Extreme Makeover Hotel Edition: IT in the Great Depressing Recession

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March 01, 2010
Buying Technology
Michael Schubach, CHTP, CHAE - mschubach@trumphotels.com

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Recently, some IT colleagues and I gathered informally to talk about the state of hospitality technology.  I know that sounds like a daunting topic, but a lunch was served so we all made it through. Their concern was one I am beginning to hear in our modern depressing recession recovery period:  things have been rough but it’s time to get back into the game. IT capital funds are loosening up and it’s time to start considering what should find its way into 2010 budget requests.  Which state-of-the-art technologies should be considered for bringing a little fresh powder and paint to the guestroom experience? 

The odd thing about this discussion is that it was the IT team that asked the questions.  My experience has usually been that the sales and marketing or operations teams are usually leading this charge, hounding the IT folks to find louder bells and higher-pitched whistles.  This time it was an IT solution in search of a problem, which conceptually makes me a little apprehensive.  Nonetheless it did cause me to think about the business of selecting guest service technologies.

I’ve spent the last several years concentrating on new property openings, and the view from afar would lead you to believe that new properties get a great deal more latitude on their shopping list.  It’s all a clean slate, right?  What seems like the perfect opportunity to design everything fresh and new from the ground up is only briefly true at the beginning of a new hotel product cycle or prototype.  After that, the majority of what you install results from existing vendor relationships, negotiated contracts or established brand standard and preferences. The slavery to legacy products, against which we all rebel, takes over very quickly, and soon enough you’re picking from a short list rather than shopping the wide market. 

After that brief fling with your sanitary slate, you find yourself shopping for established properties. Established, by the way, is something that we all become far more quickly than any of us realizes.  For a hotel, the process begins the day the doors open to the public and continues for the life of the property.  There may not be great demand for new or replacement IT equipment in the first or even the second annual capital budget cycle, but the demand grows steadily and IT planning needs to be there in lockstep. 

Established locations typically have one of two reasons to go out shopping for big-ticket items.  The first reason is that a break-fix is needed–the property requires the replacement of inadequate or outdated technology.  The other reason is that the property wishes to play Extreme Makeover/Hotel Edition, wherein a silk purse is produced from what’s left of the sow’s ear. 

At one property in question, the IT department was certainly doing its part, and the property’s existing technology is being kept current and competitive.  The maintenance contracts are keeping the software updated on the major service modules and point-of-sale systems.  They have also been smart enough to budget a periodic bump to deal with custom software requests, new additional-cost modules and (believe it or not) on-site refresher training to keep the staff functioning at the top of their collective game.  (Property operators always underestimate the impact of staff turnover coupled with “lightly documented” software changes.  The net impact of new hands fumbling around with new software is a gaggle of missed opportunities that can be turned around by budgeting for the periodic professional training visit.) 

A regular budget allocation was being maintained to keep the server, workstations and printers refreshed and in working order.  Most properties budget for a three- or four-year equipment life cycle on the bigger items; this presupposes that 25 percent to 33 percent of the fleet will be replaced annually.  This can be a real challenge during trying economic times–a preventive maintenance plan that calls for the replacement of aging but fully functioning hardware can be a very difficult sell.  Even the accountants recognize that eventually the investment must be made, but recessions can cause a fix-it-when-it-breaks mentality to take over. (My personal recommendation here is to request the capital funds for allocated replacements and then agree to conserve funds as much as possible, buying what is critical before service becomes an issue. That way the IT department gets to make the technical call without begging or courting disaster and accounting feels better if capital funds can be reapplied elsewhere in an emergency. This form of mutual cooperation keeps progress on track but throttles back demand and total dollars spent.)        

This hotel seemed in good order but the property felt it was time to make some prudent investments in chasing the next-big-thing-in-guest service. (We discussed some of the other kinds of IT investments properties can be making now, such as energy management systems.  Although that sort of system choice is very logical, it is really more for the hotel’s benefit than the guests’, so I don’t count that.)  So we ran down the list of the usual guest service technology suspects:

•HSIA was alive and well and working both wired and wirelessly.  It didn’t matter to me whether they charge for it or deliver the service for free–it was there and working.

• Electronic locking systems installed and working.  It was older off-line technology and can’t be opened by a cell phone, but the card-key seems to do the trick.  The in-room safe was present, new and in fine working order.

• The minibar was dispensing wildly overpriced treats.  That system was obviously working as planned.

• The hotel had business-center-style lobby kiosks that allowed guests without PCs to access e-mail and the Internet, and to print their airline boarding passes before they headed out.  It was a standard minimum effort, but it was there and working and they don’t get requests for much more. 

• The televisions are all flat panel and the hotel offers a variety of premium viewing options (that mean so much to the one in 20 guests who actually access them). 

Note: I reread an old article written just after HITEC 2005, which is the last time I remember staying in hotels with conventional standard-definition televisions. We had a panel discussion that year to address the burning question as to when flat-panel HD was going to be an operational requirement.

UPDATE: It’s an operational requirement.
The upshot: here was a hotel in credible condition with amenities and guest service technologies that ranged from standard to over-standard, and whose image and room product met the reasonable expectations of its target clientele. It's too well-established to be spending on barrier-to-entry competitive technologies and they’d more than adequately covered all the IT basics and intermediates.  I was beginning to panic. Aside from buying new clock-radios with built-in MP3 players, I couldn’t think of any credible way to spend more money.  This was very unlike me.

The process brought me back to a guiding question I always like to ask:  what do our guests want?  As many times as I’ve gone down that path, I’ve now arrived at the new, post-modern, almost-second-decade-of-the-new-millennium definitive answer that I will now share with you: as a group, guests haven’t the slightest idea what they want.  The only answer you ever hear to that question is what the speaker wants, projecting his or her preferences on every other hotel occupant in the world.

Ask enough authorities on the subject and you’ll find that every hotel guest in the world craves a family-friendly, adults-only, luxurious but bottom-dollar environment that offers continual access to a hotel phone (that will not be used for phone calls), a cell phone, a surface computer, a tablet computer, a laptop, a printer, a fax machine, a giant flat screen for movies, games, social media and entertainment content (of both the most uplifting and appalling nature imaginable), and will either bring all those things themselves or will ask you to provide everything.  They will need remote access to their own computer network, an e-mail server, their Slingbox®, their Netflix and their electronic photo albums, all while they listen to their own music (or yours) while continually raising and lowering light levels, window shades and room temperatures from a bedside control panel.  They need a remote control unit that is one-button simple but have directions for it in every language including Esperanto, and have it control everything in or near the room, including the elevator.  Wake-up calls and messages need to ring and light up the phone, be delivered by a live person or a celebrity impersonator, appear on the television in a variety of fonts, slid under the door on hotel stationery, and be available in the bathroom in a waterproof version for use in the shower. Eating and sleeping have become entirely optional; the only constant is the need for power outlets and access to universal rechargers.      

To borrow a thought or two from a book by Ross Shafer on customer service, satisfaction and loyalty entitled, “The Customer SHOUTS Back!”(2005, Dog Ear Publishing, Indianapolis), we need to accept that our customers can behave irrationally.  They want what they want when they want it, and they reserve the right to want something different in the blink of an eye.  Technology is a way to help appease those desires, but the real issue is (surprise!) service coupled with the staff’s genuine desire to be of service.  What the customer really wants is recognition and a relationship with the establishment in which he or she spends money.  After that, all else comes in second. 

My favorite Shafer quip was the story of a dentist who could administer a Novocain injection effectively and efficiently in five seconds; the only issue was that his patients felt that he was cold and uncaring.  He changed his style and administered the shot in the five seconds required exactly as he had before, but then kept the needle in place in the patient’s gum for an extra five seconds while making sympathetic sounds and nodding approvingly.  His patients uniformly approved of his new method, reporting that the longer shots were far less painful.  If the relationship is there, the service almost always is held in higher regard.  Since our industry is required to think of every service a guest could want or need while they live a part of their lives in our accommodations, investing in improving the relationship is key to our success. 

A colleague of mine just sent me an article about Holiday Inns in Manchester and London, England that are now piloting a new program of human bed-warmers to help guests toward a comfortable night’s sleep.  Specially outfitted in an electric blanket suit, a crack specialist comes to your room, jumps in your bed and warms it for five minutes before you climb in yourself, all snuggly and toasty and ready for a good night’s sleep.  Despite the fact that I can see about 300 drawbacks to this idea, it’s an insanely wonderful attempt to fuse technology, personal service and relationship building into a higher art form. That, in its own deranged little way, may be the next big thing in guest service. 

Michael Schubach, CHTP, CHAE, is CIO for the Trump Hotel Collection. Anchored by its flagship location on Central Park West, the collection includes locations in Chicago, Las Vegas and Waikiki and NY SoHo. Schubach wants to remind everyone that the second decade of the new millennium begins in 2011, not in 2010. He can be contacted at mschubach@trumphotels.com.

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