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SQUIRREL! Misdirection and Attending to the Present

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November 05, 2015
Trevor Warner
Jeffrey SParker

Let’s play cups on the streets of New York. It’s amazing to me that every time I watch, the person playing wins. It’s unbelievable the ability to find the ball under the cup when there is no money on the line (or the marker is playing). Introduce money into the game and all of a sudden the winning streak goes cold for the tourist who thinks he has a shot of winning and is now out $20, $50, or pick your sucker’s sum of money lost.

Every parent has used misdirection to defuse a situation with a child. Case in point, my daughter is so focused on buying a doll that she’s ready to throw an extreme blowout of a cry in the middle of the store. Embarrassed, sweating, I think fast and say, “Can you believe that? Maggie, come look at what they did with this.” I then pick any item that I think I can misdirect her to so I can refocus her on something other than the doll that I know will be playing independently in the corner of Maggie’s room until my wife finds it a year later, gives me the look and puts it in the donation pile. I want to avoid the look from my wife, so I need to misdirect Maggie to focus her attention on something else. In our family we say “Look, shiny light!” 

Squirrel! is a slightly different but similar situation. It’s attending to the present; what fire needs to be put out, what squeaky wheel needs to be oiled, or project needs to get moving. But as you start the project, the squeaky wheel walks into the office and demands immediate attention. As you move to their office to solve the problem you stop by the bathroom but it is out of tissue. So you head to the supply closet but you can’t see because the light bulb is out. Now you are late for lunch with a client… and so the day goes. As the day ends, what did you accomplish? Sure, the supply closet has a new light bulb, but you’ve not satisfied the squeaky wheel and your project is still in the starting gate. Not to mention the 104 emails you have with new “urgent” issues.
Information technology is an ever-evolving environment, and it is particularly challenging for the leaders of hospitality IT organizations to keep up. More and more technology trends are not influenced by just the needs of the operations, but by the guest’s shiny new device. IT leaders need to figure out the delicate balance between meeting the owners’ demand to drive revenue and cut costs, or the franchises’ attempt to create a new standard (which contradicts your other edicts). Add in regulatory requirements and compliance, which largely is behind the scenes and does little to drive anything but expenses. There is no perfect environment where all can be solved simultaneously, and thus, hospitality IT ends up with, “Look, squirrel!” I need to improve my network.

2015 is the first year where hoteliers and franchises have started to understand that wireless infrastructure is now something that needs to be upgraded every two to three years, and not every four or five. Wireless radios in devices are ever changing; they are getting smaller, using less power, but often also communicating in a smaller area. Commercial Wi-Fi hardware needs to keep up with the new Note 23, iPhone 12, Nokia 2873 and new, super cool, thin, sleek tablets. Combine that with the press of 802.11ac, the continued investment in good infrastructure is now a requirement.

Most franchises have come out with new standards that push the envelope for the next-generation converged wireless network. AC is an interesting evolution/innovation that was pressed on us by manufacturers, not necessarily by need. In the old Cisco end-of-life business practice, manufacturers simply cut production of N and moved to the next innovation AC. Hotels have no practical use for AC, but it’s all that we can buy. This is compounded by the fact that the 5GHZ radios have shorter range than the 2.4GHZ radios, so you need more of them for the same coverage pattern. Sure each AC access point can handle more connections than previous hardware, but you need to augment your cable plant, and likely upgrade your switches to ones that have a larger backplane. AC is backwards compatible with many technologies but not all. (Do you really need coverage for 802.11b?) We replaced networks during a refresh because the cost to maintain the existing equipment along with AC was too high that changing all the equipment was less expensive. Is that wireless innovation? I really feel, “Look, squirrel!” what do I need to focus on the liability shift due to EMV and placing that in our ecosystem.

EMV has been a long time coming, but in the last 18 months, Visa, and to some extent the other card brands, have pushed the deadlines up. In order to maintain the current liability models (and avoid the shift of all disputed charges to the merchant), you need to have EMV at your front desks. What is the real risk? Only transactions that your operations should have been able to process via EMV and your hotel was not prepared to take EMV, will fall under this shift. Right now, most consumers are lucky to have one card in their wallet with the EMV chip, but it’s coming. Merchant service providers, hardware vendors and banks are still very far behind, and even the most prepared organizations might not have EMV-ready front desks on October 1. 

The brands are not ready for EMV either, with some building partnerships with banks and merchant service providers that can cause issues with ownership and management companies’ banks and merchant services. Some brands are hoping to be ready with an approved merchant services/hardware/gateway solution in the first quarter of 2016, and some will not be ready until the second quarter or later. When the liability shift happens, will the brands take part of the responsibility if there is a rash of disputes that impact the bottom line? Will the merchant services provider? The most common thing to hold them back seems to be more the inability for a hotel to deploy the technology because it is not ready, not because they are unwilling to do so.

Adding to the concern is that we are putting in a 20-year-old standard. Is this innovation? The current EMV solution only solves one part of the fraud phalanx: counterfeit cards in a card-present environment. Theft of physical card, not solved; theft of card stripe data to use for online fraud, not solved. EMV technology was developed in parts of the world where there is often a monolithic banking structure, so banks could dictate the implementation because there was little choice for the consumer. The U.S. market has more complexity than rocket science: lots of banks, tons of service networks and a whole bunch of platforms.

Credit card companies basically don’t want bad debt so that they can positively affect their own profit and loss. Its the hoteliers who lose as they invest a significant amount of money to be able to accept credit cards and now are responsible for bad debt that would have been with another entity. All EMV (and PCI) do is protect the card brands’ business, not the merchants. Technology that was developed to shift the blame isn’t innovation, but it’s a real issue that hospitality IT has to deal with. In recommending to my ownership, “Look, squirrel!” I need to start moving my operations to the cloud.

Cloud migration has become a major topic from boardrooms to conferences, even though most of those talking about it are just throwing the word around because it is buzzword-compliant. There are many ways to move to the cloud:

  • Private cloud, where a company hosts or selects a hosting partner (CoLo) to house company-owned and managed equipment.
  • Infrastructure as a service (IaaS), where a company rents hardware (servers, switching, etc.) and runs and manages operating systems and applications on the rented hardware. This is like renting your laptop, but having to install and manage everything on it.
  • Platform as a service (PaaS), where a company rents equipment running operating systems and databases, and then runs the applications in that environment. This is renting a brand new laptop with all of the basics you wanted and running and managing your applications (PMS, POS, CRM) on the laptop.
  • Software as a service (SaaS, formerly ASP), where you are renting the actual application you are using, and by far what most think of when referring to the cloud. You never touch the hardware, or the application except to work with it, and updates, scalability and management are all handled by the provider.

Moving to the cloud is usually piecemeal, as companies will move parts of their operations into one of (or many of) the different variations of cloud. Leveraging cloud-based technology allows companies to remove expensive hardware, change the security footprint, reduce costly “expert” labor and scale their operations up and down based on need. When planning for cloud, it is important to look at the process flow of the application or task you are looking to move. A strong testing phase is important, across disparate browsers and hardware platforms, and a good deployment cannot require Internet Explorer on Windows 7. In my previous life, my company had private cloud, PaaS and SaaS implementations. It is important to, “Look, squirrel!” I have a Seattle property and need to work on Apple Pay®.

Apple Pay hit the market, and all of the sudden everyone needs to be able to receive payments from our guests’ iPhones®. Forget that the background technologies are not ready for most operations, particularly hotel operations. Most hoteliers assumed that we could leverage the EMV transition to add Apple Pay, but Apple is not cooperating with many hospitality processors and there are problems with authorizations and refunds – critical points to work with any property management system (PMS). It will be January at best before hotels can tick a box and have Apple Pay at their front desks (Apple Pay will come to restaurants, bars and gift shops earlier, as these are point-of-purchase settlements). Never mind that more than half of Apple Pay users use it once. When talking to your executive team about Apple Pay, focus on, “Look, squirrel!” my management team wants me to investigate keyless entry?
Keyless entry, that’s right, skip the desk, go right to your room, every guest’s dream. There is some fear that keyless entry will be a fad; some guests will use it, but most will use it once and not again. Locks in the past have been an 8-year to 12-year investment, and moving away from magnetic stripe will reportedly increase that life a year or two more. Planning for a device that will likely be network connected over a life cycle of more than a decade is a challenge. There are a great deal of items to check off the list beyond purchasing locks that are capable of accepting the signal from a smartphone (NFC, RFID, Bluetooth, audio). Ask these questions:

  • How do we alert a guest that a room is available?
  • How do we know the guest has checked in?
  • What happens when their device runs out of battery?
  • How is patching and updating of the locks handled?
  • Can the lock be accessed by multiple devices during the same stay?
  • If you have areas that are accessed by room key now (pool, gym, executive floors, valet parking), how will these work with the deluge of devices?
  • Are we deploying an app? What platform(s)? Is it integrated into our brand app or separate?
  • What is the upgrade path for the latest iOS, Android and Windows platform?
  • What impact does EMV have on the transaction process?
  • How are we integrating all of this?

You also need to work with operations to improve the process of welcoming the guest. With no front desk, how are you going to make your guest feel welcome, how will they know about the reception or breakfast, or how will you simply inform them of the hours for the workout room. What technologies are we using to replace the human touch?

///////////////“Look, squirrel!” Integrations
Integrations, no, you need to say it with some level of disdain or horror in your voice, like this: Integrations. That’s better. If there is a bane of the hospitality technology professional, it is interfaces or integrations. Most hotels have more systems talking to each other than anyone imagined possible, even five years ago. Property management systems still sit at the core of most operations, but we have moved way beyond just talking to phone, movie, voice mail and reservations systems. Now we have integrations with integrations, reservations talks to PMS, OTA, group booking and revenue management systems; CRM talks to room controls, rapid response, guest surveys, reputation management and social media; sales and catering talks to PMS, group booking, CRM and a mess of lead sites; television systems talk to PMS, weather, movie servers, Amazon and Netflix; accounting talks to POS, PMS, BI and payroll. Phew! Take a minute, sit down and draw out your environments based on what other systems talk to each other. It boggles the mind.

The newest answer to this is the service bus, a communications layer that facilitates the communication of all these disparate systems to each other. Think of an old-time telephone switchboard where the PBX operator physically transfers an incoming call to a line, except it’s digital and happens a million times a second. Everything communicates with this layer, and the layer routes the data where it needs to be. It’s really quite elegant. Read more about it by Googling citizenM, Michael Levie and service bus. What? In-room entertainment, “Look, squirrel!” the brand has a new video directive.

It was a money maker, it was dead, it’s a necessity? I’ve seen the movie “The Lion King” and understand the circle of life, but the newest Marriott requirement has hotels installing interactive TV (updated word for in-room entertainment). I had it years ago, took it out, and now I need to put it back in? The statistics don’t lie; 30 percent of guests don’t even turn on the TV. Thirty-five percent of guests will watch over-the-top services like Netflix if hotels offer them in the room. The remaining 35 percent watch the local networks and ESPN (after that, viewership falls to 1.5 percent or less for any other channel). So I need to invest a significant amount of capital so guests can watch Netflix on my TV? (Only in Marriott hotels since Netflix is exclusive to Marriott.)

Will we sell more guestrooms, raise guest scores, or are guests indifferent to where they watch their content as long as it’s their content? While few in the industry have a truly elegant solution for allowing your content on the monitor in your room, there are a few out there that are getting close. What happens when these systems are hacked? Are we applying the same protections on our entertainment platforms as we are in our PII-protected environments? It is all well and good to show your own content on the big screen in your room, but will guests start to distrust this if there is a breach? 

Consider the airlines: they figured out that people had their own devices, they just needed access either through Wi-Fi (which still stinks) or provided content because of the lack of Wi-Fi. Hotels have great Wi-Fi and we live in an on-demand society, so guests have access to their content on their devices. Speaking of the airlines, what happened to the kiosk revolution? It worked in airports but not in hotels. Was that innovation by consumer demand? Business-savvy travelers use mobile check-in now, “Look, squirrel!”

Other things IT leadership is chasing, much like the squirrel that taunts my dog from the fence:

+ Mobile website, mobile app, mobile?
+ Digital inventory management
+ Bulletproof disaster recovery (no, really bulletproof )
+ WEP 2.0, 802.1x, Wi-Fi technology evolution and migration of hardware
+ Power at the desk, power in the datacenter
+ Securing BYOD environments when the CEO is chasing the shiny new device, squirrel!
Dashboards and other reporting
+ PCI 3.1 (4, 5, etc.), managing compliance when you barely met the last deadline

When placing technology in the guest arena, the only reason should be that it will impact the customer in a way that will impact their buying decision. Let’s go back to our partners in the airlines where kiosks are so commonplace that it is an exception when one is not available.

The leaders in kiosks looked at the project and answered the following:

1 Yes, we are able to service more guests in a smaller amount of time, meaning less queuing, a major complaint of flyers. The corollary is also proven here; competitor airlines quickly jumped to provide kiosks as they were losing customers to airlines that had them.
2 Yes, in most cases staffing at check-in is reduced by at least 50 percent (in many instances, more), meaning both improved efficiency and real cost reduction.
3 Yes, customers are now prompted for upgrades, priority boarding, drink tickets, etc., increasing incremental revenues.

All of your projects will not answer every one of these as yes, but you should strive to have as many as you can. If they are all no you should reconsider the squirrel you are chasing. “Look, squirrel!” I need to do budgets.

Hotels, now more than ever, make decisions strictly driven by the P&L. Ownership is willing to invest but the technology must drive revenue or drive down cost. This style could stifle innovation, as fewer hotels are early adopters and more pragmatic about the purchasing decision. This doesn’t appear to be the case, as it has just focused innovation on more realistic hotel and guest needs (such as airline inflight entertainment on your own device). Take the example of fiber to the rooms.

Capex plans have to be submitted with black-and-white cost, ROI and clear attainable results in order to get approved. Our industry relationships are important, but ownerships don’t value your relationship with the vendor, they value the outcome. The days of buying based on relationships is ending; purchasing is a business decision which frees your day to... “Look, squirrel!”

Being able to successfully prioritize items is the next key to your success. One of the main stumbling blocks when setting up how you are going to attack your responsibilities is a lack of communication. Correcting problems behind the scenes is often one of your top priorities, but often not seen or understood by the operations team of a hotel or restaurant. Clearly explaining timelines and the reasons behind setting priorities the way you have, will make your projects better.

Once you have filtered the items into a priority list, make sure to record the list and any subtasks, deadlines and resources needed. You can do this on a spreadsheet or with any number of free or inexpensive tools available on the Internet. I like to use tools that have Gantt charts, so it is easy to track a project against a timeline, and see what items are dependent on other tasks being completed. Sometimes the chart is overkill, but I find it helpful in many situations, even small ones. Maintaining projects on a series of lists can also help identify where you are resource-deprived, and allow for reallocation or additional resources to be added.

A series of goals tied to dates is a great way to get a checkup on the status of a project, call them milestones, thresholds or check points. Each of these serves as a way to keep a project on time, or correct one to bring it back into line. Goals should be clear and measurable, such as “test data import with dummy data” or “complete graphic user interface wireframes for display to the team for approval.”

Set a budget for problems – a contingency budget, not just for financial resources but for human capital and consulting resources. You don’t want a project falling too far behind or missing a deadline because a resource was home sick or you could not get time on the testing sandbox.

Another pitfall to time management is the squeaky wheel phenomenon, where you or your team move tasks that are unimportant up the list to stop or prevent “that guy” from always complaining. The sister of this is the “impress your leadership phenomenon,” where projects for influential leaders are prioritized over others to get points with that person. Both are tricky, and both can kill your productivity on the real critical items.

The last major pitfall to your success is unknown deadlines, as you cannot prioritize tasks for time frames you are unaware of. I see this quite a bit. Heck, two new emails just came across my inbox regarding steps needed to be completed prior to the end of the month – items that were slated for next year. Other parts of the organization can make promises or start initiatives without letting you know, and all of the sudden you are allocating resources to meet a deadline that you did not have on your radar. Better communication is still the key to this, even though there is sometimes very little you can do about it. Let your organization know what you are working on, why and the availability of resources for “pop-up” projects.
Time management also means not taking on more than you can accomplish (I know, fat chance), but often all projects will fail if you take on one project too many. Communicate what can actually be accomplished, and set very clear expectations. This will help avoid getting too much in the weeds.

Take breaks, short ones in the day, go to lunch, even if just away from your desk, and relax in your off time (when you get it). A quick run to the water cooler, or a 15-minute walk around the block can be very powerful to reset and re-energize. Skipping lunch is bad, and lunch at your desk often just leads to spilling on your keyboard. Take a mental break. A good night's sleep is also very important. If you do not take the requisite time to sharpen your axe, you will not accomplish as much with each swing. 

In the end, with the speed of technology we will always be playing catch-up and often chasing the squirrels in our operations, but with some precautions and some explanation to the leadership, you can select the ones you actually can catch. By the way, Maggie forgot about the doll, but I still got the look. Just like hospitality IT, it’s a no-win situation sometimes. 

Trevor Warner is the president of Warner Consulting Group. He can be reached at trevorwarner@warnerconsultinggroup.com. JEFFREY STEPHEN PARKER, CHTP, is the vice president of hotel technology for Interstate Hotels & Resorts.
©2015 Hospitality Upgrade
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by Jeffrey Stephen Parker
As the ever daunting list of guest innovations, compliance issues and technology becomes more and more critical for day-to-day operations, one question always asked is, do we need to outsource, or should we build a larger internal technology team?

Parker as Former Vice President of Technology
Stout Street Hospitality

Position: Build an internal team for high service standards.

Stout Street Hospitality (SSH) runs the Magnolia Hotels brand, and its constant challenge was balancing the ownership's need to run low margins with the evolving needs of technology to maintain day-to-day operations. SSH has been focused on historic renovation and operations of owned properties, but has recently added franchising the Magnolia Brand to other ownership to an already successful track record of running independent and branded hotels.

///// Teaching a third party the intricacies of each hotel is not sustainable. Hotel technology is a different arena than just technology. Ultimately a technologists’ goal is to get a system performing optimally, where a hospitality technologist needs to assist in the delivery of good customer service to a hotel guest. Even the best tech support companies in the world do not understand how important the maid-phone integration is or how important it is that the printer at the front desk produces folios for checkout.  And, when you get a few up to speed they are ultimately promoted or leave the company, and you are stuck with a new tech when it’s the Friday before Labor Day, and you have 1,000 checkouts on Saturday.
///// Internal IT teams feel they are part of the overall operations team, so they are more approachable and likely to pitch in beyond simply solving a symptom, whereas, third parties are only concerned with getting a ticket closed, meeting the KPI for their contract, and not delivering quality service. Ops teams want to build a relationship with support, like they do with guests.

///// Having a team that understands a specific network can often lead to a quicker resolution, even if they have to travel over a long distance to get hands on, while just sending some technician often leads to spending time (billable time) getting the tech up to speed, and you are still using an internal resource. I remember that time when we sent a third-party tech, on a Sunday, at double-time, to a property to simply check that a cable was plugged in, and by the time I explained where the cable was, what the hardware was labeled and how to confirm it was working, it cost a fortune, and I still had to go onsite to resolve the issue the next day.

///// Experts, when needed, can be hired out. There is no need to pay the salary of an expert when you only need that specific expertise for a short while, and not very often. Tier one and two help desks are interacting with hotel teams on a daily basis, and your resources should be allocated to those needs.

///// Monitoring, patching and updating of systems takes a ton of time, and it is tedious work. Maybe it is better to hire this out to the experts. I know I don’t want to be reading the latest Microsoft patch Tuesday bulletin.

///// Carrying the cost for a team member is expensive, and even though there is too much to always do, some team members seem to find a great deal of time to be unproductive since they are getting paid anyway.

Parker as Current Vice President of Hotel Technology
Interstate Hotels and Resorts

Position: Outsource for continued growth.

Interstate Hotels and Resorts (IHR) operates more than 400 hotels worldwide. With several ownership groups, and brands, it is Interstate's constant challenge to balance the wishes of ownership, the brand standards and the everyday technology challenges with delivering value and profitability to ownership. IHR is a rapidly growing company, transitioning in 10 or more hotels a month. Working with almost all of the top hotel brands, multiple flags and independents, IHR is able to leverage its extensive experience and history of successful hospitality management.

///// Building an internal IT team is not sustainable. With the amount of growth that IHR has had, the ability to hire talented, motivated and qualified IT staff, and then to train them to keep up with growth, cannot work. There are too many changes, in both the environments and the number and types of properties to assimilate an in-house team.

///// Outsourcing to a partner lets you establish a baseline and service-level agreements to ensure hotels are taken care of. Most of hospitality technology is standard to the tech industry as a whole, and SLAs can be put in place for response and resolution of most of these issues. In addition, building in the ability for a support company to liaise with vendor support for hospitality-specific systems allows it to participate in the resolution of issues that are specific to the industry. We’ve all hired that entitled millennial who expects a six-figure salary right out of school, and already knows everything, without knowing anything. With a partner for support, they can handle their people and train to meet the level of service you require. The hotel just wants the problem solved, it doesn’t always need to have it solved by a nice guy.

///// It’s not cost effective to put someone on a plane every time you need to resolve an issue in person. You need support partners with a national or regional presence to assist you. With the growing coverage of expert technicians all over the world, it is easy to just dispatch one to resolve issues, and if need be, they can work with the internal team to troubleshoot.

///// Outsourcing typical help desk support allows you to hire experts in house to handle the larger problems. Most of help desk support is resetting passwords and solving simple issues. By having a third party that can easily assist on this, you can reallocate resources to obtain higher level technical people for your in-house staff.

///// Monitoring, patching and updating of systems is better done by outsourcing because you can buy (or rent) just that piece of a large platform and resource instead of investing capital in the entire system.
///// Sometimes it is nice to work through issues without hearing the clock ticking. Even though outsourcing is the right way to deal with fast-paced growth, it is nice to work to build standards with internal team members and not think about the dollar signs it is costing you when that person is $95 an hour. I remember transitioning a property in Colorado where the outsourced IT tech came in to tour the systems and help brainstorm ideas on how to resolve some issues with the Wi-Fi network. After a half day to work out the issue, and dinner afterwards to continue the discussion, I got a call from the GM wondering why he received a bill for eight hours of IT work and nothing was done.
When A Shiny New Object (Squirrel!) Catches Your Eye       
Four Reflections for Staying Focused

By Jayne Garrett, Executive Leadership Coach

Time Management
Also referred to as self management, time is finite as we all have an equal amount. When looking at a shiny new project/initiative/business direction (fill in the blank), reflect on your current workload and ask if the needed allocation of time, energy and resources are readily available for something new.

Reflective Questions: How will pursuing the shiny new object impact, positive or not, the current workload of employees? Will this “new” thing replace something or be an addition? If an addition, is it a realistic expectation?

When working in a reactive culture it is difficult to determine what is a priority. When putting out fires is the norm, everything appears to need immediate attention. What are the criteria you define as a priority: time, resources, capability, financial, leverage point, catalyst or other? If a pattern of chasing shiny new objects is created, employees get a mixed message. What is important, where do they focus their time and attention, and what is relevant for the success of their work and the business? Are silos created from a lack of priorities or is there consistent chaos from operating with an undefined focus?

Reflective Questions: With the end in mind how will the new shiny object add value to your vision? How will priorities be defined and upheld? With clear priorities what will be the impact on effectiveness in connecting strategies for ongoing success? 

Delegating or Dumping
When leadership communicates clear direction there is a sense of empowerment felt by employees. Employees are delegated an accountability to maximize their contribution to the business. When a new shiny object takes over and the leadership moves the focus, employees often feel that what they have been contributing loses value and the new assignment around the shiny new object can feel dumped on them rather than delegated. If a shiny new object syndrome happens often enough, the pattern creates a negative rippling impact on employee morale. Effective communication about the shiny new object minimizes the feeling of something being imposed. A well-conveyed communication feels more like an invitation rather than an imposition. The communication conveys the role and expectations, which defines what is delegated, minimizing the feeling of being dumped upon.

Reflective Question: As the leader, how am I conveying the direction of the organization to maximize the contribution of all employees?

When leading an organization in an ever-changing industry, how do you decide when to pursue a shiny new object? When does it enhance your vision, give you a competitive edge, or bring you closer to obtaining your short and long-term goals? How will the new direction impact resources, especially human capital? These are a few thoughts to consider.

Reflective Question: When deciding to pursue a shiny new object ask yourself, “Will this decision today serve all aspects of my company for many tomorrows to come?”


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