Friday, March 9, 2007

Integrated IT platform innovates, personalizes guest experiences

There’s no shortage of exciting, innovative technologies available to help hoteliers create unique, positive guest experiences. Such solutions can establish and reinforce guest loyalty while maximizing the profit potential of each guest. These solutions also unlock the power of valuable data that hotels routinely collect but rarely use effectively.

What’s stopping hoteliers from making use of these solutions? For the vast majority of hotel companies, it’s the lack of an integrated information technology (IT) platform. Without integration, hotel IT platforms require extensive proprietary interfaces in order to allow disparate systems and devices to work together and exchange information. That makes the prospect of implementing new value-added solutions seem too costly, too complex, and too time-consuming for many hospitality companies.

Hotel executives recognize the limitations of their existing IT platforms. These platforms often consist of proprietary systems that have traditionally been built up with either home-grown or vendor-specific one-off interfaces. Integrating systems was the number-one IT management challenge identified by respondents to the 2005 Lodging Industry Technology Study conducted by Hospitality Technology magazine.

The good news is that in many cases hotels can achieve integration using much of their existing IT and data sources.

Integration opportunities

Some hoteliers have taken the first steps toward creating a more integrated platform, or an “information hub,” that allows applications and systems to exchange data and seamlessly interact with each other. These information hubs can help hoteliers implement numerous value-added solutions that have an immediate positive effect on the guest experience. Some of the more innovative technologies already being deployed or just coming over the horizon include:

RF technology for cashless payments and location services: At check-in, guests and their family members are given radio frequency (RF)-equipped bracelets that allow them to charge meals, products, and theme park attraction tickets to a single guest folio. Equipped with both passive and active RF antennas, the bracelets also provide location services, allowing parents to use kiosks located throughout the hotel/resort property to discover where their children are at any given moment.

Customized guest experiences: Hotels can customize the guest experience by accessing a detailed profile of each guest and interfacing with a variety of room control systems. When a guest checks in, the hotel can adjust elements such as room temperature and lighting, as well as make sure the guest’s preferences in music and video entertainment are playing when they walk into the room. This personalization technology also gives guests greater control over the variables of their hotel stay, all controlled through the media center in their rooms.

Integrated room and food charges: For companies with multiple properties in one city, integration between hotels’ property management systems (PMS) and point of sale (POS) terminals allow guests to charge food and other purchases at sister hotels all over town back to their “home” room folio.

Establishing a platform for growth

Beyond the benefits of deploying these types of value-added solutions, establishing an integrated platform gives hoteliers the opportunity to transform their IT capabilities now and minimize risk in the future. “Hotels have a great need for centralized systems because the biggest question they always face is: Who owns the data that describes who their guest is?” says Tom Cooley, Microsoft platform strategy advisor. “As hotel people have realized that there’s real power in this information, it’s become a much hotter topic.”

Hotels that use Microsoft as the basis for their information hub gain access to proven technology and also have an easier time adopting state-of-the-art solutions offered by Microsoft partners. These hotels also create a technology platform that makes future change and growth simpler and more cost-effective. Hotels have a large investment in their existing hardware, software, and custom applications, but a Microsoft-based information hub allows them to make more out of their existing investment while still positioning the hotel for future growth.

“Everything we do is built on industry standards,” says Cooley. “In addition, hotels don’t have to connect their information hub to every single system they have right away. They can connect to the information hub in a manner and at a pace that’s conducive to how they want to run their businesses.”

Challenges of existing IT architectures

Once a standards-based information hub is established, a hotelier’s business needs can inform technology decisions, rather than vice versa. That’s a significant change for an industry that has struggled with the consequences of existing proprietary technology architectures.

“In a proprietary framework, when hotels want to expand, or their solutions are maturing and they want to add new services, they don’t have the ability to control their destiny,” notes Cooley. “Often they have to settle for a solution that doesn’t offer the feature functionality and capabilities they’re looking for. They also lose the ability to control costs that they would gain if they were able to truly establish a best-of-breed architecture.

“This can be a particular issue when they’re thinking of growing through acquisition and the acquired properties use a different set of technologies than the acquirer,” Cooley adds. “There are significant challenges of time and money in creating proprietary interfaces, and the combined hotel company may still lose the ability to present a singular, consistent experience to the guest.”

Unlocking siloed data

Centralized, integrated information hubs also give hoteliers access to what is possibly their greatest underused asset: the wealth of guest information trapped in siloed databases. These separate databases are located both within individual properties and throughout the corporate enterprise. Unlocking these databases and making information available to appropriate parts of the enterprise can improve the guest experience—and the guest’s profitability for the hotel. By collecting information from disparate systems, hotels can establish a “lifetime value” for each guest, based not simply on the number of stays but on usage of services such as golf courses, spa treatments, and entertainment.

“For casinos, this is even more important because they can tie into gaming information to identify that a particular guest is a ‘high-roller’ or prefers a particular slot machine,” notes Brad More, president of Theodatus, LCC. According to More, knowledge of a guest’s history allows any hotel to market more effectively, allowing them to, for example, target golf enthusiasts with news of an upcoming tournament.

Business benefits

Hotels can proceed at their own pace in making use of existing data to improve both the guest experience and their overall profitability. The key enabler is making use of a standards-based information hub and technology platform in order to achieve integration among disparate systems. “What we’re offering is the ability for hotels to take their traditional systems and marry them with these great, innovative technologies that our partners have available and are coming out with,” says Cooley. “Microsoft is also offering hoteliers the ability to enhance the value of the information they already have about their guests and their own systems, and use it to create a much richer experience for those guests.

“Creating a customized guest experience is an important differentiator from a business perspective, allowing these hotels to both retain existing guests and attract new guests,” he adds. “And they can do this by choosing the solutions that are most cost-effective and will have the greatest impact for their business.”

Learn more about Microsoft solutions

Learn more about how Microsoft business software solutions can help you solve your needs in the hospitality industry.

Contact us to request more information or to speak with a Microsoft representative.

Use Microsoft Solution Finder to search for solutions developed by Microsoft Certified Partners to meet the unique needs of your business or industry.