Industry Update
Opinion Article22 March 2017

Talking Tech with Carson Booth - HITEC Amsterdam Advisory Council Chair

The three-decade, hospitality technology expert, discusses why in a hospitality company's IT program it is important to make it flexible and customizable.

By Carson Booth, Board Member, HFTP

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This March 28–30, HFTP is producing its newest endeavor, HITEC Amsterdam, a smaller, boutique version of the ongoing, popular 45-year event. Helping to guide the educational component is long-time HFTP member, Carson Booth, vice president of global technology for Marriott International (Starwood). Using his expertise in the European, and international, hotel market, Booth leads a council of advisors to make the program uniquely European, with global appeal.


What were some technology challenges that you faced early in your career? What are some of the top challenges you are facing today in the workplace? And how are you resolving them?

I started my career in the late-'80s at the beginning of the technology revolution and have since witnessed the complete immersion of technology in most essential and non-essential activities. The evolution of usage went from users who were non-technical who then became tech-savvy, but still functioned well without the support of technology. Then as personal technology became universal, the tech-savvy user became tech-dependent. Extending further, we are now in the app era where users self-support personal experiences and expect accelerated technology release cycles with new functionality — always seeking something "more."

This ultimately results in the BYOD/BYOT blurring of business and personal use. Tech-dependence and devices in every pocket create very disruptive challenges to organizations trying to control the need for standard processes and data security against app-proliferation. Neither the food and beverage director, nor their niece, should be allowed to download an inventory management app. Or even more concerning, develop one themselves.

In addition to the BYOT concerns of today, technology sophistication, especially technology security, has far exceeded most skills and capabilities of today's property-based IT manager. This creates gaps in security and service levels. Fortunately, above-property solutions with professionalized service level agreements (SLA) and security management are now maturing and the whole industry will continue to benefit.

What technology developments interest you most and why?

Augmented Intelligence — The intersection of technology advancements in mobile and cloud computing delivers untethered, real-time information, communication and enhanced decision-making capabilities. The hospitality industry has a significant opportunity to profit from these advancements by recognizing that our guests are empowered by this intersection. Companies should redefine Data as an organizational strategic asset and build customer intelligence programs to leverage this data to ultimately provide a highly personalized experience for the guest.

Micro-services Architecture — Technology sophistication for an individual hotel has surpassed its ability to manage and secure it. This sophistication tipping point, along with industry advancements in cloud services, is driving technology above property and locking hoteliers into recurring services models where product suites can stagnate. Developers and suppliers that adopt a flexible, micro-services architecture will create a significant share shift by enabling a more flexible, open and modular approach to applications which suit an operation's needs and provides best product choice.

What are some consumer-driven technology practices that have driven technology applications in the hotel?

Portable personal content is driving two distinct changes in hotel technology. First, hotel internet service bandwidth continues to be a significant detractor to the customer experience. Customers compare the internet access speed/cost ratio against their home/consumer experience and place a very vocal, highly-weighted critique against operators delivering sub-par experiences. On-street mobile technology continues to improve in speed and data caps, and is also driving increased expectations for hotel internet access performance. I look forward to the day where this expectation peaks and the on-street and in-room connection experience is ubiquitous and indistinguishable, delivering an experience on-par with in-home Wi-Fi.

Second, viewership and purchase of hotel-supplied content continues to decline due to increasing customer expectations and desire for bespoke content and lineups. These expectations are supported by capacity increases of portable media devices and cloud services like Netflix, Amazon and iTunes. These services are driving the guest's desire to display their personalized content using the in-room television and media players.

What are some best practices you have for running an IT department in a field that is always changing?

The constant evolution of technology is unsustainable for the average individual hotel with limited resources. Hotels need to carefully prioritize their investment decisions and consider the following best practices:

Remain agile in product choice and contracting terms. The balance of right fit and terms needs to be weighed against medium- and long-term technology trends in the industry. Lengthy contract terms will hinder an organization's ability to pivot when necessary.

Keep it simple. If it feels complicated and is not well-understood, then it should be reconsidered and questioned more.

Spend constrained training funds on life-long learning skills and not on IT training. The technology of the day is transitory and so are the training investments in certifications for IT staff. It is more critical and will provide greater lasting value for IT teams to learn life-long skills like public speaking and financial management for non-finance people. The technical training can be on-the-job or self-study.

Become more agile and responsive to your business partners. Do this by adopting a DevOps approach which emphasizes collaboration and communication between involved parties to break down the silos of the legacy plan-build-run organizational structures. Your business teams will thank you.

Celebrate success. Digital/mobile teams receive more praise than IT due to the front-end nature of their solutions; however, do not forget their stuff is a pretty front-end for complex back-end systems and interfaces. So be sure to celebrate success across the entire technology spectrum.

Having worked in hotels across the globe, in what aspect do you see regional differences?

There are definite technology expectation and capability differences by region driven in large part by legislation, affordability and other market considerations. For example, in the U.S., convenience outweighs privacy. Therefore services like automated credit card settlement (chip/signature vs. more secure chip/pin) and keyless check-ins (registration-free) are examples of trading additional information or accepting greater data risk for quicker service.

Global and regional operators are constantly tasked with managing legislation and requirement variances across political-economic unions, like the EU and member-states. For example, the registration card remains paper-based across some EU countries, but not all. Variations in VAT and other fiscal requirements for receipts and financial processing need to be accommodated for; as well as, differences in data nationalization efforts for countries like Russia versus the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

In Asia, several differences are noticeable from highly-connected and automated Japan with pervasive 4G, cube and robot-staffed hotels, to solution inward-looking China which challenge global operators in their quest for operational, guest-service and data consistency.

There are broader inconsistencies in language requirements and staff capabilities, costs for internet services, currency exchange and average rates which impact solution affordability, as well as definite gaps in true global cloud service offerings and service-provider. Its complex and requires local knowledge with global coordination for the larger brands to efficiently deliver consistent technology solutions to enhance the customer experience.

Describe a professional experience that has stuck with you. What did you learn from this experience?

Many years ago, U.S. legislation drove the need for greater accountability in financial reporting for U.S.-owned assets held around the world. In Europe, we embarked on consolidating and raising above-property the hotel-based financial reporting systems for 68 hotels in 10 countries to a self-hosted private cloud service. We built and deployed a self-managed data center, created appropriate policies and processes, and brought the solution up technically. By today's capabilities, this seems an easy and natural solution, but at the time, it was new for our users and IT staff. This took an equally-significant effort to win their hearts and minds and to prove the solution provided the needed security and service levels.

This program has had three lasting effects. The first being, the program's IT processes and security program laid the foundation for Starwood's Global Information Security Policies and started the Information Risk Management program which is still deemed best in industry today. The second was the clear establishment of an above-property technology strategy for Starwood.

The third lasting effect, which is personal in nature, came with the realization that one success doesn't necessarily translate into a pattern. Fond memories remain of the spectacular failure of the immediate subsequent project to implement a hosted, enterprise project management solution for all departments. Learning how to develop and present a business case, bring others along and identify when to press ahead versus when to walk-away, is one of the most important lessons of my career.

Leadership and teamwork are always important. Describe an experience when you led and worked with a team to resolve an issue.

The decentralized property technology that remained local created an impediment to our company's strategy. Our team was tasked with identifying multiple paths to advance property technology agility, security and standardization across the globe. We brought together a small, but very capable team, to seek solutions internally and externally with major tier-1 technology partners.

Enterprise class solutions were preferred, but came with a significant cost premium which we knew the board would struggle to approve. Nine months of effort around design, scalability, iterative pricing negotiations and navigating the inherent sacred cows on both sides of the table, led to a tired and very frustrated internal team with significant personal/ownership stakes.

Finally, we had a proposal that we could present and defend to our senior leadership team, but we knew its price tag was a long shot and would come down to a few minutes pitch followed by a yes, revise or in this case, a no. Several weeks prior to this decision, it was important to start a coping process to help the team transition away from their personal ownership stakes and realize in any sizable business no one person can make all the decisions. Most importantly, this included helping them recognize that as a team the journey was a success regardless of the outcome.

HFTP's inaugural HITEC Amsterdam is the first of three HITEC events planned for 2017, and will take place 28–30 March at the RAI Amsterdam Convention Centre in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. The pre-conference events will take place on 28 March, followed by the full HITEC Amsterdam event featuring two full days of education, an expo and networking party. HITEC Amsterdam registration is now available on the HITEC Amsterdam website. Co-located with HITEC Amsterdam are two additional events brought by HFTP industry allies. The Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International (HSMAI) Region Europe will locate its Revenue Optimization Conference (ROC) with HITEC Amsterdam. Also co-locating is the Hotel Technology Next Generation (HTNG) Insight Summit Europe.

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RAI Amsterdam Exhibition and Convention Centre — Amsterdam - The Netherlands
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