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Interview with Richard Tudgay - Vice President of Information Technology, Omni Hotels

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June 01, 2008
Face to Face
Richard Siegel - Rich@hospitalityupgrade.com

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© 2008 Hospitality Upgrade. No reproduction without written permission.

Note from Rich:
Over the past 16 years I have sat down face to face for these interviews with those in charge of technology for their companies. It has included very large chains, cruise, gaming, vacation ownership, and on occasion some very unique single properties. When I met with Richard Tudgay I was eager to ask if there was “room” in the industry for a hotel company with just over 40 properties. I found his answer to this question and where they are focusing their technology strategies quite intriguing. I believe you will also. Yes, there will always be room for mid-size, upper class hotel companies, and I am thankful for that. A smart guy, a good guy and a great interview.

Rich Siegel:  Let’s start with your background.  How long have you been at Omni?
Richard Tudgay:  I have been at Omni Hotels for seven years now.  Before this, I started with a company called the Container Store in 1992 and worked my way up through the ranks of IT. Really my big break was when we were getting a new POS system and I was tasked with starting the help desk. I worked for the Container Store for eight years before coming into hospitality.

What was your original position at Omni?
Paul Dietzler was running IT at that time.  Truthfully, he had no desire to run it.  He had a lot of great technical people, but he was looking for somebody to take over IT.  I had a very strong data warehousing background, from using Oracle during my years at the Container Store, and Omni was implementing Oracle financials here. So he needed an Oracle DBA.

And then?
Paul said let me bring you in as our Oracle DBA and slowly, but surely, I am going to start giving you bits and pieces of the IT department. And within three years you will have the IT department. 

Did that plan work?
I am being interviewed by you, aren’t I? (smile)

(Smile) How big is your IT operation today?
Our IT operation is split in two.  We have 16 people here in Dallas and 15 more in Omaha, Neb.

You support all the properties out of Dallas, correct?
Yes. One of the great things about Omni and one of the reasons that I came here was that we pretty much own and manage all of our properties, so we have full control across the brand. Yes, we centrally support all of our hotels from here in Dallas.

How big is Omni? 
Currently Omni has 43 hotels.

Do you have any new ones in the pipeline?
Fort Worth is planned to open in January of 2009. We also have Houston-Polk in downtown Houston which we are hoping to open in 2010.

Are these new builds or conversions?
Both are new builds, though very different.  Fort Worth is already off the ground.  In Houston we are taking over a property that was closed some 20 years ago.

Do you treat new builds any differently than your existing properties when it comes to technology?
We try to standardize across the entire brand.  The only difference with new builds is that it is our opportunity to deliberately try something new.

What is the process to implement new technology?
We need to sell the new technology first to the executives at Omni and then eventually the ownership group.  We tell them we should have this in all Omnis. With a new build it is the perfect opportunity. Let’s push this in.  Usually, I am given a budget, and if I can fit it within the budget, then we can make it happen.

Do you have an example of something new you might try in a new property?
In Fort Worth, we have been trying to sell voice-over IP.  I am not a firm believer that we need to jump into that across the brand, but I think it was something we needed to test. I could not get an existing Omni Hotel to buy a new phone switch to implement voice-over IP, however, with Fort Worth, when we started talking about the phone switch, I said I really would like to try voice-over IP. It was immediately shot down. The belief was we should buy a typical phone switch; we are not ready for voice-over IP.  I said, alright, well let’s try it at least in the back of the house.  Let’s do it in the admin space, let’s start there.  Yes, I agree that maybe we don’t need to jump into it in the guestrooms and the meeting rooms, but let’s at least try it in the back of the house. I was eventually able to sell that.

Voice-over IP is so popular today.  It’s surprising you didn’t go for it.
I think it was the opportunity to either prove or disprove it. Again, everyone looks at telephone revenue and says I don’t want to sink any money into that and it was shot down.

Speaking of telephones, at HITEC this year I am moderating the Thursday general session that has all the companies that rate hotels (i.e., three-, four-, five-stars).  A point of contention has been the need for two-line phones to maintain a four- or five-star rating.  How strange is that today?
We put in two-line phones and as you just said it’s only because of those hotel ratings.  We have talked extensively internally and I have been in many meetings with operations, engineering, senior team saying let’s just put in one-line phones.  In fact, let’s just put just a single phone at the desk and maybe a real fancy phone at the bedside with a speaker. We’ve talked that maybe we don’t even need it at the desk anymore.  We have gone around and around on this, but the bottom line is every time we think we get close to it, we find out that if we do that, we are going to lose a star and we don’t want to take that risk.

You should come to the closing session.
I will be there.

I think the whole rating criteria should be changed.  Last night I stayed in your Park West hotel here in Dallas.  You have flat panel TVs.  You also offer HD TV.  That is the stuff that should be used in the ratings.  Is the in-room entertainment system something you have started offering recently?
Last year we convinced ownership to dive into HD.  As we were renovating our rooms, we put in beautiful LG flat-panel, high-definition TVs, and we were running just the old, analog signal.  We started getting complaints from our guests saying you got this beautiful TV, but I can’t see the picture.  Based on our Medalia Comments we were able to go to ownership and say we need to try LodgeNet’s high-definition offering and show that it is quite different.  We put it into Park West.  We also had tested it in Chicago because we had ED TVs. We put in digital up there and both properties, the minute we turned it on, all the comments went away. The picture is great, everyone loves the TVs.  The other big thing we did was we went from supplying about 20 cable channels to about 75 channels, which was a big bang for the buck.

Isn’t there other content you can be offering via the TV today?
I think that the biggest thing that many of the companies have started to grab at is sports.  You hear if you use our product, the bang for your buck is that anybody can walk into that hotel and watch the game they want and pay $9.95 to watch that, whether it’s basketball, football or baseball.

Makes sense.
LodgeNet is trying to sign with major players in all sports to get where they can show any game for a given price, whether it’s a college basketball game, a women’s college basketball game, a college football game or a professional football game.

Keep going.
The next step is having basically true on-demand TV in regards to sports. 

Do you think this will be successful?
I don’t think that it is taking off.  I think it is one of those that is such a niche, people love it, but then when they have to pay for it, they are not always willing to pay especially when they are getting charged either $9.95 or $7.95 for an hour-long program.

Don’t forget, there is also IP TV where you can watch channels from your home state or country versus having to watch local ones.  Would you say your guests are happy with the fact that you have HD signal with the new TVs in the rooms?

Speaking of rooms, are all your rooms wireless today?
By the end of this year, we will be completely wireless.  Omni takes great pride in the fact that we were one of the first to jump into wireless back in 2002 and make it available to our guests in our guestrooms.  We continue to improve that.  We have had some hotels where we did not have wireless in, and we had put a wired solution in and thought that it was good enough.  As the years have gone by, we have realized that we need to have a wireless solution even in those wired hotels.  The other thing we are doing is we are seeing that the demand for bandwidth continues to increase.  We made a conscious effort to increase our bandwidth, and we are trying to get 100 MB networks in for all meeting rooms and all guestrooms. For properties where we cannot get that in, we take a look at the bandwidth utilization and try to say what is the 95 percent that we are utilizing and then go above that.  So, hopefully, the minimum we will have in an Omni is a 6 MB by the end of the year.

I stayed at the Royal Sonesta in Cambridge, Mass., recently, which offers your basic Internet for free.  If you need more bandwidth, they have an additional charge.  Have you ever thought about doing something like that?
We have done that.  One of the downsides of when you standardize across your brand is you can’t start a program until you can do it in all of the Omnis.

Keep going. 
So in this case, we kind of shot ourselves in the foot. At one of our properties, we have put a 100 MB circuit in just to see what utilization would be and we said alright, let’s test and sell a basic service package, a premium and then maybe even a third tier.  It was a great success, but we immediately had to turn it off because we couldn’t turn it on in all Omnis. Until I have the entire infrastructure in place, I cannot offer tiered bandwidth. But yes, absolutely, we feel that we want to try to continue down that path. Omni has always had free Internet access and in recent years we had to go to a charge model because of the infrastructure.  We continue to keep it free in our lobbies, but what we are hoping to do in our guestrooms, outside of our select guests, is maybe have a free usage that is low bandwidth, and then for those who do need more bandwidth, we will allow them to purchase that.

We always hear that marketing drives many of the technology initiatives today.  Is that true at Omni?
Yes, I would say that it’s very true.  Marketing in 2005 really started to step out there when we said we want to take on the Hotels.com of the world and bring it in house.  We want to have better controls, and we want the IT department to be the booking engine and we want to control the front end of it.  Maybe we will outsource who does the actual pages and puts it all together, but we want to control all the content and everything our guests see.  From there in 2005, our marketing department has lead many of our initiatives.  Marketing works very closely with operations.  Right now we are testing an online room service that both marketing and operations worked together to create.  IT has been involved just getting the back end with our business center partner, GBCblue, going on this, but that was all driven by marketing.

Speaking of marketing, how do you position Omni in the market place?
Upper upscale.

When your 40+ properties are competing with Marriott’s and other hotel companies isn’t it difficult?  Loyalty programs are very popular today. Is there room for 40-property companies in this industry?
There definitely is.  The beauty we get to have with the 40+ properties is consistency with customer service and consistency in being able to say you walk into any Omni and you know what you are going to get.  That’s really where we are able to beat most of our competitors because we know that they cannot offer that across their brand. Yes, we are definitely small when it comes to the hospitality market, but our name, for a company that only has 40 properties is certainly well known out there.  The biggest reason it is known is just the service that we provide.

And because we’ve held our CIO Summit and Executive Vendor Summit at two of your properties.
Of course (smile).

Distribution of room inventory remains a big issue in the industry today. 
I think one of the biggest challenges with Omni is distribution. Currently we have a home-grown reservations system. Twenty years ago we had third-party software, bought the source code and took off running with it.  In the last five years it has become quite a challenge with everyone from the outside saying we want access, we want our own extranet, we want the best pricing. On the flip side, you have the GDSs saying we just want parity. They have begun to actually back that up.  It has become a challenge for us to keep up with all the requests.  IT is very involved in maintaining our inventories and rate. 

But, you are making a big change with your reservation system, right?
Over the last two years, the general manager of our reservations center and I were tasked with figuring out what we were going to do with our legacy system.  We had three choices on hand; one where we were going to rewrite it, meaning, start from scratch, and rewrite the entire thing; two, completely outsource to a third-party vendor; or three, buy off-the-shelf software. After two years of recommendations to the senior team and ownership we got approval to move forward with MICROS OPERA for our central reservations. That is a huge project that we have undertaken this year.  Internally, we call it Project Nucleus, and Nucleus is touching many things besides just reservations up in Omaha.  We have decided to change our revenue management practices and standardize across all Omni with room types.  It is amazing all of the business units we are hitting with this project.

So, where are you with the project? 
We started at the end of last year and our goal is to go live in the middle of August 2008.  We are still on track and have hit our milestones.

How long has the project really taken?
It’s a huge project.  We made the recommendation last August. So, it’s almost going to be a year from when we made the recommendation.  We did not get final approval until the end of the year, but we were pretty sure we were going to get approval, so we started the project internally long before then.  Last fall we began getting all the pieces and people into place.  We brought in a new vice president of revenue management to help drive this.  We brought in a couple of people under him to give him support.  Our operations team looked at MICROS OPERA PMS to explore whether we want to go there at that time.  The wheels have been in motion for quite some time.  It’s hard core for all of us.  We have spent a lot of time  in Omaha talking through everything. Let’s not say we are going to change everything, but let’s talk through everything, having all of the department heads, as well as people beneath them in these meetings. It’s just been amazing to hear how we do things at Omni and knowing it is time to change.

How often are you in Omaha?
I go to Omaha at least twice a month, especially with this project going on.  I have a number of developers up there, as well as an infrastructure team supporting the current CRS and especially now with Project Nucleus, I spend quite a bit of time up there trying to get a handle on where we are going.  The project is driven out of Omaha right now.

You must also be experiencing changes in your central reservations operation with so much happening via the Web today.
The voice agent part has definitely been going down in the eight years that I have been here.  What has gone up, though, is everything else tied to reservations.  We are getting more specialized. Today we have a resort desk now that just handles our resort properties.  We also have customer service that helps people who are visiting www.omnihotels.com and call in with questions or guest who have stayed at an Omni and just want to talk about a stay.  What really has driven our reservation center is it has become this huge customer support center.  We look at all the different channels that are generating room nights and focus on those that can help Omni capture increased market share. 

You mentioned an increased focus on revenue management.  What do you use for revenue management?
We use Rainmaker.  We are on version 1.0 of Rainmaker and one of the big goals I have is to go to what is called Revolution 1.5, which allows Omni to improve our operation management.  Today, all of our revenue management is around length of stay.  We are hoping to go to hurdle rates, where it just needs to meet a hurdle instead of worrying about length of stay, which will then allow us to go to best available rate (BAR pricing) which currently Omni does not practice.  Our revenue management had been where you need a rocket scientist to understand it. Now we are trying to simplify it to allow us to better understand it as we move forward.

Every hotel company wants to better know its guests.  Where are you with your customer relationship management?
CRM is a huge undertaking at Omni.  From our president on down, it is an initiative that we feel is one of the things that separates Omni from everyone else. We are able to treat each guest individually, and find out what does this guest want at an Omni Hotel that they cannot get at another hotel. The best way to do that is to profile the guest. Whether it’s a request for eight pillows or whether it’s a request to wake up in the morning with raspberry tea.  It’s all of those things and capturing these requests in the property management system, then being able to pass it back through to the central reservations system. Now you have that person across your brand and not just at one hotel.  At Omni we feel it is what separates us.  The more we know about our guests, the better we feel we can service those guests and separate ourselves from our competitors.

Well said.  Let’s switch gears.  Many in the industry think software as a service (SaaS) will become more mainstream in the not so distant future.  Do you have any opinions on this?
I don’t think anytime soon. For many hoteliers, including Omni, we want to buy something and use it for quite a while. One of the things we don’t like to do is to buy something, have it change and then have to buy it again.  Our business model is that we want to own everything. Especially when it comes to the IT world, we don’t want to lease anything. One of the struggles of change in the IT is, obviously, you get it out there you have to get the end user to understand what you were trying to accomplish when you purchased that product.  I think that we eventually will go to that model when more people are technology savvy, but right now, I don’t think it will be truly popular anytime soon.

Don’t you centralize certain parts of your operation?
Yes, we centralize our Oracle financials, our payroll, our timekeeping, and our sales automation with Newmarket’s Multi-Property Delphi product.  We feel the more we can centralize the better we are as a company.  We know all of our information is coming into one place. It is easier for reporting to look across the brand, instead of looking at individual properties.  It’s also easier to have standards across our brand if we know everyone is pulling out of the same database or application.  As we look at our property management system one of the things that makes it so hard is it is decentralized, so a guest profile is not guaranteed at every one of our Omnis and that is definitely an issue as we improve our loyalty program.  We want you to know whatever Omni you go to, we are going to treat you the same.  But, it is a challenge in a decentralized environment. 

But, this is information your front staff has to know.
Absolutely.  The biggest thing we hear from our customer advisory boards is personalization; make sure you are able to know if a guest has been there before and, what he liked, whether the stay at that individual property or somewhere across the brand.  The best thing we can do is welcome someone back and say, I see you have stayed at this property.  How was that stay?  What can we do to make sure your stay is just as good or better than your previous stay?  The guests love that. 

Talking about checkin, have you ever looked at Web checkin, similar to what the airlines offer?
Actually, last year, we implemented online checkin, OCI as we like to call it, which operations and marketing inspired us to do.  It allows guests to go online and check into a hotel so that when they walk into our hotel, all he or she needs to do is just pick up a key packet. The guest does not have to stand in line.  It’s just another way to help us provide customer service.  Checkin and checkout is certainly a place where this industry has struggled with the time it takes to get in or out of a hotel. The more Omni can do, the better we feel we are.  We are always looking at technology to improve the process, but we do like to try to touch our guests, also.  We have shied away from kiosks because we feel that it is too impersonal. It’s too late to try and impress the guest at that point.  At some of our larger hotels we try to have more people on staff if we know more guests are arriving at a certain time instead of sticking kiosks in the lobby. We want to get them before they get to our hotel by sending them an e-mail with the benefits of checking in online. That way the guest can just walk in, grab a key packet and go right up to the room. 

When do you contact the guests to offer the option to check in via the Web site?
We contact guests 48 hours before arrival to let them know checkin is available anytime before their arrival to help speed them through the check-in process. 

And you contact guests after their stay, too?
We just allow Medallion to do it.  We stopped the practice because the feedback that we heard was we were sending too much e-mail.  Now we just allow Medallion and J.D. Powers to grab that information. 

How does J.D. Powers work with you?
Once a year J.D. Powers announces who the best is at each segment in hospitality. J.D. Powers surveys our guests on a wide variety of experiences.  From the room, to the food, to the check-in and check-out process, everything you can think about regarding your stay.  They gather that information and then provide it back to us, letting us know how we rank among our competitors. 

They rate all the hotels companies? 
They rate anyone who is willing to participate and wants to be ranked No.1 by J.D. Powers.

Do you spend a fair amount of time looking at technology that isn’t quite ready for prime time today?
In IT, all of us are responsible for continuing to look futuristic.  I have somebody who spends 20 percent of his time researching all the technologies Omni is not currently using.  I look at new video-on-demand solutions and improvements in key locks almost constantly.  It is never ending. It is something that we constantly have to present to both the senior team and ownership.  The last thing that I want to hear is them presenting some technology to us that we never heard of.  Often we haven’t heard of the company, but we have heard of what they are trying to do technologywise.  So, we don’t always implement it, but we constantly make recommendations to improve and the only way you improve it is to know what is out there.  Without offering you a blatant plug, that is the probably the No. 1 reason your magazine is so popular.

Thank you.  Would you consider yourself a risk-taker with new technology?
How so?

Would you ever do business with a company that had a really cool product but wasn’t established?
Probably not.  I think that one of the things that we have learned, especially in my tenure here at Omni, is that it has to be an established company.  We have gotten something that’s really cool and successful, but if Omni is the only company with the product, the risk is there that the company has either gone out of business or been acquired and is no longer supporting that product.  When choosing a vendor, we look at their financial statements and see what their track record is and where they are going.  That has certainly been hard in the technology arena and it is something we try to do early and often. To answer your original question, I think one of the things that hospitality does very well is that there is a plethora of products out there.   I think they touch on everything, from the guestrooms, to meeting rooms, to the front desk.  I am constantly amazed at what technology products are out there.  I think you already know the answer to what as an industry we don’t do very well, and that’s have all the products talking to each other.  I used to know the retail industry really well, but I can tell you that it just seems to me that in the hospitality industry right now, all of our vendors play individually, they do not want to play together.  I think they have gotten better in the last three years, since most of us in our roles have spoken up and been very vocal about how horrible it has gotten.  It has gotten better, but they have a long way to go. It would make everyone’s job in IT a lot better if these vendors could just easily talk to each other.

That is an argument that has been around for a long time.  Have you been involved much with HTNG?
Yes, Omni has been involved with HTNG.  For a while our director of development was very involved.  He finished his last project last year and stepped aside. Our research and development person here at Omni, who is also our interface guru has become very involved in the last three years and has been very vocal.  He has been very impressed with the progress they have made. He feels HTNG has finally gotten the support that it needs from vendors as well as users.  The issue there is that it just takes time in order to implement all these things and right now, they need time more than anything else.

Other than the big reservation project, do you have any other things that you are dealing with at a property level as far as technology goes or things specifically that you can share?
We touched on one earlier.  The biggest thing for us besides Project Nucleus was getting the increased bandwidth across our brand this year, both in the admin space, as well as the guestrooms and meeting rooms.  In our day and age, everyone—back of the house and guests—wants more bandwidth.  Everyone wants to utilize as much as they can.  It has been a challenge for IT.  It has been an infrastructure overload, but it has been a huge project to get both of those in a better shape, if not the best shape that they have ever been in. 

Another big issue today is PCI compliance.  Have you done what is needed to protect your data?
Absolutely.  Two years ago, Omni started the process of being PCI compliant.  In 2006, it turned out to be 100 percent of one IT person’s  job to get Omni into PCI compliance by the end of the year.  In 2007, it started to trail off.  We worked very hard with our treasury department to get Omni to PCI compliance, and passing all of our external scans, as well as have all of our data protected.  Our biggest challenge there, once again, has been with our vendors getting their software PCI compliant.
In this issue’s Point/Counterpoint the argument is who should protect your data, you or a third party?
For Omni, we feel better protecting our own data.

We looked into third-party vendors who do it for a living. Absolutely, there is no question; I think they do it very well.  What comes into play though is the cost around that and the control of your own data.  When you look at that cost you really can hire a lot of people.  The other thing was the control of the data.  It’s not as easy as just saying, oh, it’s off site, we can get it anytime.  Flat out, they have your data, there is no question that they have your data, and if you need your data back, you are on their time frame to get it back, no matter what SLAs you have in place.

In a position like yours, what is one of your biggest worries?
We always wonder are we doing what everyone else is doing.  As I have been to conferences and talked to my peers I want to know are we on the right track.  Are we focusing where we should be focused?  Are we putting too much energy in looking at video on demand, is that something that is going to disappear? Am I spending way too much of my time trying to get that as standard across my brand?  The high-speed Internet access, are we going too far now.  We were on one side of the pendulum; we were trying to limit the bandwidth, now all of a sudden we are opening it up.  Is that where everyone else is going?  You want to have a competitive advantage on the one hand, but on the flip side, you don’t want to find out that you have invested all this money where all your peers, whether they are competitors or not, have decided that is just a no-win situation and don’t want to get involved in that anymore.  Here you are stuck out there trying to be on the bleeding edge and you are doing exactly that — you’re bleeding.

Isn’t that one of the perks of going to our CIO Summit every year? Talking to people and sharing some of the things that you think are working and are not working, as an industry?
Absolutely.  The benefit is definitely networking with your peers and finding out what they are doing.  I think it is so nice that everyone opens up, and talks about what they are working on.  For some reason everyone opens up at the CIO Summit.  We do not discuss pricing, but we certainly talk about how it is going with certain vendors, how it is not going with certain vendors, who we are looking at and who we are not.  I think that all of that is important.  As an industry, I think that it is very important that we are all focused on providing a better guest service.

The CIO Summit was where the idea of the Hospitality Industry Benchmarking Survey on IT spending was born.  You have been a great supporter of this initiative.  Tell me why you participated in the survey.
Omni is owned by TRT Holdings, which is a very small, private-run company. One of the challenges is that they want to know what everyone else is doing. Whether it’s our competitors, or others, they want me to know that information and sometimes it’s easy to say here is what they’re doing, here’s what they’re not doing.  But what’s very hard is when you get into the details.  We talked about research and development: what are other companies spending on research and development?  What are other companies spending on hardware? What are other companies spending on software?  Being able to have that information when I go to the budget table is invaluable. Also, it gives me the ability before I even get there to understand what everyone else is doing, whether I am on the right track or on the wrong track, maybe I am spending too much here and not enough there.  It’s nice to just have that. It’s like the CIO Summit, it’s nice to have that reassurance that I’m on track or, whoa—I got that one wrong.  Then I know I need to refocus my group. It helps to know what others are doing and maybe our group needs to rethink what we are doing.

Right now everyone talks about the wider use of the cell phone and its bigger role in the hotel industry.  Do you agree? 
Yes, my biggest thing is the cell phone.  I think the marketing department has already said let’s get into the mobile Web site business.  Everyone carries a cell phone now and we should be able to use that technology to help our guests have a better experience at Omni Hotels.  I honestly don’t know what the answer is—whether it is being able to check in or whether it is someday being able to use your cell phone as your guest key to get into your room.  I don’t know the answer to that, but as we look at technology moving forward, I think we definitely will see the cell phone is going to play into it. 

I’ve heard similar comments from others in your position.  You mentioned earlier you’re building a new hotel in Ft. Worth, Texas.  What luxury are you having with this new build in terms of technology?  Is there anything that can you do differently that you haven’t done in the past?
It’s put the infrastructure in place.  The thing we didn’t do, even 10 years ago, was put any kind of infrastructure for future IT into our hotels and one of the things that we have been very fortunate with in building Fort Worth is being able to put infrastructure in place, whether we are using it or not the day we open, it is there.  We don’t have to go back, we don’t have to worry about it in two to three years, and say we should have done this or that. We are not using it all, but it is there and that is the biggest thing. There is something that is going to come up that we haven’t thought of and we know right now that we have put the infrastructure in place to the back of the house, the guestrooms and the meeting rooms to accommodate for the future.  We no longer have to rip open the walls and cable.  We know we have covered more than we did in the past.

Are there technology issues that cannot be retrofitted that are causing you anguish with your older hotels?
Absolutely.  Security is one of the hardest things, and a lot of companies that come in and want to use Omni hotels, whether it’s for our meeting rooms or guestrooms, feel more comfortable having a wired solution in the guest rooms.  People feel a lot more comfortable with the wired solution, but at some of our hotels, it is almost impossible to be able to get a wired solution into those rooms whether I was willing to pay as much money as I wanted or not.  It’s just not a viable solution and it definitely has, at times, cost Omni some money.

It’s funny, as a traveler who lives wirelessly, I forget there are some companies, including many government employees who need to have a wired connection and even though it is a smaller percentage of travelers, it’s a tough one to deal with.
Yes. That is a very hard one because obviously when they do crop up, usually it’s a huge meeting or it’s someone who wants to fill one of our hotels, and they want a wired solution or they want us to completely secure the wireless for them. Since we offer wireless in our lobbies to any guest or anyone walking into our lobbies, we cannot provide that security. 

Since you have been in this role, are there any decisions you made that you regretted? 
Sure. There have definitely been decisions…

A lot?  (Laughing)
No, not a lot.  I have definitely made decisions that I have regretted.  I have unfortunately picked vendors that, in hindsight, I should not have picked.  I have picked some technology that I thought we should implement that we should not have.  I certainly have made some personnel decisions that I should not have.  I always say don’t make the same mistake twice and right now, I have yet to make those same mistakes twice. So, I think I have learned from my mistakes.

OK, so what’s next for Omni? 
I think what’s next for Omni is to continue to enhance our guest experience.  We are constantly looking to improve our Web site, improving our guest experience and being able to provide guests with exactly what they need to better their stay.  We are looking at improving our spa and golf technology to facilitate getting reservations to both of them through our distribution channels.  We are a little bit behind.  It would be nice to be more in the forefront and be able to accept reservations anywhere.  What’s also next for Omni is being able to have, from top to bottom, a true CRM solution.

The CRM would be a big initiative coming soon?

You mentioned spas and golf.  You also have resorts.

Do your resorts have different challenges versus the typical corporate property that I stayed at last night?
Oh, absolutely.  When someone walks into one of our resorts, his expectations are much different from someone who walks into one of our urban boxes, as we like to say.  The challenge for us is that when you come into the resort, it needs to be seamless for that guest across the entire stay.  He or she doesn’t want to hear that the golf system doesn’t integrate back to the property management system.  The guest doesn’t want to hear that when she is in her guestroom that she has to call to book a spa appointment.  At a resort guests want to be able to do things whenever wherever.  If they decide at dinner that they want a spa appointment, they don’t want to hear, please wait until you are in your guestroom and call the spa.  They want whoever that is to make that spa appointment for them right then.  The same holds true for payment.  I think that one of the challenges that Omni has right now is getting a true gift card program in place to help us with our resort operations as we grow the brand and are looking to build more resorts.  It is important to us to have a gift card that our guests can use across their stay and not only in the retail shop or on the golf course but everywhere on the resort.  Guests want to hear that it is all one to them.  They just want to know it’s seamless. 

When I am traveling for business I spend more time in the room than I do at a resort.  As the guy in charge of technology do you do things at a resort for a guest that you otherwise wouldn’t do at an urban property?
No. We have to have the same standard in our guestrooms that we have whether it is an urban or a resort property.  What we have to do, though, outside of the guestroom, is add all the technology in.  Certainly, we continue to look at RFID. We continue to look at wireless solutions for point of sale opportunities or on the golf course with the beverage cart, being able to take charges there.  We keep the same standard whether it is an urban or resort.  We just have to add more technology when it comes to a resort.

Great point.  Any words of wisdom you want to leave us with?
More and more, I hear people talking about how IT is going to go away at some point, and I hear how IT is going to move back into the business units and not be its own group, which I look forward to just as much as anyone.  But right now, I think the biggest thing in my seven years in hospitality is the critical nature that IT has both internally and externally when it comes to our business.  Internally, I think that e-mail is more critical than it has ever been.  People get e-mails to the point where if they don’t get them, they are all over somebody.  And we forget that.  We all look forward and want to get into the new stuff, the cool stuff, but the bottom line is keeping our systems running; whether it’s e-mail or our centralized sales automation, and then being able to access it.  Many times we are at the mercy of telecommunication vendors. People say to us that you know that so how are you going to get around that, what is your disaster recovery solution, what is your fall-back solution, so that I have more than one way to get in to book a sale, I have more than one way to get my e-mail.  We all love to look forward, but I think my words of wisdom are remain aware that sometimes running the day-to-day operations of IT and understanding it is the most important thing.

Let me go back to that comment you made about IT going away. Can you elaborate?
When I go into conferences and I hear mostly professors talk about how they really feel that eventually IT will be inside marketing, IT will be inside operations and you will have a small group of infrastructure people that will be just like that.  They will just be there to keep the bandwidth going and to keep desktops running. But, in order for a business unit to be successful, they will have to have IT integrated in their department and eventually all business units will be just as technical as the actual IT department is now.

Interesting.  I hope that is never the case.

Who would I have to invite to our CIO Summit—sales and marketing types?
(Laughing) Good point.

This has been great.  Thank you.
Thank you.  It was fun.  See you at HITEC.

Count on it!

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