Definitely Doug 12/3/21: It’s Broken. Let’s Fix It (Redux)

12.3.2021
by Doug Rice
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This week I am going to return to the subject of my blog from October 29 (“It’s Broken. Let’s Fix It.”). In the very first sentence of that article, I said I thought it would be controversial, because it highlighted how poorly technology is delivered in many hotels, and the resulting frustrations for guests and staff alike. I expected that many brands and technology vendors might react defensively.

But boy, was I wrong! I got more feedback on that article than on any I have ever written here, virtually all of it supportive, and many additional perspectives and ideas. Senior IT leaders from several major brands reached out to talk with me, adding their own frustrations with a broken system; a few even bravely commented online. Several vendor CEOs did the same, and some were trying to figure out how they can be part of a solution. Part of my objective was indeed to start a dialog, and that seems to be happening. We still need to raise the volume level, however, and get the industry working toward some commercially viable solutions.

If you have not read the earlier blog yet, I recommend doing so before you read further, as today’s is mostly a recap of some of the feedback I received and some additional thoughts based on that.

One independent hotelier, Kathryn Murphy of soon-to-open The Murphy Gallery & Hotel in Dublin, raised a great point that greatly affects service quality, which is the lack of coordination of informational content. Hotels today provide guests with critical information about their hotel using a variety of often-disconnected systems: website, mobile app, third-party sites, chatbot, property management system, concierge system, in-room tablet, television, voice response, email, webchat, and others. Relevant content can include details like restaurant, gym, or pool hours; transportation options; COVID-related service changes; neighborhood businesses; and many other things.

Despite this, few hotels have a strategy for managing this type of content, and when things change (as they do every day!) keeping it up-to-date means labor-intensive updates to multiple systems. I am not aware of any off-the-shelf software that can both maintain content and feed it to the systems that need it. A few of the major brands do have custom solutions, although they typically only support the centralized brand-operated systems, while hotel-selected systems are orphaned.

The answer a guest gets to a question, if they get one at all, may be right or wrong depending on which system they (or the hotel associate they are speaking with) happens to be viewing. And it’s not just guests; one can also envision the same system being used to help hotel staff who may need help using a system or process in which they might not have been fully trained, answering the “how do I deal with this situation I’ve never seen before” type of questions.

Kathryn wrote a great article about this challenge, which she pointed out to me. I highly recommend that vendors read it before they consider deploying hotel-specific content within a siloed application.

Content is low-hanging fruit compared to the bigger problem my earlier blog was focused on, but it is still a significant opportunity for the vendor community. It doesn’t fix that bigger issue, but it can greatly reduce the impact. In theory any vendor who has a good, flexible, and comprehensive content database could open it up via API to other systems. This might be a great strategy for the chatbot vendors in particular; the better ones already do a great job of tracking what questions guests have and maintaining a set of relevant answers. Their AI layers can be self-learning and can also help to deal with the complexities of the different presentation formats needed by the various endpoints. Why not look to become the information hub for all the guest-facing systems, and expand the same logic to questions hotel staff themselves might have about internal policies, processes, and procedures?

A former management company IT executive lamented the lack of ownership for training and process management. Brands and management companies alike force implementation of specific guest-facing systems, but often fail to adequately train staff, or to maintain the training through staff turnover. The example cited was the deployment of a room-service ordering app on the guest television, where orders were going into a black hole. It turns out the room service staff were aware of the app but didn’t know how it worked or how to retrieve the orders, so when a guest complains that they have not received their order, the staff simply tells the guest (after they have been waiting for an hour!) to call them instead.

It’s easy to fault the brand or management company that chose to deploy the TV app. But one also has to wonder about a Food and Beverage Manager who thinks it’s okay to let a guest’s room service order disappear into the ether without any warning, who is obviously aware of the problem, and yet who takes no action to even try to fix it. While the brand or management company may not have deployed the best training (or maybe any at all), hotel management that has been left in the dark needs to push back harder to either get the necessary training – or turn the feature off so guests won’t see or use it.

A senior executive on the vendor side commented on the challenges of integration, even with an enterprise service bus, because so many “similar” systems use inconsistent data models or APIs, making it difficult to achieve seamless integration across all the systems that need it. I completely agree with this as a technical challenge. It is one that standards can help to address, although the necessarily slow-moving development process for standards will always be at odds with rapid innovation, so variations will always exist. But another important root cause is the one covered in my article, which is that having owners, managers, and brands each selecting different systems results in a mishmash of systems that are often coupled only loosely, or not at all.

The more systems that are selected in an uncoordinated fashion, the more incompatibilities you will have in trying to tie them together. A fully owned hotel group can be much more thoughtful, strategic, and consistent, implementing (more or less) a single set of applications across every hotel in their portfolio, eliminating the need for each system to work well with dozens of others. The corollary is that the fully owned hotel group still needs to do its homework to make sure that the systems it selects can work with each other. That is a challenging task to be sure, but less daunting than in the mixed-estate use case that other hotels typically face.

Another vendor CEO lamented that the sales cycle is so long, and the customer acquisition cost so high for hotels, that the economics often just don’t work for vendors to introduce new products into hotels. This is absolutely true, but also goes back to the number of decision makers involved both directly and indirectly in the purchase. A brand or management company may be able to come to a decision fairly quickly, but then may have to spend months or years selling that decision to the other stakeholders, especially owners. And indeed, the sales cycle is much faster with independent hotels and fully-owned hotel groups.

The managed service model discussed in the original blog addresses this by giving great new products access to an efficient indirect sales model that is much lower cost. A managed service provider who finds a great new product can start selling it into a large installed base, with which it already has trusted relationships, at minimal cost. The hotel customer that is presented with an option to buy a new product can be confident that it has been properly vetted to work well with what they already have, vastly reducing the risk of spending the money but not getting the intended result.

A senior IT executive at a major brand shared the perspective that part of the problem is the organizational structure within hotels. In larger hotels, the Director of Engineering still sits on the Executive Committee, but IT is often still not represented there – meaning that the general manager has more visibility of the boiler than of the Wi-Fi. In this model, it is not surprising that heating, plumbing, and electrical problems tend to get fixed quickly, while technology problems can remain unaddressed indefinitely.

This executive further commented that some non-hotel businesses have combined multiple departments that need to be run with coordinated technology (e.g., engineering, housekeeping, and IT). I agree that this is something hotels should look at, although the feasible solutions will vary quite a bit by type and size of hotel. But with today’s high dependence of both staff and guests on technology, it makes no sense for IT not to have a seat at the ExCo table.

As an industry, we are still a long way from a solution. Consolidation in the vendor space across multiple product lines over the past 20 years has helped to a degree, but the proliferation of new technologies has created new problems faster than the existing technology ecosystem has been able to address them. In my discussions with vendor executives who reached out to me (particularly some of the larger ones who have financial resources to take bigger risks), I have encouraged them to think big and find partners who can share the vision of creating a one-stop managed services platform that can deliver technology that works reliably for hotels, and that can in real time identify and address the situations where it does not. The good news is that at least a few of them are game.

If this also describes you, please reach out to me and I would be happy to try to connect you with like-minded leaders with whom you can have a conversation to explore potential synergies. And if you’re a hotelier who thinks managed services might be a better option for you and are positioned to advocate within your company, please let me know so I can help you discover some of the platforms that may start to emerge. Either way, if you’re not a part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem!

Douglas Rice
Email: douglas.rice@hosptech.net
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/ricedouglas

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