Thursday, December 28, 2006

There is more to hospitality accounting software than mere number crunching

The hotel and restaurant industry has been slow to adopt new technologies to improve the way it runs its businesses, even though many of the challenges it faces lend themselves to resolution by the range of IT driven solutions now available. Ultimately these solutions must be aimed both at ensuring truly excellent customer service, today's key differentiator in a highly competitive marketplace, and in providing the information all levels of management require to maximise revenue and profit.

Regardless of size, most hotel & restaurant operations face many similar issues. The current competitive climate within the industry means that hotels need systems with the ability to expand both in functionality and size, while at the same time combining financial, statistical and sales information with data from a wide range of sources, and with a minimum of user input. Managers need to be able to control their assets efficiently and identify different revenue and cost areas within the business, and then meet a wide range of reporting requirements.

These vary from statutory reports, through ratio and variance analyses and guest histories, to the management information essential for planning, directing and controlling the operation. Furthermore, all these reports and information sources need to be instantly accessible. It is no longer acceptable to wait patiently for standard, formalised head office reports to arrive to inform business decisions, and conventional accounting software supported by paper based reporting is no longer flexible and reactive enough to ensure an organisation stays competitive. What is needed is a change of management culture and expectations to embrace the benefits of the new technologies.

So what opportunities do the latest generation of financial and sales management software products offer to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of a hotel or restaurant operation, whether it is independent or part of a chain? To understand this we need to put some of the key issues being faced into perspective in order to identify where the most benefit can be derived.

Central to all businesses is the need for meaningful information; not just from the numbers, but also from sales data, for both long-term planning at head office and short-term tactical planning by individual hotel and restaurant managers. Central management can then focus on enterprise wide business issues while at the same time empowering local management to be more accountable for individual business units.

Without information on areas such as future bookings, room rates and yield calculations, staffing levels and food and beverage requirements, there is no way of accurately predicting how the business is likely to perform. It is also essential that any data that decisions are based upon is completely up-to-date. This not only makes sure that the business decisions are properly informed, but will also save unnecessary processes.

Consolidation of information across a hotel or restaurant chain will not only give a clearer view across the business, leading to more efficient purchasing, but will also improve supplier relations. It can make vendors' lives considerably easier if they receive a single payment for a given period for all purchases made by all units across the group; and likewise any customer who uses more than one unit wants the ability to make a single payment for all related purchases.

Information access is not the only area n which technology can deliver benefits. Many IT systems now offer the ability to tailor their user menus and screens precisely to the particular task or operation in hand, improving the efficiency of data input and preventing user confusion. This means staff deliver more value by working smarter rather than harder.

So what should you be looking for in a software system to achieve these benefits?

Well, to begin with you need a system that offers extensive analysis capabilities to ensure you can monitor any aspect of the business. After al l if you can't measure it, you can't manage it. Providing up to-date information is likely to be easier from an integrated system, as this does away with control accounts and separate updates for the differing units. However, you will almost certainly need to combine information drawn from a variety of systems, from front office to Internet applications, so a real time integration capability is vital.

Making life easier for the end users of the system is also vital and you should, therefore, be looking at systems with built in input form and menu design capabilities. Furthermore, given the need for flexibility in expanding and evolving business processes, tools should be provided by the vendor to enable you to modify screens yourself, rather than waiting on this pleasure.

From an information delivery perspective, the variety of requirements, from statutory reports through management packs to ad hoc inquiries, means you need to look for a system with a variety of appropriate and easy-to-use tools.

With the system probably running on a relational database, the report writer accessing this database should ideally be an object-oriented design in order to maximise efficiency, versatility and speed. Given the distributed nature of a hotel or restaurant chain, information delivery is key and you should check for web publishing and distribution capabilities, which should fully incorporate data security considerations set elsewhere in the system.

Now you know what you need, how do you go about evaluating the plethora of software products on the market? You can start by researching magazines, visiting accounting trade shows like Softworld, searching the Internet or simply asking your colleagues within the industry. Alternatively, you can seek advice from an organisation such as BAHA; either directly from IT specialists connected with BAHA or through its wide membership network.

The Basic Attributes of Accounting Software

This checklist is not exhaustive but may help start assessing the possibilities.
Credit Control
Debtor analyses and warning of account customers approaching credit levels/ terms
Recording guests'/diners' payment methods
BACS electronic banking interface
Bank account(s) electronic data exchange
Accruals and pre-payments
Sales Ledgers-accounts receivable, debtors
Outstanding invoice analyses
Daybook, invoice and payment journals
Cheque and bank slip printing
Currency Conversions
Purchase ledger(s) - accounts payable, creditors
Purchase analyses and forward planning
Approval process for supplier invoices
Cost allocations to business sectors and budget management

General Ledger, Nominal Ledger including sub-categories of choice

Cash accounts
Petty Cash book
Cash flow forecasts

Lists of transactions by date, category etc.
Tracking of uncleared items
Income/corporation tax and VAT records and returns in current advance and deferred categories
Fixed assets register with flexible depreciation methods
Internal audit
Trial balance as required of specified periods or "To Date"
Integral, or interfaces to:
Stock control
PAYE wages, working time records and employee scheduling

System held reports such as Room yields, performance against budget by various activities and menus, cost of sale per room type, guest (type) profitability, cost of sales, debtors/creditors ratios, capital/asset ratios, income reports, profit and loss overviews

Customised reports and self generation of reports both using a de-facto database standard such as Microsoft SQL. The ability to integrate data from different systems to generate information dependent on cross-system data such as the effect of the PMS-held forward reservations on room yield and cost calculations. The ability to test future possibilities-the "What If" concept in project costing and profitability forecasting