Guest Management Systems: Shifting Sands

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October 01, 2012
Guest Management Systems
Jon Inge - jon@joninge.com

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Guest management systems are in a long period of transition. When buying a guest management system be prepared for a few changes and budget CapEx funds for them.

 
It’s an old saying with a lot of truth behind it that hotels only replace their core systems every 10 to 15 years, and even then only when smoke starts coming out of them. Maybe it’s the perceived pain of the selection and implementation process or perhaps a feeling of being overwhelmed by the technology options, but many owners and managers prefer to buy systems once and then forget about them.  That’s no longer a realistic option.

Guest management systems are still the essential core of a hotel’s system set, serving as the consolidator of all interactions with a guest on property.  As management decisions require an ever-more detailed knowledge of guests’ actions and preferences, the systems’ reach constantly needs to be extended in every area of hotel operations. Vendors achieve this by adding specialized modules for functions such as point of sale, revenue management, spa bookings, condo owner management and so on, and through increasingly comprehensive interfaces to other vendors’ systems used in those areas.

Operational needs change all the time.  Despite signs of recovery the marketplace is still intensely competitive. Hotels are constantly looking for an edge, and their systems must help them identify opportunities and support each that shows promise.

Marketers continue to explore new ways of gathering guest information, and so social media tracking and interactions are added to the mix. The shift to mobile technology is unstoppable, and mobile-compatible software is needed to reach guests on their devices of choice and to make those as simple as possible to use. More travelers use mobile devices to book on the spur of the moment, and hotel systems must get better at predicting booking trends with ever-shortening lead times, and driving revenue management decisions accordingly. 

Operational efficiency must improve, and housekeepers need mobile devices updated dynamically as room cleaning priorities shift during the day. Engineers need to be notified of work orders wherever they are and need mobile devices that can alert them of new tasks (ideally with photographs) to help them arrive fully prepared and return the guestroom to full service as quickly as possible. Guests’ past problems need to be tracked in their profiles so work orders can be created automatically to re-check the issue before their next arrival. Mobile devices also support more personal guest services, such as check-in from anywhere in the lobby or even in the guestroom. 

The list of changes never ends, and incorporating these steady enhancements and upgrades into the guest management systems controlling the workflow is essential to any property wanting to stay operationally competitive.

Then there are the changes to systems architecture itself. Software development doesn’t stand still either, and new systems developed with current services-oriented approaches have an inherent advantage over long-established applications in speed of development and enhancement. Their reliability should also be higher, given the clean-slate opportunity to design in all current functionality in one coherent process instead of constantly adding and patching it over 20 years. Vendors such as Agilysys, Infor, Multi-Systems, Inc.,  and PAR Springer-Miller Systems have all bitten the bullet and come up with new products developed alongside their existing ranges. MICROS is taking a more modular approach, converting its OPERA suite to Oracle’s latest platform one section at a time. Regardless, it always takes time to build out a new system to match an older one’s feature set, and if you’re convinced of the long-term benefits of the newer products (and there are many arguments in their favor) you may need to plan to install the older ones first and migrate later.  The costs of doing that, even if just for staff training, must be budgeted.

Another opportunity comes from the recent appearance of fully fledged end-to-end ERP systems for hospitality from Cenium, IDS NEXT, Prologic First and Indra TMS.  These systems allow hotels to run absolutely everything on one platform, from reservations, front office, POS and guest activities through financial accounting to supply chain management, payroll and labor forecasting. This is a huge benefit to efficient operations (not to mention simpler system support), but is also clearly a major undertaking in a retrofit situation, and one that almost inevitably will require a multiphase approach. Plan for it.

Remotely hosted systems have been around for a long time. Despite some initial wariness about data security and access, the stability of Internet communications and current levels of hardware reliability have led many hoteliers to an increasing comfort level with the concept.  The freedom from responsibility for on-property server hardware alone is often enough encouragement, let alone the advantages of greater reliability, back-up support and ease in keeping the software up to date. Hardware doesn’t last forever; when a property’s existing servers need replacement it makes sense to look at moving them off site. Once again, this needs to be planned and budgeted.

While in this highly dynamic environment it’s hard to forecast what specific changes will actually be needed, the need to budget for change over an extended period is real and needs to be a recurring item in CapEx planning. A key to mental sanity is to have a road map of where you want to end up, so that you can install each major component in phases and be confident that it will all fit together in the end. You’ll also know in advance what temporary interfaces or other operational work-arounds you’ll need and can accept for the interim.

To maintain flexibility it’s a good practice to break long-term projects down into smaller, achievable sections. IT consultant Bob Lewis proposes a 3-1-3-4 approach: a 3-year vision, 1-year strategy, 3-month goals and 4-week plans. The 3-year vision and 1-year strategy provide consistency and focus on where you’re going; the 3-month goals and 4-week plans create a collection of quick wins. This approach also lets you take stock on a regular basis and see if any change in the business environment requires a re-arrangement of priorities. 

Life is never static. Whatever goals you set today you can count on needing to change sooner or later.  Allocating CapEx funds once every 10 years for systems replacements is no longer enough; annual funding for systems and technology upgrades is critical to maintaining a competitive edge.  It may not be apparent what those upgrades will be when you start, but they’ll still be essential to maximize your investment in the original purchase.

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

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