Definitely Doug 10/20/23: Gluing It All Together

by Doug Rice

Hardly a day goes by that hotels do not express frustration about the inability to tie together key data sources and technology systems. This is not a new problem; it has been around for decades. Progress has been made on many fronts to be sure, but digitalization has created new issues much faster than solutions.

These challenges affect every part of the hotel business. Unlike retail, where UPC codes can be easily identified and cross-referenced, the distribution ecosystem for hotels lacks even the most basic standardization of product. Distributors are often caught unaware of brand changes and closings, and even major ones admit that they far too often sell hotels that no longer exist.

Inside the hotel itself, brands face huge challenges getting mobile keys to work consistently at scale. Energy management technology is a decade or more behind other real estate sectors because building management systems interoperate poorly with hotel guest room management systems. Payment processing is messy. Commission payments are difficult to manage. Multi-brand owners and management companies are challenged by metrics that are defined or calculated inconsistently by various brand-mandated systems, making comparative performance hard to assess.

These are just a few examples of challenges our industry faces from lack of data standardization and interoperability. It is not that standards and interfaces do not exist, but rather that they are incomplete, dated, and often never implemented by legacy systems that still dominate the landscape. The only significant exception I can identify is the USALI standards for financial metrics. In other areas, primarily distribution, standards exist but are less broadly adopted. New standards like HTNG Express for property management system (PMS) integrations with other hotel systems hold promise but have limited adoption to date.

In most cases, it is the technology buyer (the hotel) that must reconcile data managed by different systems or implement and manage interfaces. Most hoteliers I speak with agree that the vendor community is poor at working together to remove friction and pain points faced by hotels and their guests; even some vendor executives admit that they are responsible for creating friction. Brands contribute to the problem as well when they mandate capabilities that cannot be delivered consistently due to vendor disparities across their portfolio.

As just one example, mobile key programs have been pushed out by many brands without always ensuring that existing elevator security controls can respond to mobile keys – and while this is technically possible with most elevators, such integrations are rarely on the radar of elevator manufacturers and are beyond the capabilities of most of the distributors that sell elevators to hotels. This results in what is essentially an unsolvable problem (unless replacing the elevator is an option), and hotel owners spending a lot of money on brand-mandated mobile keys that may never be practical for guests to use.

Whose Job Is It to Fix This Mess, Anyway?

Hoteliers frequently blame vendors for interoperability failures. And to be sure, many vendors manage interoperability poorly; they may deliver something they have, but it often does not meet the hotel’s needs or cannot be fully implemented. Too many vendors see their product at the center of their customer’s universe and assume that it is the other systems, rather than theirs (or frequently both), that must adapt. With an average of around 100 different technologies needed to run a typical modern hotel, the idea that one vendor can provide everything is ludicrous (how many mobile key companies also make elevators?). A few vendors have embraced partner models, often through marketplaces or app stores, but too many have not.

While many vendors have issues, the bigger problem is hotels failing to ask for what they need in a way that will truly engage the vendors. Hotels are, after all, the ones with the underlying business needs; vendors will respond to those needs, but only if they understand them and see a path to deploying them profitably. Few hotels do much to articulate their needs and (in particular) why current solutions fail to meet them. They do not work to build consensus among partners around the need for solutions, nor encourage those partners to address them.If you are a hotel and are not being proactive, it is time to stop complaining that you cannot get what you need and start finding ways YOU can make it happen. This article is designed to give you the tools to do just that – even if you represent a very small hotel group that has little or no clout with your vendors.

Industry organizations sometimes help to address these issues, but there are far too many gaps in both coverage and the extent to which they have facilitate the creation of actual, in-the-market solutions (as opposed to standards or best practices that might enable solutions but never become widely adopted). USALI is a success story because adoption by hotels was a prerequisite for access to capital markets (something every hotel owner understands is essential). Some other industry efforts (notably OpenTravel Alliance, HTNG – now part of AHLA, and HEDNA) have been helpful over the years, but the number of new efforts these organizations have undertaken in recent years has been declining, while the needs have been proliferating as more and more business processes have gone digital.

What’s The Solution?

Having been deeply involved in many industry efforts to address system interoperability and data integration over more than 30 years, I would observe that most of the historically successful efforts involved getting a critical mass of hotels represented in one room with the necessary vendors. The role of the hotels is to define the problems, evaluate solutions, and ultimately to buy the ones that address them. The role of the vendors is to select the technical approach, to define the information exchange standards, and to build and sell the solutions.

The critical mass of hotels might consist of just one larger hotel group or multiple smaller ones; it just needs to represent enough revenue potential to the vendor community to get their attention and engagement. Like all businesses, hotel tech vendors respond to profit opportunities that they understand and for which they can assess the market potential.

Once the critical mass has been assembled, the parties need to meet to define the problem very specifically; to describe the (presumably collaborative) solution; to decide whether and how it can be addressed; to agree on roles and responsibilities; and to establish a rough timeline and project plan.

Many industry collaboration meetings have gone virtual, but for this process to work there is one necessary ingredient that needs at least one face-to-face meeting. Problems are not solved by the companies who participate, but rather by the key people who represent them. It is human beings who must ultimately work together to achieve cooperation, and that requires developing personal relationships and a level of trust, which happens only face to face. This is particularly important when competitors must work together: humans in the business world are typically distrustful of competitors but are still able to establish respect and trust with some of the people who work for them. Unless the people involved already know each other, gathering them in a room for a day or two, and perhaps sharing a meal or cocktail, is often a necessary ingredient to generate cooperation.

These meetings will invariably include attendees who understand the business needs or the technology but not both (at least, not at the level required). It is therefore critical to include a moderator who is business-savvy enough to understand what the businesspeople are saying (clarifying wherever needed) and technologically adept enough to “translate” that into high-level technical solutions. This is important because technical staff often arrive with a preferred approach that may not meet the needs or the constraints of some of the other vendors, and negotiation is needed. Similarly, businesspeople often define the solution rather than the problem, when the better solutions may exist for the underlying problem. Just as negotiations between heads of state who speak different languages need interpreters (and not just language translators) to communicate effectively, the moderator needs to be able to interpret the underlying meaning of the business needs and the technical challenges that need to come together.

Aside from the format, hoteliers need to bring economic incentives to the table. Vendors need to make money and will participate if, and only to the extent that, they see potential gold at the end of the rainbow. A volume commitment of revenue from a large hotel group may be enough in some cases, but if that is not possible (and in the franchise world it often is not), hotels will need to come with a budget, or at least an understanding that they will need to find one. Without money on the table from hotels in one form or the other, the vendors will not stick around for long.

Participants from both hotels and vendors need to be senior enough to either make decisions on the spot, or to get management approval quickly. While the grunt work of defining needs and solutions and of creating interoperability will typically be delegated to departmental and product managers and technical staff, every participating company needs to know that they have sufficient senior management awareness and involvement to get to the right decisions that will have the necessary organizational support.

How to Get the Process Started

Having been involved with or closely observed many efforts to address interoperability problems over the years, I can propose several steps which, if followed, can increase the likelihood of success. There is no single formula; in any given situation you will almost certainly need to adapt some of these ideas.

1. Document the Problem. This starts with a hotel executive (one is enough, but multiple is fine) briefly describing the problem and their vision for a solution. The perspective needs to address why two or more systems – both of which the hotelier selected because they best met a particular need – fail to adequately address the needs of the guest, staff, hotel owner, or other stakeholder because they cannot work cooperatively in the way that is required. In writing this, the hotelier should recognize that vendors view issues through their own, highly colored lenses. Each has built a great product to solve a particular set of needs, but they often focus only on that set of needs, and not on how hotels’ own business processes and other systems might create other requirements that can be met only through collaboration.

The documentation needs to address solely the issues that can NOT be solved by a single vendor. Problems that CAN be solved by one vendor do not need this kind of process; you can address them with the vendor directly. Focusing the document on the collaboration issues helps ensure that the vendor will not have a “we already do that” reaction. If they do, then you need to rework your document and describe the problem more narrowly and clearly so that they understand the gap you are trying to fill.

Avoid describing the solution rather than the problem. For businesspeople, this is harder than you think; I have often heard a problem statement like “we just need system x to do y,” which is a solution rather than a problem. The problem is WHY they need system x to do y. Does it reduce guest disservice vs. the current capabilities? Save staff time? Improve revenue? Be specific and try to quantify the value of solving the problem if you can! A problem statement might be worded like “We have to manually update group statuses in the property management system because the interface does not carry through some of the statuses used by our sales and catering system; that takes four hours of staff time every week.” Businesspeople often have an idea of a solution, and can voice it at the appropriate time, but it’s the technical experts who are better able to find the BEST solution.

2. Socialize the Problem. If the problem is one that you believe other hotel companies share, and the solution is not one where you expect to gain any real competitive advantage, then you will want an industry solution provided by the vendor community – not an expensive custom solution built just for you. Circulate your problem statement informally within your peer network and with any relevant associations to find out if others share your need. One small hotel company may not be able to move the vendor community at a reasonable cost, but several working together often can.

Vendors frequently hear, in one-on-one discussions with their hotel clients, that “they should develop this at their own cost this because everybody needs it.” This argument works only rarely, because it is hard for vendors to assess (a) how many hotels really do share the need (the market potential); and (b) whether the same solution will work for all or most hotels, or whether multiple custom solutions will be needed. Even hotels that share the same problem will have significant variations in how they need to solve it because of differences in business processes and their existing technology ecosystems. The better vendors have learned the hard way never to build functionality for a single client, unless (and sometimes even if) the client is willing to pay the cost. Hence the importance of finding comrades to help persuade the vendors of the need.

Occasionally a key vendor may be aware of a need that is shared by many of their clients and want to solve it but lacks the knowledge or relationships with other vendors to do so. In this case, the vendor may be able to work with you to identify other hoteliers who will be interested.

3. Assess Critical Mass. You will need enough of the right vendors at the table to develop and implement a solution that meets the needs of a critical mass of hoteliers. Certain vendors may be essential, for example ones that large participating hotel groups have and are not able or willing to change. Others will be desirable, including ones in categories where hotels might consider replacing existing solutions, and ones in categories where multiple vendors already serve the hotel group’s properties. Vendors who are dominant in a particular category are often the ones most resistant to partnering with others, but it can be difficult or impossible to change industry practices without them.

If you cannot get the necessary vendors (the ones important to a critical mass of participating hotels) to at least consider participating, then your likelihood of success is low. In this situation, the best choice is usually to wait until something changes, while continuing to push for such changes where you can. Unwilling vendors may have a change of strategy or may relent if they perceive a risk that a major client might switch them out. A hotel company may become more willing to switch providers if the consequences of a gap continue to grow.

4. Get Commitments. Once you have critical mass of interest from hoteliers, they need to sell their vendors on participating – meaning resource commitments. Each vendor needs to see enough business opportunity to be willing to invest, and they will assess this based on what they hear from hoteliers with a need, an interest, and ideally a budget. Each vendor will have at least a rough sense of the cost of building out the necessary integrations, but they need help understanding the potential revenue and timeline. One large potential customer or multiple smaller ones can fill this need.

It is important to engage vendors at the appropriate senior management level, as the project will need ongoing support. A small hotel group dealing with an account executive at a large vendor company has little voice, which is why they need to build critical mass (and visibility with the vendor’s senior management) before asking for commitments. Senior management of hotels and vendors needs to be involved at the outset and at periodic checkpoints. They will normally delegate day-to-day responsibilities to business and technical staff, but it is important to be able to go back to them if the assigned staff cannot or will not carry the workload.

Engagement with vendors on commercial terms should be one-on-one. Hotels can run afoul of antitrust laws if they gang up on a vendor to get a better deal. It is fine to have discussions around the common needs and the technical means for achieving them, but not (at least in most of the Western world) for multiple customers to work together to leverage better pricing or contractual terms.

This is also a good time to suggest partnerships that make sense. A hotel group that needs vendors A and B to cooperate to solve an issue can help guide the vendors into how to productize and market a joint solution not only to them, but also to other hotels that may use both vendors. Vendors may not even be thinking about partnerships, whereas hotels recognize the need and can help vendors understand whether they might make sense.

5. Find or Create a Place to Meet. Once you have hotels and vendors lined up, someone needs to organize a first meeting (and ultimately later meetings, although this plan can come out of the first one). There are several ways hotels can make this happen. Sometimes vendors can do it as well, but this is more likely to raise competitive issues than if a hotel does it. In many cases, preliminary discussions can be held virtually, but once you have the team identified and committed and are ready to get down to work, face-to-face is much preferred. This also forces participating companies to address the cost of participating, if only to cover travel costs. If they cannot or will not fund a single trip to explore solving a customer problem, then they are unlikely to commit the resources required to participate meaningfully.

  • A hotel group can organize, coordinate scheduling, provide a venue, develop an agenda, and provide a moderator. This works best if the project involves only one hotel group (or two that are closely aligned on both the need and solution); otherwise, there is a risk that the solution will meet only the lead hotel group’s needs, disappointing both other participating hotels and the vendors as well.

  • A hotel group can organize it but hire a consultant to develop the agenda and moderate the session. This can be useful especially if the consultant is familiar with each relevant technology, has relationships with many or most of the vendors, and has at least some experience moderating workshops.

  • If you are a larger hotel group and have one core vendor (such as PMS) that you do not plan to change, but need multiple other systems to connect to it, you may be able to get someone from that vendor to lead the effort.

  • You can try to find a home for the effort in a relevant industry association. This can be an excellent solution if the association is interested in playing a lead role and has the necessary skills and resources, but the decision time frame can be lengthy and may end up at “no.” It’s good to engage early, as they can sometimes help with the earlier steps (like socialization as above), and you can get a better sense of what they bring to the table.

As you review the options, be sure to consider the full lifecycle: problem definition, solution design, role and responsibility assignments, proof-of-concept development, pilots, testing, deployment at scale, and continual refinement. You need not decide everything up front; just consider what your options will be for the later steps based on any decisions you make for the initial ones.

Integrations are projects, and projects need management. Most integration projects between vendors do not require a full-time project manager but do need someone to devote time to documenting goals and responsibilities, monitoring progress, organizing technical meetings, and refining the approach as work progresses. An hour or two of project management per hour of meeting is a good guideline. Most of the efforts I have been seen have a regular meeting cadence of one hour every one to two weeks, but this is often adapted as the project progresses.

Importantly, the project manager needs to ensure that participants at each meeting know what will be discussed, why their presence is needed, and how they can contribute. Few sins are as deadly as getting a large group of skilled people together without this – the result is usually disengagement and failure. The project manager should set an appropriate cadence for meetings for each phase and aspect of the project, ensuring that the right people (and only the right people) are present, that they understand what they are trying to accomplish (in a specific meeting, in a specific phase, and overall), that they understand what contributions they are expected to make, and that decisions are documented (and past decisions recited when the group tries to revisit them, which they will).

Critically, the role of hoteliers and vendor product and technical staff are very different. Many technical meetings will not need the hoteliers at all, assuming they have set a clear direction in earlier meetings; the specific vendor staff needed may also change for different aspects of the product. Most hoteliers (except for those who are contributing technically) should only be invited to (and expected to attend) meetings that are intended to define or refine the problem statement, evaluate potential solutions, and review finished product. These might be scheduled monthly or bimonthly, even as the technical group meets more weekly or biweekly.

These are critical organizational and communication skills to seek in a project manager, however chosen. Many consultants can fill this role if the hotel company cannot.

Industry Needs

The challenges of system and data integration have been with the hotel industry for decades; they are not going away anytime soon. While this article lays out some ways that even very small hotel companies can work proactively to solve some of the problems, there remain many opportunities for vendors and other industry players to help. I am always struck, when attending events comprised mostly of vendors, by conversations turning to their desire for a place to discover integration needs and vendor partnerships more holistically. Many vendors WANT to do this but lack the tools to do so successfully except when driven by a particular customer.

There are several ways this could be accomplished, and multiple entities that could take the lead.

  • Existing conferences and trade shows could include a track, perhaps even a half- or full-day, designed to facilitate discovery of integration challenges, hoteliers who want to solve them, and vendor partners who want to address them. For example, hoteliers could do five-minute pre-vetted problem presentations in a conference session, with a poll after each presentation to assess interest. This could segue into roundtable discussions around the topics of greatest interest. Roundtable participants could then agree to informally start a process such as described above, with a volunteer leader or leaders. This could fit into events sponsored by HFTP, AHLA, HEDNA, HSMAI, or any of several media/commercial conferences, including the Hospitality Upgrade CIO Summit.

  • Hotel business and/or IT leaders could participate in a meeting devoted to cataloging and prioritizing integration issues, and to identifying one or a few lead hotel groups to drive industry level efforts. Anyone willing to devote a little time to making some phone calls could organize such a session.

  • Industry associations and media sites could create social media threads (on their website, using LinkedIn groups, or other familiar tools) where hoteliers could post integration needs and identify others sharing the same or related problems.

  • Consultants could create templates for managing the process, and provide supporting services for monitoring progress, suggesting refinements, moderating, or product management.

I am sure there are other things that could be done; these are just examples.

The important takeaway is that problems like these do not solve themselves (unless, perhaps, you are willing to throw more money at them than they are usually worth). As a hotelier, you can bitch all day about technology that doesn’t work together. But if you want to fix it, you need to organize a process to make it happen. If you wait for someone else to do it, you may be waiting for decades.

Douglas Rice

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