SOA and Wireless - Combine to Deliver Extreme Guest Service

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October 01, 2008
Infrastructure | SOA
Stephen Burke - sburke@knowcross.com

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© 2008 Hospitality Upgrade. No reproduction without written permission.

Luxury hotels and resorts are some of the most dynamic, fast-paced work environments imaginable.  Guests paying a premium nightly rate expect everything to be delivered instantly, even before they know what they want themselves, and have zero brand loyalty if the experience doesn’t meet their high expectations.  The hotel staff must deliver, and most of the time they do, but can they deliver more often and deliver even better?  Consider for a moment the impact of having all available data in your hotel, from all of your systems, accessible and presented in real time, in a meaningful way, to any member of the hotel’s staff wherever they are, at any given moment.   How would this change the way you operate your hotel, the way you price or offer your services or, most importantly, the way you serve your guest?

Do You Really Know Your Guest?
The attraction to such an integrated service environment (ISE) is pretty obvious, and the possibilities are only limited to the imagination of the hotel operations team and the skill of the technologists your company employs.  Bill Peer, director of enterprise architecture for InterContinental Hotels Group, said, “An ISE is going to move hotels toward the JIT (just-in-time) model that happens in manufacturing.”  For example, housekeeping could know which guests are convention-goers and, therefore, likely to be out of the room all day attending the convention.  “This can completely transform the way housekeeping prioritizes which rooms are cleaned first, since the convention guests will be less likely to be impacted whenever housekeeping decides to clean the room, so long as it’s before the convention lets out for the day,” Peer said.

Predictive guest service delivery and just-in-time delivery are ideal for the service industry, but in order to make this a reality you have to (a) know your guests’ history, their preferences and past spending habits; (b) know what your guests’ present plans are during their stays; (c) have the real-time analysis capability to be able to predict that if your guest is doing activity A, then the likelihood of his purchasing service B increases significantly; and (d) get this data into the hands of those staff members who can offer and deliver service B to your guest at the right time and place. 

To do this requires an IT infrastructure that can peer into the data available on a variety of systems within the hotel environment, analyze it properly, and then, and this part is key, deliver it directly into the hands of the mobile staff member. 

It All Starts with a Plan
Getting this type of an IT infrastructure in place is not easy – nor particularly cheap.  For starters, to do this the right way, one really needs a service-oriented architecture (SOA), or at least have started their journey down the path of obtaining one.  Mark Hoare, SVP for travel, cruise and hospitality solutions with IBS Software Services, said, “Within the hotel industry, and the larger travel industry as a whole, technology development and deployment has been driven for the longest time by need rather than elegant design.  Our legacy has become numerous aged applications and proprietary interfaces that have become barriers to progress rather than enablers.” 

Yet it is exactly the data within those legacy applications, the very ones and zeros traveling across those proprietary interfaces, that our mobile application needs to have access to in order to deliver the goal of delivering service B at the exact time and place that the guest wants it.  There are two approaches to solving this problem:  You can follow the example of Wachovia Bank’s CIB CIO, Susan Certorna, as detailed in “Banking on SOA,” by David Margulius, and convince your board of directors to spend some millions, scrap your entire IT infrastructure and rebuild it from the ground up as a true SOA (July 2006, InfoWorld); or you can define SOA as a vision and begin moving over time, starting with the most critical guest data systems. 

“One approach is to plug in a proxy system that points data on the ISE. Build a system that mimics the legacy app and route the traffic to the ‘new old’ interface onto the ISE.  Back ends will switch over without the front end users knowing it,” Peer said.

HTNG CEO Doug Rice said that HTNG members, keen on achieving an over time migration of their legacy environments to SOA, formed a work product team to specifically address this challenge.  “Several of our workgroups have focused their efforts in areas relevant to SOA and ISEs,” said Rice.  One of particular interest is the ODX (Open Data eXchange) team within the property Web services workgroup.  “They have taken on the task of delivering an ESB- (enterprise service bus, a common SOA component) friendly envelope that will allow for legacy interface data to be quickly and cost-effectively migrated to the ESB.”

True success in the implementation involves knowing your business and understanding what key guest data needs to be evaluated, compared and ultimately presented to the user for action.  This calls for comprehensive planning sessions between those who know your business and guests the best, and teaming them up with the technology architects who can deliver the goods.

Let’s Build It Already
It goes without saying that creating an environment where you can get to all of the guest data – their preferences, their histories, their currently booked activities, whether they here for business or pleasure, or a mixture of both, whether they are out playing golf at the moment – must be put into place before you can start to move on to analysis and presentation of the information that will truly enable your staff to anticipate the needs and desires of your guest.  Once you have achieved the access, then you can move on to the analysis.

The analysis of the data is provided by an application that reviews the real-time guest data and makes an actionable suggestion as to what that guest might want or need next based on rules and triggers that are designed by the guest services brains in your hotel operation, or by actual statistical analysis of previous guest spending and service request trends. If the guest has a tee time at 1 p.m. your application could make a suggestion to room service to have his favorite cool drink waiting upon return, or a spa representative could call the room to offer to book a massage the moment the room environmental system indicates that the guest has returned to the room.  If the guest’s favorite seafood item (as recorded in the guest’s preferences) comes up as a chef’s special on tonight’s dinner menu, the application could suggest to the restaurant maitre d’ make a call to the guestroom and suggest dinner reservations at their preferred sitting time. 

Maybe the guest’s preferences indicate that he or she is a wine connoisseur, and the inventory system shows that the new Beaujolais has just arrived, so your application makes a suggestion that the sommelier personally invite the guest to a private tasting. 

These are just a few examples of the possibilities, and they are all cases of additional revenue per guest your hotel might never have captured.  There are proprietary platforms made by vendors like SAS and Cognos that can provide the backbone for such an analysis application, or you can design and build one to suit your customized needs.

The final step is the presentation of the application’s suggestions to the staff.  In order to maximize effectiveness, you should follow these simple design principles:

  • The suggestion must be accessible. Hotels operate in highly dynamic environments.  Staff in a full-service hotel is about as mobile as it gets.  Sitting behind a desk viewing the suggestions on a dashboard is neither feasible nor reasonable.  Suggestions must be brought to the staff member, not the staff member to the suggestion, to provide real value.
  • The suggestion must be meaningful. To add value and allow for rapid execution, the suggestion must be presented with two points in mind: first, the information is presented in a way that is simple and meaningful, second, the information is immediately actionable.

When designing mobile technology that will actually deliver the suggestions from the analysis application to your staff, you should ensure that it will be very easy to view the suggestion, and the technology will allow the staff to easily report back as to whether or not the suggestion was acted upon, and, of course, whether or not it was successful.  All of this data becomes very powerful over time as you want to use your analysis application to analyze guest trends.  There are several mobile application platforms that can be used to deliver this, including BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES)™  and Valtus™ from Cognos.

What’s the Catch?
Of course, there are issues that one has to consider when implementing such a system.  One that has probably occurred to you already is privacy.  How will guests react to knowing that their personal data is being used for targeted upselling?  Fortunately, the hotel industry has a lot of experience with that already on the issues of guest preferences from loyalty programs and the like.  One could argue that guests with a marketing opt-out flag on their loyalty profile might need to be excluded from such predicative analysis.  Others might say that this is just good business practice.

Another issue that isn’t so ambiguous is that of security – that of the ISE, your analysis application and that of the mobile devices.  Having run of the house access to sensitive data requires that you implement best security practices for your ISE and analysis application, and having it residing on the network adds additional risk.  Encryption may seem like an obvious solution, but in order to actually read the data traffic between all of your connected systems and services, your analysis application will require all of the necessary keys to decrypt everything you don’t want others to see.  Care must be taken to ensure that this application is secured from both a physical and a logical perspective.  Consumer data security laws must be considered, especially in the case of centrally hosted systems. 

“A whole other issue that no one has had to deal with is the physical security element of the mobile device – locking down of the handheld or dealing with lost devices.  In the past, this data might have been on a clipboard or in a desk drawer.  Now an individual can walk out with a cell phone and have access to your sensitive guest data,” said Peer.  Security plans must take into account proper user authentication and rapid disassociation of the mobile unit in the case of staff terminations, unusual activity or unethical behavior. Finally, be sure your system includes a way to capture and report against all of the revenue opportunities won.  That’ll come in handy when demonstrating ROI for your investment.

Stephen Burke is the vice president of product development for Knowcross Solutions, Pvt. Ltd. He can be reached at sburke@knowcross.com.

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