Definitely Doug 9/16/22: Do You Need Another Dashboard?

by Doug Rice

If you are a hotel IT executive and your company operates identical technology portfolios at every hotel, then you can stop reading right now: this column is not for you. But this only describes independent hotels and a few brands that own and manage all their hotels within a limited geographic footprint. Omni, Loews, and some of the gaming hotel companies come to mind in North America. There are others elsewhere in the world, but it is unlikely that they account in total for more than a few percent of all non-independent hotels worldwide.

Most multi-hotel companies live with a diverse set of applications and infrastructure that is only partly within their control. Some technologies are provided or mandated by brands, while others are selected by management companies, asset managers, or ownership groups. For many systems there are few if any global providers, so global operators often need multiple vendors to get geographic support and/or adequate localization in every country where they operate. Even owned and managed brands with limited geographic spread usually have at least a few “rogue” technologies, often acquired with purchased hotel assets. This is common for building management systems, life safety, access control, physical security, energy management systems, and key parts of networking infrastructure (notably cabling), where the cost of replacement in an existing building is often greater than any financial benefit.

Today’s Options

For ownership groups and management companies with diverse portfolios, measuring performance of individual hotels has never been easy. To be sure, there are dashboards provided by some vendors and brands. These might integrate financial metrics and a few key operating statistics like occupancy or bookings, but there is nothing that provides a comprehensive view across multiple properties and every functional area. A typical hotel will have an operational dashboard (usually provided by the property management system) and separate dashboards for functions like revenue management, social media, reputation management, Wi-Fi and networking, guest messaging, work order management, housekeeping, environmental controls, building management, and others.

Brands can and do provide multi-system dashboards with information that can be useful to individual hotels, but still, they only cover the systems within their own ecosystem, which is usually limited to a few core ones. And these dashboards are not very useful at the corporate level of an ownership or management group that operates hotels across multiple brands.

Missing the Mark

While dashboards can provide deep analytics and comparative performance metrics, most of them do not provide real-time actionable insights, especially to managers who are not looking at them every hour (and who has time for that?). At the property level, managers need insights telling them what they can (or need to) do right now to avoid wasting money, disserving guests, earning bad reviews, or losing revenue opportunities. This is particularly important at a time when hotels are severely understaffed across the board.

For example, managers do not have time to manage staff schedules as well as they should, so technology is needed. Productivity needs to be constantly measured so that qualified staff can be quickly reassigned to the place they are most needed right now, and so that shifts can be optimized week to week and day to day. This means data integration around staff-to-customer ratios in restaurants, at the front desk, and in banqueting services that can quickly identify over- or under-staffing situations and recommend reassignments or shift changes. Yet very few systems can calculate real-time staff-to-customer ratios, because staff data are typically held inside human resource-related systems, while customer data is almost universally somewhere else. This is just one example where actionable data requires integration; there are dozens if not hundreds more.

To be sure, most dashboards have data that hotel managers can use to track at least some metrics around guest service and experience, revenue, staff utilization, and costs. Each dashboard probably measures at least one concept that should be on the radar of the general manager, management company, or ownership group. But who has time to sign in to a dozen different systems every day just to view one or two numbers on a dashboard, especially when most of the time they show nothing actionable? Not surprisingly, most dashboards never get checked by anyone other than (maybe) a lower-level associate. If that person was inadequately trained or not doing their job well, the dashboard might well highlight the less-than-stellar consequences, but will management ever see it?

The problem is compounded for management and ownership groups that operate diverse portfolios. They desperately need to measure comparative performance of their hotels to assess their management teams and department heads. A few systems do offer multi-hotel dashboards, but most do not, and those that do can usually cover only the portion of the company’s portfolio uses that system. Differing standards among hotel brands for required core systems, together with what is often a mish-mash of non-core systems acquired by individual hotels over the years, make it a real challenge to pull together comprehensive comparative performance data for the typical diverse portfolio of hotels.

To be sure, a few companies have developed data integration and super-dashboard capabilities that cross brands. HotelIQ, myDigitalOffice (mDO) and Datavision Technologies (which mDO acquired earlier this year) all do a decent job of integrating certain metrics, but focus mostly on ones relevant to front-office operations and customer data. There are also numerous back-office data consolidators like Aptech, PAS, and ProfitSword (now part of Actabl), who focus mostly on financial data but can bring in certain types of other data as well. Third data aggregators such as Amadeus’ TravelClick, Costar, Knowland and Shiji Group’s ReviewPro provide comparative data on various distribution and group sales metrics, and several reputation management companies do so on third-party reviews. A few managed network service providers, environmental control systems, building control systems, labor management systems, and operational systems also provide comparative data, but typically only for hotels using those specific systems.

Nobody ties it all together. Should it really be so hard for a General Manager to see a dashboard summarizing key metrics from all these systems? Or for a management company or ownership group executive to view the comparative performance of properties on multiple metrics that must be pulled from all the different systems?

A Better Solution

If I were responsible for a portfolio of hotels, I would want to understand how they compared not just on occupancy, RevPAR, and profitability, but on things like housekeeping efficiency, turnaround time on group sales inquiries, Wi-Fi quality, energy and water usage, and speed of response to guest chat, service, or maintenance requests. And indeed, I hear this need from senior executives at ownership and management groups all the time. Comparative data can identify the hotels in a portfolio that manage different parts of the operation particularly well, so that their practices can be identified and replicated to lower-performing properties. And corporate managers can also identify weak spots that may help prioritize needed investments, resources, skill upgrades, or other remedial actions.

The same data will help general managers and department heads within a single hotel, highlighting issues day-to-day while working with the exact same metrics on which their company will measure their performance.

Solving this problem is not that difficult. It is often simply a matter of extracting data from various systems (or directly from dashboards), storing it, and displaying it in a single dashboard interface or in comparative reports. Numerous business intelligence tools can handle this task, provided they can get the data. And getting the data out is usually not a big issue with current technologies such as ones I described in this blog from earlier this year.

Other parts are harder, particularly when data supposedly measuring the same thing are defined differently by the underlying systems, or if there are varying configurations or operating practices used by hotels using the same system. Making the data comparable will require some sort of normalization technique. Sometimes this can be accomplished by pulling more detailed underlying source data from one system and recalculating the metric using a formula consistent with other systems.

Other times, this will not be possible. For example, group sales statuses such as prospective, tentative, and definite can mean different things to different hotels. And metrics like guest review scores can be biased by practices used by some hotels that offer to post reviews only to guests who give the hotel a good score on their own satisfaction survey, vs. to all guests.

When data may not be fully comparable for reasons like these, comparative metrics can still be useful to a management or ownership group, by helping to evaluate the need for operational or system changes. Metrics on Wi-Fi network performance across different vendors may not be comparable, for example, but guest satisfaction scores for Wi-Fi quality might be. Putting both metrics together in the same comparative report can reveal whether low technical Wi-Fi scores for one vendor correlates with low guest satisfaction with Wi-Fi (a problem needing attention) or high satisfaction (where one vendor’s metric looks worse but leaves guests just as happy).

When extracted data are not fully comparable, you can record not just the data but the system or operational practice that leads to non-comparability. This will allow you to filter only for hotels with comparable data, or to compare the impact on various metrics of hotels using different systems or practices. This insight can then enable you to construct more comparable scores even when the underlying data is quite different. In the Wi-Fi example, you might find that technical Wi-Fi scores of 90 from one vendor produce the same satisfaction as scores of 85 from another one, in which case comparable scores can be calculated (at least for short-term use) by adding 5 points to the raw scores from the second vendor. Of course, relative vendor performance may change over time, so the normalization formula needs to be reviewed regularly.

How Do We Get There from Here?

A super-dashboard with critical comparative data across all aspects of the operation, and supporting comparisons across properties, is an essential management tool for ownership and management groups. It is not a particularly difficult piece of software to build, but for some mysterious reason no one has built it. The industry needs a few things to happen to close this important gap.

  • Vendors with significant capabilities to consolidate data across systems need to join forces to expand their coverage scope from one or a few areas into as many as possible. Joint ventures could be a useful way to achieve this. Even the vendors with the broadest coverage today do not cover nearly enough data sources to truly meet management needs.

  • Once the data has been consolidated, artificial intelligence and machine learning can overlay it and start providing actionable insights, including specific actions hotel general managers or departmental managers should take, as well as comparative insights for corporate executives looking to understand performance differences across their portfolio.

  • Vendors with single-purpose dashboards need to make it easy to export data so that it can be combined with other data into more useful forms. Some users (revenue managers, for example) get great value from single-purpose dashboards, but mostly where the dashboard is very specific to metrics within their area of responsibility.

  • Forward-thinking management companies and ownership groups should work together to define common needs and engage the vendor community to create the solution. Vendors will build the solution if, and only if, they see a market. Hotels need to be forceful in telling vendors what they need. And they need to be willing to pay a reasonable price.

  • Industry groups such as AHLA/HTNG, HFTP, HEDNA, and HSMAI should identify areas where differing technologies or operational practices lead to metrics that are not easily compared across hotels, and design common definitions and metrics to help address the challenge. All four organizations have experience with this type of problem within specific domains.

This problem will not be solved overnight, but incremental progress should not be difficult. The technology base to do this already exists in the portfolio of numerous companies with positions in the industry. It is simply a matter of blocking and tackling on the details. And it is a commercial opportunity just waiting for a few vendors to exploit it.

Douglas Rice

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