21st Century Convenience in an Antebellum Atmosphere

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April 01, 2002
Wireless | Technology
John Ghrist - jghrist@pentontech.com

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If you’re a business traveler, you know that a long plane flight and a cab or shuttle ride from the airport to your hotel can simply be the first stages of a tiresome process. If your destination hotel is large, frequently you’ll encounter the added hassle of a long line at the check-in counter—inevitably climaxed by the patron next in line ahead of you trying to register with an expired credit card issued by the First National Bank of Outer Mongolia.

But what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if the valet who unloads your luggage from the cab could check you in right there at curbside? Or what if you could simply go to a customer kiosk and check yourself in? Or, best of all, what if you could go to a party or reception at the hotel where, while munching on the hors d’oeuvres, you check in at your leisure?

This is the way hotel check-ins will be handled in the 21st century. And the 21st century is here now at Gaylord Opryland Resort in Nashville, Tenn., site of the IBM Users Group Spring 2002 COMMON convention and expo in Nashville, Tenn.

Last summer, the Gaylord Opryland Resort began offering a wireless curbside check-in option to its guests through its property management application, Inter-American Data’s Lodging Management System Pro (LMS Pro)—more specifically, via a module called LMS Wireless Express. LMS Wireless Express’s ability to support wireless check-in operations is due to Inter-American’s choice to build LMS Pro using Lansa’s Lansa application development tools. Lansa features the ability to enable applications built with it to handle data input and other communications from handheld, wireless devices.

Gaylord Opryland Resort in Nashville is a self-contained convention center and hotel, operated by Gaylord Entertainment Corp., an enterprise with multiple resort hotels in Florida, Tennessee and Texas. The Nashville site features 600,000 square feet of meeting and exhibition facilities and 2,883 guestrooms, displayed within the ambience of a huge antebellum Southern mansion covered by an overarching glass roof. The hotel is also a major AS/400 iSeries user, handling its operations with two model 820s, two model 720s and one model 170, all running V4R5 and supporting 2,440 networked local users.

Justifying a Change
Gaylord Opryland Resort in Nashville’s decision to revamp its registration procedures was driven by several factors.

“Our total physical plant is rather spread out,” said John Eslick, director of information technology at Opryland. “In addition, because we cater mainly to conventions and group business, guest arrivals are sometimes compressed into very narrow timeframes. We needed to consider multiple registration locations and other means of eliminating long lines and the amount of time our guests spend in the registration process.”

A second consideration was the software application used to run its operations. “In early 2000 we identified the need to replace or upgrade our existing property management solution. When we began a search for a new solution, we made registration alternatives, beyond the traditional front desk approach, a requirement,” Eslick said. “We also wanted to enable room reservation services over the Internet.”

Finally, company management knew there was a re-branding initiative underway, which eventually culminated in the Gaylord Hotels renaming announcement last October. “We wanted to establish a brand standard for the rollout of Gaylord Hotels,” Eslick said.

A search for alternatives began with establishment of a search committee of about a dozen people, composed of IT technical representatives, project managers and hospitality operations managers. This steering committee gradually evolved into a project oversight committee, adding ad hoc team members as needed depending on the technical and operational requirements as the project developed. The team researched the market via industry publications, tradeshow visits and extensive Web searches.

Despite Gaylord Opryland Resort’s existing iSeries infrastructure, the search didn’t mandate iSeries use. “We chose not to limit our search to a specific platform,” Eslick pointed out, “but let the functions and features of each vendor product line drive the decision-making process.”

The team also worked on developing a justification for funding the entire project. Gaylord Entertainment uses a concept called System Success Structure, which requires establishment of a formal business case covering return on investment and other financial evaluations to get sponsorship and funding from upper management. This process took place concurrently with initial market research, and the committee won approval before making a final vendor and application selection. The initial funding included the costs for design, development and rollout of a wireless registration solution.

In July 2000, after research, reviewing bid responses and participating in four live vendor demos, the committee selected Lodging Management System Pro (LMS Pro) from Inter-American Data (IAD), an iSeries-centric application, as its solution. Key to LMS Pro’s selection was its LMS Wireless Express module, a wireless solution that lets guests check in and out anywhere in the hotel.

This feature exists because LMS Pro was developed using Lansa development tools from Lansa, Inc. Lansa tools include pre-built components that enable rapid development of fully integrated iSeries wireless solutions for Palm- and wireless access protocol (WAP)-based handheld devices. These wireless components provide multiple functionality types, including data entry, inquiry support, maintenance and reporting-style applications.

“In creating this wireless solution, the Lansa part wasn’t difficult at all,” explained Criss Chrestman, IAD’s e-business practice manager. “[LMS Wireless Express] is just a browser application designed for a very small screen. The advantage of using Lansa tools is that we can deliver graphical controls to handheld clients while remaining platform-neutral and application-centric. This dramatically reduces the solution’s overall complexity.”

Hotel management also selected IAD because of its flexibility. “We knew we’d have to enter into joint development with any vendor for some specific requirements,” Eslick said, “so we were also looking for vendors who had the resources and commitment to improve their own product in those key areas.”

Implementing the Wireless Solution
After IAD’s selection, Gaylord formed an advisory council to oversee implementation. This group was made up of key management decision-makers, who provided ongoing process approval and helped the project committee identify which IT and business unit administrators and operations personnel would be in charge of using the system after implementation. Also helping with the rollout were a number of subcommittees that focused on specific areas, such as hardware and software infrastructure, data communications, and operational policies and procedures. Eslick particularly cited the hotel operations team members as being instrumental in creating Gaylord Opryland Resort’s wireless check-in system’s overall design documentation and requirements.

IAD supplied a project manager and a developer to Gaylord Opryland Resort’s implementation team, and the hotel formed a rollout subcommittee: the two IAD representatives, a Gaylord Hotels project manager and two members of hotel operations management. The project managers compiled a detailed task timeline with specific project team member assignments. The implementation team held weekly conference calls to keep the project on track and react to adjustments. Gaylord management set a single-unit rollout target of June 29, 2001.

Customization work centered on the need to keep the check-in application fast and simple . Because wireless registration is an extension of existing PMS check-in processes, the hotel needed to streamline handling of situations that might interfere with a problem-free registration, for example, no rooms of a type requested by the guest being available. Such exceptions were programmed to be errors in the wireless check-in procedure that would necessitate manual intervention by hotel personnel. Other customization of the product’s interface and functions to suit Gaylord Opryland Resort’s operations were also necessary.

The rollout team met its single-unit June goal, and that success was followed by a multiple-unit rollout and end-user training the following month. End-user training was handled by hotel personnel and took approximately three to four hours, at least half of which consisted of acquainting users with the wireless handheld hardware.

Gaylord Opryland Resort’s new check-in system uses Symbol Technologies’ Web-enabled Symbol SPT 1740 and 1840 pocket computers as input devices. These are connected to Symbol’s Spectrum 24 wireless LAN, which uses the 802.11b wireless protocol. The wireless LAN is connected via TCP/IP to the iSeries running the LMS core application. A Symbol Portable Encoding Printer enables credit card reading, printing of receipts and room-key programming. SPT 1740/1840-equipped hotel employees are able to approach guests at curbside, in one of several lobbies in the sprawling hotel, meeting rooms and reception areas to handle check-in formalities.

Future plans call for extending guest check-in opportunities to areas such as the valet parking lot and various lounges and restaurants on the hotel grounds. Gaylord also plans to extend the system to all its other properties. Gaylord Opryland Resort is currently considering ways to handle guest check-outs wirelessly, although check-out services are already available at numerous hard-wired kiosks throughout the hotel.

Tom Xavier, director of front office operations at Opryland, summed it up best. “We provide our guests with a fast, accurate, no-hassle service. Most of our visitors are corporate-oriented and familiar with the Palm concept, but still, the majority is fascinated and very happy with the service. Wireless check-in makes a very good first impression.”

John Ghrist is senior products editor for Penton Technology Media’s IBM Technology Group. You can reach him at jghrist@pentontech.com.



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