that it's much easier to come up with a useful set of functionality very quickly, encouraging new entrants into the market and bringing their fresh ideas on UIs and data presentation with them. 

Sales Habits. Vendors will continue to try to sell what they think the hotel needs rather than what it asked for.  As a result,  consultants will always have job security in adjusting vendor proposals to a common configuration. Vendors will also continue to spend the first 20 minutes of a two-hour demo presenting their company’s history and achievements, instead of demonstrating the product.

Requirements definition. Hotel system selection committees will continue to confuse needs with wants, oscillating wildly between “we must continue to do it the old way” and “Wow!  If we can do THAT, how about if we try THIS?”  It’s very easy to be inspired during a system demo to ask for enhancements that seem really critical, but by the time many have been delivered they’re seldom that important any more. 

Useful Glass. Google Glass’s next-generation product will be far more useful by having a display-only mode, using facial recognition to show users the names of people approaching us – guests or industry contacts – with a very few key facts about them. Voice interaction with Glass just doesn’t work in a social setting – and guest service in a hotel is by definition social – but a display-only mode like this would be tremendously valuable, especially at HITEC!

Minor Predictions
Change will continue to be resisted at all levels
Michael Schubach’s column will continue to be the first thing I read in Hospitality Upgrade. His insights and dry humor make him an industry treasure.

Hospitality Upgrade's Publisher Rich Siegel will continue to confuse everyone with the ice-breakers at his Vendor Summit and CIO Summit conferences, and they will continue to be the best networking events in the industry.

What I’ll Miss
No question, I will miss the people in this industry more than anything else.  Thanks in particular to Rich for his constant encouragement, for providing me with a platform for my writing for so many years and for being my unofficial – and unpaid – agent. To Geneva, for putting up with so many missed deadlines, for our frequent debates over American vs. English usage, and for her warm friendship. To Kris for correcting so many errors in my newsletters. To John Burns for his steady advice, guidance and example as an outstanding and respected consultant. And to all of the countless friends I’ve been so fortunate to meet through this industry, whether vendors, hoteliers or consultants, you are the best. 

Thanks for the great ride. It’s been fun!
JON INGE is no longer an independent hospitality consultant specializing in hospitality technology at the property level. However, he can still be reached at jon@joninge.com and (206) 546-0966, and hopes you’ll follow his photographic work at www.joningephoto.com, which he promises to keep updated more often in future.

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Over the years, other regrets Jon has:
  • I didn't get the industry to stop using “PMS” as a description of the main hotel system, as it’s inaccurate and often socially awkward. When they were first developed 40 years ago property management systems did manage the property because all they could focus on was room availability. However, they very quickly shifted to managing guests’ experiences while they’re at the property – charge posting, activity booking, preference tracking, guest history and so on – leaving “property management system” to be the accurate description of systems that help manage physical buildings such as apartment complexes. I tried guest management system (meh) and hospitality management system (too many syllables), but although Infor did adopt the latter it hasn’t really taken across the industry. At this point everybody knows what we mean by “PMS” so I guess we’re stuck with it. 
  • I also couldn’t stop vendors continuing to use “Inn” as part of their system names (innRoad, InnSyst, InnQuest, etc.; I was always waiting for “InnCredible”), nor calling their software “solutions" as if they were some form of magic you could wave over your hotel to make everything perfect. Software is a tool; it doesn't solve anything on its own. People solve problems by using it. 

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