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Hospitality Management: Winds of Change

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June 01, 2011
Hospitality Management
Jon Inge

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Bob Dylan wrote that “the times, they are a-changing”, and he was right, of course; they always are.  Change is constant and inevitable (except from a vending machine, as the old saying goes) and technology is no exception.  Most software changes tend to be incremental (established guest management applications are already pretty comprehensive) but over time new trends can be seen in their cumulative direction.

One trend that’s been building slowly for a while is toward making the systems more usable, one screen tweak at a time.  Others include vendors trying out the cloud environment and testing the waters of service-oriented architecture (SOA), which allows for the flexible integration of systems onto a common communications bus.

However, last year’s HITEC was marked by the decidedly non-incremental impact of new guest management system announcements from no less than three major vendors (one of which, Agilysys, already had a product in beta), an unmistakable sign that piecemeal approaches are no longer enough.  The pressures to wrap these general trends into a fundamentally new approach to system design had reached a critical point. 

A year later all three systems are in operational use and serve as excellent indicators of how the design direction of systems now has a new guiding principle: making them not just more useful, but more usable.

What’s the Problem?
Something had to give. In keeping up with the ever-growing complexities of hotel management the established systems had been modified and extended so often as to become highly complex themselves. However, adding all this extra–and admittedly beneficial–functionality to their traditional designs and architecture meant, paradoxically, that they’d also become harder to learn and to use, more difficult to develop at the pace required by modern business and harder to support. 

This became increasingly apparent in user interface design.  Some vendors added more and more functionality onto their systems’ main screens, making them powerful but visually confusing. Color-coding and grouping related fields together help, but the sheer quantity of options on many makes it hard for users to learn their way around. 

Other vendors kept their screens visually simple, but added many more of them to provide needed new functionality.  Having to work though so many extra displays led to different challenges, such as not always remembering where to access some features and it not being obvious to the users which part of the system they’re in because so many screens have similar layouts.

Certainly, given enough training and time users do learn these systems well enough.  However, the traditionally high staff turnover rate (especially at the front desk) has always meant either the expense of constant re-training or a gradual reduction in effectiveness as each new hire picks up what they can from whatever their colleagues remember.

Add to that the cultural shock as new, younger staff members encounter these different approaches instead of the highly intuitive, graphically rich interfaces on the consumer technology that dominates their lives, and it’s practically guaranteed that the application's power will seldom be used as effectively as it could be. 

The same challenge has invaded every area of hospitality technology.  As the world has become more complicated, divided into ever-smaller market segments needing individualized treatment to generate maximum returns, technology has developed good solutions but often at the expense of considerable complexity.  In too many cases, theoretical functionality has trumped practical usability.

The New Direction
What has been emerging is a different approach, one focusing more on the real world needs of the users to help them be as productive as possible, and on clean-slate redesigns of the system architecture to improve flexibility, supportability and speed of development.  All the vendors’ accumulated years of knowledge on hotel operations and functionality is being built into new systems and presented in ways that are cohesive, visually appealing, intuitive to grasp and focused on the needs of the particular role each user has to perform and guide the user through the process.  This shift from a purely functional approach to more user-focused, role-based designs has been in the wind for a while, but this year it’s become a sea change.

The cleanest approach is to write a new system from scratch with these principles as a top priority.  Take a look, for example, at Agilysys’ Guest 360, Infor-SoftBrands’ HMS and PAR Springer-Miller Systems’ Atrio.  All of these systems were designed from the ground up as completely new products with a focus on ease of use without compromising functionality. All were announced as projects or beta versions at last year’s HITEC, but all three are now in production and running live in hotels. 

General principles guiding them include clean, graphically appealing screen designs optimized for each different staff role (as opposed to restricting some functions on a set of standard screens used by all positions), flexibility in how to perform different functions, and guidance on what steps to take to complete major processes such as checkin.  The latter is accomplished either through marking off a checklist of functions or through color-coding actions still to be taken. 

In addition, hotels can customize the work flow to suit their own operations, not just by designating certain data fields as “mandatory” but also by re-arranging the screen and changing field labels as needed for their own approach.  Dashboards or portals can be configured and customized for each role (and sometimes for each user) to provide access to information from multiple modules as needed.  Users can have access to personal hot lists of important or most recently accessed guest or company profiles, and some systems even allow them to pick their color schemes. 

Drilling down to underlying levels of detail is common from many more places, providing great flexibility in getting to useful information from multiple starting points.  For example, Agilysys’ Guest 360 can use a photo of the hotel's front elevation for room selection at checkin; moving the cursor over each floor can pop up room views and interiors available on that floor and let users drill down to the floor plan to select a particular room.  The same screen can also be a starting point for housekeepers to check on assignments and progress from a floor plan, while right clicking on a room can (with appropriate authority) provide access to details on the guest, reservation or room itself.

Speed to Market
Another advantage all three new systems have is that they’re based on service-oriented architectures (SOAs) that permit swift development times, allowing new modules to be developed or partner companies’ applications to be integrated unusually quickly. 

This shows up nowhere more prominently than in their surprising speed of development. None of the three yet offers a range of functionality equivalent to their established products (Agilysys’ Visual One, Infor-SoftBrands epitome or PAR Springer-Miller’s Host); each has quite properly focused first on releasing the core modules that all properties need –reservations, checkin/out, charge posting, housekeeping, and so on.  What’s noteworthy for such new systems, though, is the depth of functionality in these first modules, which is already at a level that would have taken much longer to develop using older techniques. 

As an example, consider SoftBrands’ HMS. Announced as a project last year, the first version is already in operation at a beta site, and the second release, due this summer, is targeted to match all the functionality of SoftBrands’ existing epitome product.  This is a remarkable achievement in such a short time given that epitome has been in development, in one form or another, for over 10 years.

Everybody’s Doing It
These three systems are the most prominent examples, but there are several others.
For example, Hotel Concepts-Brilliant Hotelsoftware is rewriting its iTesso product from scratch with the benefits of a significant amount of third-party usability studies, combining CRS and HMS functions into a single application optimized for Microsoft’s Azure cloud.  Hetras, a recent introduction, has made good use of graphics from the start; things don’t get much more visual than its interactive 3-D model of the hotel to show available room options and the views from them.

Many other vendors are moving toward providing more visual appeal and usability in a more phased approach.  Micros, for example, is migrating each module of its Oracle Forms-based Opera 5 suite to the more graphically oriented, role-based and flexible designs of Opera 9 permitted by Oracle’s new Application Development Facility.  This will be a multiyear migration to ensure compatibility between the two versions, but the first module is already in a pilot property.  Northwind’s Maestro suite is another gaining more visual appeal, in this case through the adoption of Windows 7 Aero-style graphical designs.

Much of this has been if not driven by then at least inspired by the growth of mobile phone applications.  Lessons learned in distilling core functions such as booking and checkin down to a smartphone’s screen size and adopting typical touch-screen graphics and conventions can pay big dividends when applied to desktop versions. Several vendors including Micros and ResortSuite now offer phone-based booking and stay management applications to hotels, increasing their appeal to the mobile user and reducing the workload on the hotel staff.

More generally, many of the incremental changes of the last few years have become default standards.  It’s now expected that systems will allow individual users a certain amount of customization in screen layouts, such as moving columns of data around to their preferred order.  Systems are also expected to incorporate standard usability options such as sorting grids of data by clicking on the column headers, exporting data grids to Excel with a single click while preserving formatting, being able to interrupt one task to start another (checking someone in while setting up a group room block, for example) without having to back out to a menu, and so on.  Multiple language capabilities so that different users can each use the same system in their native language are also common.

More Than Just A Pretty Face
Appealing, intuitive user interfaces have the most obvious impact on ease of use, but usability is also improved through many other factors.  These include:

  • Better online training, to ensure fewer surprises in how the system works.
  • More systems integration to ensure users have complete data on any situation.
  • More flexibility within the systems themselves, especially in marketing options.
  • Centralized hosting to keep the systems always on, up to date and secure.

Online training has become common for obvious reasons; it’s cheaper than flying someone to the property, it can be accessed on the trainee’s own schedule, and it can be kept current more easily.  Despite system interfaces becoming more intuitive, the scope and flexibility of training modules has expanded noticeably.  Everyone needs an introduction, and it's a good way to conduct pre-installation training as well as first-time overviews for new hires.

Most vendors have libraries of pre-recorded training videos available on demand.  Some vendors, such as Northwind and IQware, also conduct regular interactive online seminars for a more in-depth look at specific areas, encouraging Q&A sessions to make sure things are clear.  Some, such as RSI and Northwind,  take a more proactive approach, offering personal one-on-one training to help users get the most out of their systems.

SoftHotel is one vendor taking things a step further by monitoring access to its library of short role-based videos, each of which includes a test.  Users can be locked out of the live system until they’ve passed the appropriate tests for their roles, to make sure they’re not dropped cold into a new application without sufficient training and can get off to the best start with it.  Further, system enhancements can be covered by new videos instead of written release notes which too often go unread.   Access to significant enhancements can then be locked until the user has passed the video test for them.  No more unexpected changes when signing on in the morning.

More Complete Systems
Ideally, hotel staff would be most productive with a single system covering all their needs throughout the hotel.  This would ensure that all information on a guest is entered only once, at the most appropriate contact point, and staff anywhere can use a consistent user interface to access what data they need with full confidence in its accuracy and completeness.  

We’re not there yet though considerable progress has been made toward this goal, with Cenium being probably the most complete software suite available at present.  Other vendors also offer very comprehensive sets of modules, including Agilysys (Visual One and LMS), Northwind-Maestro, PAR Springer-Miller (Host), ResortSuite, Megasys and IQware, while Infor-SoftBrands is well along with its effort to integrate all the many systems in its portfolio into a single SOA. 

For properties whose functional requirements or operational approach mean  that they must look to multiple systems for their overall needs, integration efforts such as those led by HTNG have contributed significantly to the seamless integration of multivendor packages.  Micros and Active Network Resorts is one example of a well integrated combination, and several vendors’ guest management systems have seamless integration with Newmarket’s Delphi and Daylight systems. 

The core of many vendors’ offerings is now often a single application combining the functions of a guest management system, a central reservations system for multiproperty availability and central guest profile storage, and a Web booking engine.  A growing number of these also include distribution channel management to help with the critical task of posting the right availability on all of the right channels at the same time.  Some (Micros and innRoad, for example) even include direct GDS connections.  Complex and larger properties may still need specialist third-party rate/revenue management systems, but many smaller ones find the built-in features of their guest management systems very useful.

More Flexibility for Better Marketing
We live in fast-moving times, and flexible marketing capabilities have never been more important.  While several third-party companies offer highly capable CRM database management and email marketing targeted to very specific sub-sets of guests, many hoteliers are seeing advantages to being able manage these campaigns from directly within their guest management systems.  After all, they already contain the complete profile database.

Consequently, GMS vendors–Agilysys, Northwind and ResortSuite are three–offer built-in intelligent email functions to go along with their guest profile management capabilities.  In addition to emailed booking confirmations (a long-time standard), they can now schedule other pre-arrival emails suggesting additional activities (dining, spa) that the guest might want to book, along with hot links to take them directly to a booking screen. 

Post-departure thank you emails are standard practice, and several systems can now also schedule a follow up with an electronic guest satisfaction survey.  Quite often the guest's responses are tied back to his or her profile and stay record, for future reference and to be able to identify the specific staff members with which he or she interacted (and with whom prompted the words of praise–or otherwise), as well as to update information on the guest’s preferences and marketing opt-in status automatically.

Speaking of distribution channel management, it’s critical to have accurate data on booking patterns if you’re to allocate availability and special offers to the right guest segments on the right channels, and so more systems are offering highly detailed data analysis and management functions for booking.  innRoad, for example, is one vendor that can track how many of its marketing emails are opened, how many clicks are made to hot links when they’re being read, and how many result in bookings. 

It’s important to know whether, for your guest mix, it’s worth paying Expedia $70 for a booking or Google $3.45 per click for a key search phrase.  Which channel produces more bookings, and do guests using one channel spend more while on property than those on another?  Being able to run this kind of analysis is really useful to marketing efficiency and more guest management systems are including it.

One advantage of a focus on collecting complete data and providing good analysis tools for it is that it encourages business intelligence to become an integral part of the operation.  A few vendors (including Micros, Northwind and ResortSuite) support this by offering business intelligence (BI) tools as part of their guest management suites. Once again, the data’s already within the system without needing transformation and consolidation from outside sources, and as long as the analysis tools themselves are flexible and intuitive, this is a real encouragement to using BI as part of everyday management planning.

Another interesting instance of flexibility in marketing is that two of the three new systems – Guest 360 and Atrio – allow hotels to sell rooms solely by attribute, rather than specific room type.  If a guest asks just for a room with a king bed, then only that attribute will be decremented from hotel inventory without specifying whether it’s for a deluxe or premium tier room, or for one with an ocean view or a balcony.  Well thought out algorithms make sure that only attributes actually still available are displayed; for example, if all ocean view rooms have queen beds, then the ocean view attribute will be suppressed when the full inventory of queen bed attributes has been reserved.

Centralized Hosting
The advantages of centrally hosted systems have been discussed many times. Suffice it to say that the combination of professional, highly secure system hosting and backup coupled with the reporting advantages for management groups of having identical applications and data definitions at all properties continue to be appreciated by a growing number of hoteliers. 

Most vendors now offer their systems with this configuration option; indeed, for vendors such as RSI, innRoad and WebRezPro, it’s the only way they offer their products. Micros reports that over 50 percent of its sales in the EAME region are now for systems hosted in its data center in Germany.  Certainly there are still some connectivity challenges to be overcome but the trend is clear.
Battleships on The Horizon
Meanwhile, several heavyweight companies not traditionally involved in providing hospitality applications can be seen out on the horizon, checking out the activity and possibly heading this way.  Unlike in Imperial times they don’t necessarily imply a new world order, but they do hold the potential for a worldwide impact on how systems services are provided to hotels.

Major vendors such as SAP have occasionally looked at the hospitality market before, of course, but none of their initial efforts have borne fruit.  The appeal of a fragmented market in apparent need of consolidation has usually faded in the reality of its convoluted approach to financing and general unwillingness to upgrade unless forced to.

This time, however, the sheer number of these tier 1 companies testing the waters implies that something more is happening.  Accenture, HP, Oracle, Wipro and Infosys have all been exploring ways to provide software to what is finally being seen as a large and potentially profitable vertical market. Microsoft is supporting Cenium, and even the larger traditional hospitality systems vendors are expanding into more comprehensive coverage.  Pegasus, for example, is looking for the right partners to expand its offerings beyond its traditional reservations and distribution arena.  GDS vendor Amadeus has already found customers for its comprehensive new Hotel Platform, which includes GDS, CRS, guest and revenue management functions in one centrally hosted offering.

Why now? The tier 1 companies have accumulated experience with SOA backbones onto which they can quickly add multiple systems from hospitality vendors, and they also have the worldwide networks and support infrastructure from which to provide and manage them.  The challenges of trying to maintain multiple on-premise systems at each hotel are becoming increasingly apparent, and with a growing societal acceptance of accessing software and data from remotely hosted systems, these very large companies may well be seen as safe, reliable and internationally available providers.

Setting a New Course
There’s nothing more usable than a system that appeals to you visually, is intuitive, presents all the information you need to handle a particular situation without any you don’t, that you can trust to give you complete and accurate information, that can be updated quickly to handle new requirements, is flexible enough to allow you to look at data in different ways as needed, and which is always kept up to date, available and secure without you having to think about it. 

We’re not there yet, but the direction to greater usability is clear. It’s been said many times that it isn’t easy making things simple, but today we have no choice but to make it our key focus.  Functionality and data are everywhere; the systems that will succeed are those that present the most useful information in the most accessible way.

Dylan also wrote that “the answer is blowin’ in the wind.”  The wind has changed direction. 

Jon Inge is an independent consultant specializing in technology at the property level. He can be reached at jon@joninge.com or by phone at (206) 546-0966.

©2011 Hospitality Upgrade
This work may not be reprinted, redistributed or repurposed without written consent.
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Helping HERSHEY Become Seamless

Highly complex operations usually get that way through incremental growth over the years, and their management systems tend to expand in a piecemeal fashion alongside them.  Hershey Entertainment & Resorts Company was no exception; until recently it was using HIS property management at Hershey Lodge and The Hotel Hershey, Club Systems at Hershey Country Club, Campground Manager for its Hershey Highmeadow Campground, GolfNet for tee times, SpaSoft for spa management, Open Table for dining reservations and five different POS systems (HSI, Aloha, Retail Pro, Club Systems and, in the franchise restaurants, Digital Dining). 

When some of these systems were nearing the end of their vendor support, Hershey took the opportunity to wrap as many functions as possible into a single, integrated system.  Its One Call/One Card – Seamless Guest Experience project set the goal of a guest being able to book any service with one call to the reservations office, and to charge any expenditure back to his or her room folio from any of the facilities. 

“We started a very thorough systems research exercise in January 2008, and signed a contract with ResortSuite at the end of that year,” said Bill Sheaffer, managing director, information technology.  “The PMS components were cut over in phases between April and November 2009, and the other modules were implemented over the following year. 

“We also chose InfoGenesis for POS, as its terminals can work offine if necessary in the more remote areas of our theme park, where communications aren’t always available. We picked Eatec for our enterprisewide inventory and purchasing management.  Overall, ResortSuite, InfoGenesis and Eatec between them replaced a total of 20 other systems, a huge streamlining and a great help in consolidating operating data meaningfully within our Aptech Execuvue BI system."

 So how did it all work out?  “We’re very happy with the outcome,” said Sheaffer.  “With a project of this size and complexity you always expect a few challenges, but ResortSuite worked with us very closely, creatively and promptly to address everything.  Despite the complexity, data migration turned out to be surprisingly easy.  Our data warehouse vendor established one record per guest with stay history in the comments field, and ResortSuite provided us with templates to import them all into the initial database.”

“At the end of the day, we met all of our objectives and have the added bonus of a very positive and supportive relationship with our principal vendor.”

It isn’t easy making things simple, but it’s definitely worth the effort.

Looking Forward at Larkspur

One of the prime targets for the new breed of systems is the small to medium hotel group. By its very nature these are lean operations where every efficiency counts.  Staff and management all multitask and need intuitive tools that don’t get in the way, and any time spent on supporting an on-premise system is time away from selling and managing.  Centralized guest profiles and reporting help streamline corporate management’s tasks, too. 

Consequently, companies such as Larkspur Hospitality, which manages 23 properties under three brands in the western United States, are always looking for ways to make their operations both simpler and more effective.

“We’ve always tried to have a single system standard to make our operations and data as consistent as possible,” said Jim Hansen, executive VP and (among other things) head of IT, “and all but one of our hotels are running on SoftBrands epitome.  We upgraded a few locations to epitome.Net to explore how a more Web-based approach would work, but when Infor-SoftBrands showed us the prototype of its new HMS application it was clear that this was the way the industry would be moving.

“All members of our systems review team liked it, from the GM to revenue managers and front desk agents, and so we agreed to one of our hotels becoming the system’s beta site.  The Larkspur Landing in Hillsboro, Ore., went live with it in February, and the guest service agents are very happy with its greatly improved ease of use and ability to switch easily between screens and multiple functions," he said.  "We did have a couple of delays with back end reports and with 100 percent integration to our ProfitSword financial/BI application, but Infor has been very much on top of resolving them quickly.

“We installed HMS on a server at the hotel to give us one less thing–communications–to worry about, but we intend to switch to the cloud-based version as soon as practical and then look at how to extend it to the rest of the group," Hansen said.  "For groups like ours this really is the way forward; it’s also the natural next step toward a CRM system that the rest of the world can afford.”

Evans Hotels Favor Flexibility

As with many other hotels, when San Diego-based Evans Hotels faced an end-of-life situation on its main management systems the company wanted to move as far ahead as possible, albeit with care since its three hotels (Bahia, Catamaran and The Lodge at Torrey Pines) all ran on a single server.

After much research, the company was struck by the design and flexibility of Agilysys’ new Guest 360 system, and in mid-2009 the opportunity to have input into its development encouraged the group to volunteer as the beta site.  The first hotel (Bahia) was cut over in January 2010 and the remaining two were added to the network in summer and fall.

“We decided to implement the system on our proven infrastructure to reduce the number of variables,” said Donna Porter, corporate director of IT.  “The software for all three properties and the central reservations office is installed on the same IBM iSeries server we used for our old HIS system, with the remote properties accessing it via terminal services.  We’d already updated our network to make sure we had enough bandwidth and redundancy, and we’ve had no problems with connectivity at all."

VP of Business Development Andy Thomas said, “We’ve been really pleased with the way it’s worked out. The system’s flexibility and ease of use are a major improvement, and allow us to do anything we want with the data to sell in different ways.  We do use the sell rooms by attributes feature to help the front desk agents.  By charging extra for a walk-out (ground floor) attribute, we can maximize revenue for our bay front rooms without having the agents worry about up-selling when there’s a line at checkin.

“We were looking for a system that would give us as many options as possible for the foreseeable future, but we’ve also been pleased with the ease of use.  Some standard reports are better than we’d been used to, some still need work as always happens, but one unexpected thing the managers value highly is the ease of exporting data of all kinds into Excel for analysis," he said.  "This gives them access to insights they couldn’t get before, and helps them be much more knowledgeable and efficient.  It definitely gives us the feeling that, effectively, we have no limits.”

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