Building Your Own Hospitality Technology Tool Belt
By Larry Mogelonsky, Managing Director Hotel Mogel Consulting Limited
Renovations on our 35-year-old home pose a never-ending battle of dust and noise. As the carpenters, electricians and plumbers scurried about during the most recent project, I noticed a remarkable corollary to our industry.
But we seldom make the connection in terms of a specialization of technology where, like a carpenter's hammer, each device or piece of software has a predefined range of functionality. Even though you wouldn't hire a plumber to do an electrician's job because he or she lacks the proper tools and expertise, the overarching goal of any laborer is to make the house work. As the home owner or contractor, it's your job to wrangle all these disparate parts.
Similarly, as a hotelier, you need to act as the project manager. Each piece of technology has a specific tool belt for very well-defined tasks that it can handle in order to optimize your business. While you don't necessary need to know the nitty gritty of how each part does exactly what it does, you must certainly know which piece is best suited for the job at hand. Just as you wouldn't want to hire a landscaper to fix your locks, you should aim to have a cursory understanding of the many technology resources available to your property so that you can make informed decisions as to how to allocate your budget accordingly.
I bring this now because, as I'm writing this, I've just gone over my notes from my visit earlier this year to the largest hospitality technology tradeshow in the world – HITEC. Held annually in late June, this convention is a literal celebration of technology, providing hoteliers with a gourmet smorgasbord of the latest high-tech tools designed to up your game, including the global mega-conglomerates like Oracle and Samsung to the first-timer startups occupying quaint ten-by-ten booths on the periphery of the convention floor.
For those with a hunger for gadgets and gizmos, there are enough grand ideas here to fill anyone's stomach. Everything is for sale, and there's quite a bit I'd recommend buying. Moreover, this show brings together some of the smartest minds in the industry, and collectively they can help you solve any problem at hand.
Technology will save our industry, even if it's carried out one hotel at a time. Coming off my tradeshow euphoria, I'd like to offer you an overview of not only what I saw at HITEC but also a practical guide on how to assess each piece of technology and give you a basic understanding of many company's offerings in the process.
It All Starts with Your PMS
Think of your PMS (property management system) as the hub of your property's technology tool belt. While at HITEC, I spoke with senior officers at Agilysys, Oracle, Infor, Amadeus, Maestro and Springer-Miller, easily representing most of the North American hotel installed base. Brilliantly conceived and expertly managed, all of these systems not only provide a foundation for the management of your rooms' inventory, but offer tremendous interconnectivity with other property operational systems.
The foremost duty of a PMS is to integrate and streamline all revenue streams, not necessarily to manage them. A modern PMS helps hotels automate complex data sources, forecast all revenue types by market segment and predict future interactions so that you can make the better decisions. And ultimately, these systems are now designed to help the senior executive team make the best possible choices for the rest of their businesses.
The sad fact, though, is that most property operators have barely tapped the surface of what their own systems are capable of. For example, PMS data automation can now anticipate customers exploiting the cancel-rebook loophole in search of lower price tags. Additionally, payroll management subroutines can highlight fruitful streams that are in fact underperforming when staff costs are recognized.
By most estimates, the average PMS has under 10% total utilization, and there is a vast swath of features that managers would benefit from learning more about. Many of the modules designed to optimize various aspects of your operations are either already incorporated within the system you currently own or are in the development pipeline. So, before you whimsically surmise that you need a new system, talk it over with your PMS rep in order to discover of else they can help you fully utilize the software. Moreover, shopping for a new PMS is not something you want to undertake lightly, as conversion can be an excruciating, labor-intensive affair. It's a nightmare, really, and there's also a chance of lost guest profile data.
Linking to your PMS are a number of revenue, forecasting and channel management tools, all helping augment each department's profitability. This is a rapidly growing field with many entrants which makes it hard to pick a clear best of show. Functionality sets differ, so your choice will be based upon your property type and business style. Among the ones that should be on your review list are Rainmaker, Duetto, TravelClick360 and Siteminder.
From the PMS to Your Guest
Whereas the PMS is your inventory backbone, what matters to your guest is your website and that all-critical booking interface. Your customer doesn't see the PMS and will never interact with it directly. Instead of looking at tables and reams of data, they want simplicity, imagery and fluidity in how they are guided through the electronic experience.
Technology in this regard has seen tremendous improvements, as the UX (user experience) has been at the forefront of all B2C software design. Given how tech savvy the average traveler is nowadays, if your website doesn't wow a potential guest will powerful visuals, fast page load speed, a pleasing layout and interactivity, he or she will go somewhere. Most importantly, you have to think mobile, as this mode has crossed the 50% threshold of bookings and an even higher proportion of travel-related searches.
If your property is branded, with a web presence limited to a corporate site, spend a few minutes to review your pages from both an iPhone and Android as this replicates what your prospective guests will first encounter. Make any necessary alterations to the web text and photos – which will be in your control and not bogarted by your corporate overlords – to effectively communicate your value proposition as best you can. Think keywords; think telling a succinct story; think giving customers the most pertinent information as quickly as possible.
For independents as well as properties where the brand authorizes vanity sites, there is a plethora of terrific tools available to enhance your presence. For starters, do a competitive analysis to see how your website stacks up with the competitive from a UX point of view. Does your website fit a modern design with seamless animation, striking photography and everything accessible from the homepage? In more ways than one, websites are like cars; an old clunker can still get you from Point A to Point B, but it won't be turning heads on the street nor will any of your friends feel safe going for a ride. As a rule of thumb, if your website is over five years old, it's definitely time for a change.
If you can't afford a complete redo of your online presence, there are quite a few 'bolt on' solutions to help you deliver a satisfying online experience. One new software enhancement that should be on your radar is Crowdriff, a service that loads photography from social media social media directly onto your site. The net result is a cornucopia of authentic imagery of real people doing real things. This not only adds value to your site, but also provides a meaningful context to what the prospective guest will experience. In terms of online booking engines, most independent properties are free to choose their own interfaces, creating a burden to ensure you choose a functional, secure version while also affording you the opportunity to further differentiate your branding. Looking at the most cost effective, companies such as b4CheckIn provide the latest in good UX coupled with a host of further guest-related enhancements.
Learning about how guests feel about your property is now a function of social media aggregate software platforms that integrate your entire digital presence from Facebook and Twitter to TripAdvisor and Yelp onto one dashboard for real-time management. These tools are now essential to have on your belt as they will give you invaluable insights as to what your guests emotionally value and if there are any easy opportunities for improvement. Keeping track of your channels any other way is no longer possible given the tight allocation of resources to this aspect of operations.
Services such as Revinate not only capture every review, but continuously monitor and note changes. You can also compare your scores versus that of your key competitors and develop performance benchmarks. Thinking more in terms of proactive and less reactive, platforms such as Kaptivating work to actually identify potential guests – or 'in market' travelers as they are now called – through their social media tweets, allowing you to introduce your property early on in the research process.
Back of House
Just as you utilize programs to maximize revenue in terms of occupancy and revenue, there are numerous technology tools available to boost your team's productivity. Ensuring productivity means getting the most out of your employees in addition to heightening accountability and finding those eager staffers to be earmarked for promotion.
Consider housekeeping – labor intensive yet critical for ensuring your guests' satisfaction. Just look at any hotel's TripAdvisor page to confirm this. Consider programs like Knowcross that allow you to optimize your housekeeping efforts, not only by improving productivity, but also by augmenting the overall quality of the team's work via granular management of supplies and time. Furthermore, housekeeping is your most injury-prone department. Keeping your custodians healthy can be optimized by new training programs like Novility which start by offering many of the proper accountability and tracking tools, and then directly enhance housekeeper performance through motion sensor guided training programs.
Secondly, maintenance is vital. Caught in time, small repairs can be undertaken quickly and cost effectively to prevent out-of-order inventory or guest-identified issues. But how do you get the information to your engineering team so that they can react in real-time? Consider a product like HotSOS that helps your cleaning staff immediately record anything they see that is out of order and electronically transmit this information to the switchboard. With this mature and many others already in the 'mature' phase, there is no reason for you not to have a rapid response internal communications tool so that pesky problems never become obstacles to guest satisfaction.
For every supplier or vendor, there are many competitors, so this list is in no way complete. I have not even mentioned the wide variety of bespoke guest mobile apps, contemporary food and beverage delivery programs or specialized tools for golf, spa and even parking.
The best way to start is to define your needs or objectives, then establish parameters to evaluate return on investments. You will find that some tools are used more often will become essential for your belt, while others merely look good but offer limited or narrowcast benefits.
Importantly, though, there has never been a better time to start shopping for additions to your hospitality tool belt. If you have a pain point, there is definitely a technology solution out there. And lastly, be sure to mark your calendar and attend next year's HITEC, set for late June 2017 in my hometown of Toronto.
(Article published by Larry Mogelonsky in Today's Hotelier on October 3, 2016)