InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) is one of the largest hotel groups globally, with around 97 properties in the Middle East and Africa alone. It boasts of some of the brand names as such InterContinental, Crown Plaza, Holiday Inn, to name a few.
In a high competitive market, IHG has been investing heavily in the technology infrastructure to maintain its competitive edge and has many technology firsts to its credit. IHG was the first hotel group to have a centralised reservation system in place, which was conceived way back in 1965 and also the first chain ever to have a web site for hotel reservation, which started in 1992. In the Middle East, IHG was the first to have converged infrastructure in hotels running triple play services.
“All of our hotels have a fully fledged IT infrastructure to cater to guest needs and business support systems. With internet becoming most of a utility in hotels, most of our work is centred around that,” says Ali Saeb, Director of Technology, IHG. While the group has a de-centralised IT architecture in place, some of the core applications such as property management systems, central reservation system hosted on the central data centre based in Atlanta, most of the other applications are hosted within small data centres within hotels, which are linked back to the central one through a VPN link.
Saeb says there is a reason why he chose this model, instead of a centralised one. “The current challenge in the Middle East is connectivity and cost of bandwidth. So from a design and RoI perspective, we try to push more things into the hotels, and we will adopt a different model once the cost of bandwidth comes down.”
Last year, IHG has undertaken a major upgrade of its technology infrastructure to keep pace with high user expectations. The complete network was refreshed in terms of backbone, core switches, distribution switches and major focus has been on wireless connectivity. In the hotel business, Wi-Fi reliability can be the difference between getting guests or not. “Access to Wi-Fi is almost mandatory and guests make decisions on whether a hotel has adequate wireless service. A big population of our hotels have a very good wireless infrastructure in place and we have worked very closely with technology partners to come with a design that made sure that there are no issues related to spotty coverage. We are still on that journey and Internet and connectivity are not luxuries anymore,” says Saeb.
IHG is also one of the pioneers in converged infrastructure. The group was the first to have a completely converged infrastructure running triple play services at the City Stars Hotel in Cairo in 2001, which was followed by properties in Lebanon and Kuwait. “Right now, we have more than 80 of our hotels on a converged infrastructure running triple play services,” says Saeb.
Unified communications is another area of focus for IHG, which has deployed a range of innovative communications solutions including in-room management, staff mobility solutions, and contact centre solutions. “UC is a journey we started way back in 2001 and it was the first Cisco installation in a hotel. Currently, we do have partner with both Cisco and Avaya to enhance collaboration levels,” says Saeb.
Saeb believes in keeping things simple when it comes to guest-facing technologies. “To enhance in-room guest experience, we are trying to do things in a way that added value and we don’t want to overload guest rooms with gadgets. TV is focal point of technology in terms of guest rooms, and we have done lot of work with TV suppliers to develop smart TVs that can capture information about user behaviour.”
IHG’s mission statement is to place hotel at the heart of technology and cloud computing is one of the things on Saeb’s agenda. “We don’t want to get sucked into networks and technology. We are a hospitality company and what matters is our guests and employees. We already have our email infrastructure on cloud and we are looking to use cloud for other application depending on partners, market and location,” he adds.
(We spoke to Ali Saeb on the sidelines of CIO Summit MENA in Doha, organised by GDS International)