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In Search of the Silver Bullet

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October 01, 2002
The Killer App
Michael Schubach, CHTP - michael.schubach@thepinehurstcompany.com

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After so many years of field-tested use, on-going research and never-ending development, it would be reasonable to conclude that at least one vendor in one field of specialty had finally gotten it completely right.

Another HITEC has come and gone and we’ve had the opportunity to see the vendors’ newest wares (or the newest version of their old wares). It was refreshing to get out and shop the floor – particularly since most of us have to weather a challenging year for IT investment. Although we still face an uncertain economy and an industry reeling from the public’s overwhelming desire to avoid an airport, the prospect of a new budget season and a new fiscal year help keep spirits bright. The systems and peripherals that were yesterday’s dream may yet be transformed into tomorrow’s purchase order.

As plentiful as the adversity has been, we should nonetheless take heart and remember that there is a measure of good to be derived from restraint – even when it’s involuntary. In the happy stampede of years past, technical innovation almost automatically triggered floods of demand, not all of which were well timed or well deserved. We technical dream-weavers could stand a modicum of forced reflection in our spending habits, and should concentrate our efforts on adding value from technology as opposed to simply acquiring it. But that said, there are still many of us for whom legitimate purchases loom. Those vested with system needs, purchase approval authority and capital dollars are asking themselves the $640,000 question: Which system should I buy?

For the past several years I have delivered advice and opinions at HITEC, our industry’s annual gathering of the shopping clans. HFTP offered a line of pre-conference seminars – the “What Should I Look for?” series – aimed at users who find themselves in the market for major hospitality systems. My tours of duty included panel discussions on both property management and point-of-sale systems. No surprise to veteran buyers, our panels offered all the common sense techniques associated with a major investment: assess your needs, do your homework, interview other buyers who have invested before you, involve your users and pray for a favorable outcome. Audiences have nodded in agreement – after all, who argues with common sense?

But the most telling moment of each seminar took place after the content had been delivered. In both subject areas individual audience members came forward to privately ask the essential cut-to-the-chase post-seminar question, simply paraphrased: I understand all that research and homework stuff, but could you please just tell me who makes the best system? Rest assured that if I could tell any buyer which vendor makes “the best system,” three new truisms would rule my life. The first is that it would take very little time to prepare seminar materials. Second, I would consider becoming a hospitality consultant because it would be the world’s easiest job. Third, if I were to act on item No. 2, I would immediately begin to explore alternate career opportunities in fast food since there wouldn’t be much of a livelihood in explaining the intricacies of the obvious.

The fact that there are no obvious choices in hospitality computing continues to amaze me. After so many years of field-tested use, on-going research and never-ending development, it would be reasonable to conclude that at least one vendor in one field of specialty had finally gotten it completely right. Decades later vendors should have gotten decades closer to delivering silver bullets. But here we sit broken hearted – no closer to silver than a dingy gunmetal gray.

So what’s the problem? First and foremost, a silver bullet is virtually impossible to define. Clearly the silver bullet concept implies the notion of universality, that an application or product can be all things to all buyers. This is a lofty (perhaps stupid is the better word choice) goal indeed. In an industry where every buyer steps up to a vendor’s booth to announce, “but you have to understand that we’re different,” a one-size-fits-all solution doesn’t seem to be in the offing. And with good reason – a product I would favor for a golf resort might not be my first pick for a bed and breakfast in Nantucket or a commercial house in Mexico City. Properties have personalities and so do products, and not all were meant to live together.

So perhaps the silver bullet is more design concept than product. Several years ago I was invited to participate in an industry think tank at the University of Houston’s Conrad Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management. Our tank of thought was co-sponsored by one of the major public accounting conglomerates, which I believe was Ernst Laventhal Andersen Coopers Mitchell Waterhouse, LLC. They asked us to identify then rank the technology endeavors that, in our opinion, would have the greatest impact on our industry. In a highly flawed voting procedure that could have only sprung from such anally retentive minds (and I mention this only because my own idea did not win), the group concluded that The Killer App was our next major revolution. The Killer App was defined as one singular application that encompassed the functionality of traditional property management, point of sale, amenity booking, meeting room and catering, guest history and marketing systems, offered as a glorious and unified whole.

The reason I thought our thinking was truly in the tank is that hotel operators don’t seem to want (or can’t find a vendor capable of supplying) a single, integrated solution. But such applications are not impossible: hospitals, for instance, have vendors that offer integrated bed management, patient care, pharmacy requisitions, and the ever-popular insurance and patient billing systems. Hotels, on the other hand, look to specialty vendors to create best-of-breed products within their own narrowly defined niche. We then in turn shoulder the burden of making the various products we’ve selected peacefully coincide in one environment. When we want A to talk to B, we write an interface; when we want C to equal A plus B, we ship A and B off to a data warehouse and write our own equations. Besides, our industry has been down the one-solution path – there was a time when dinosaurs ruled the planet and your property management system included on-board telephone call accounting and point-of-sale posting. Vendors and purchasers long ago abandoned those early versions of The Killer App – there wasn’t enough niche expertise to produce sophisticated components.

But today I look at my sophisticated components and data warehouse requests and proposals, and wonder if the think tank wasn’t actually closing in on the promise of a silver bullet. Today’s demand is focused on integrated data. I suspect that more than a few hotel executives would be willing to sacrifice some component sophistication for more integration, simpler maintenance and ease of use. Don’t imagine that I’m pining for the good old days, but the truth is that the evolution in system architecture is gently leading us back to what resembles mainframe processing and the concept of a mainframe-style application cannot be far behind. And don’t imagine that I’m alone in this uncharted wilderness; I see a number of system vendors in the throes of figuring out how to acquire or integrate multi-arena applications. I’m not the only one who thinks that there’s silver in high-level product integration.

As to whether or not any of us live to see (not to mention use) The Killer Silver Bullet App – the answer lies in marketplace demand. The vendors won’t throw effort and expertise (perhaps money is the better word choice) at the theoretical better world unless we’re ready to purchase the results. We as an industry need to see the value of buyer loyalty and demonstrate a willingness to purchase and nurture products that can’t begin their lives as best of breed in order to reap the benefits of integration. Vendor speculation can be a risky business but the same is true of investing in the status quo.

If the question is what should I buy, then the answer is to assess your needs, do your homework, interview other buyers, involve your users and pray for a favorable outcome. If the question is what should I invest in, then the answer is unmistakable: Invest in a total solution and the possibility of integrated sanity. And call me when you find it.

Michael Schubach, CHTP is vice president of resort technology for The Pinehurst Company, the resorts subsidiary of ClubCorp. He offices at Pinehurst Resort, site of the 1999 and 2005 U.S. Open golf championships. He is constantly on the lookout for eye-popping hotel technology, but has budget constraints like the rest of us. He can be reached at mailtmichael.schubach@thepinehurstcompany.com.

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