Digital hoteliers

The Internet has changed the way the hospitality industry does business. CNME speaks with IT professionals in the sector to find out more about these changes, their latest investments and the way forward.

The hospitality industry is one of the main engines for growth in the global economy, driven by a strong international tourism sector and an increasingly robust business outlook. Within this global growth outlook, a focused online business strategy is beginning to be of relevance to the hospitality sector, especially so in the Middle East.

Bertram Shajiev, IT Manager at Dusit Thani in Dubai says, “We believe that IT provides the right platform that the hospitality sector needs for optimum operations. Right from check-in to check-out, IT has enabled an automated tracking and billing system for the services the guest uses during his stay. If this was done manually it would take hours and customers don’t have that kind of time on hand to wait around.”

The Middle East is one of the world’s most promising tourist destinations. At the Euromonitor International World Travel Market Vision Conference earlier this month, the company predicted that hotel sales across the Middle East and Africa will grow by more than 12% tosurpass US$313 billion by 2012.

According to many in the industry, this growth surge is partly attributable to the use of the Internet by travellers and travel sales staff. According to Euromonitor International Travel and Tourism Industry analyst Nadeja Popova, this trend is set to continue through the next 5 years.

As more customers move online to book and plan their trips, the hospitality industry is capitalising on the convenience of the Internet, by offering customers more opportunities online. The phenomenal abilities provided by the Internet has enabled the industry to go beyond traditional obstacles and operational barriers and provided them enhanced access to a global market, and a much wider audience.

Azhar Farook, IT manager at MövenpickHotel & Residence Hajar Tower — Makkah says, “ICT developments combine features ofthe remote, home and mobile office to give us instant access to business communications from any point in the world, and this works in any organisation’s favour.”

“In 2010, we witnessed continuous increase in our room booking through the internet from January to December – and we anticipate this trend to be the same for 2011,” says Fouad Melhem, GM of the Al Diar Siji hotel in Abu Dhabi. According to him, the hotel’s internet booking doubled year-on-year
in 2010.

“Internet booking is really a growing channel. Aside from this, we attribute the significant increase of our internet bookingsto the fact that we have also increased our online marketing budget, and we plan tocontinue to maximise this channel to bring in more business to the hotel,” explains Melhem.

Investment synopsis

Following this trend in the industry, IT teams at hotels are investing in increasingly sophisticated websites to keep customers updated on the latest deals and developments, as well as to provide these customers a clearer idea of the services the hotel has to offer. Consequently, internal IT teams have
to work extra hard to ensure that the backends operate efficiently so as to ensure that online services are available at all times, and ultimately aid guest relations.

Maintaining an efficient online presence often involves merging back office applications with administration and accounting data, as well as front office customer relations, to ensure that customer
enquiries and confirmations are passed onto the right people. It also involves ensuring that the reservation department is linked to a central system. This in turn means connecting internal systems to portals like the Global Distribution System (GDS) and Online Travel Agents (OTA), as well as other guest connect websites and call centre services.

According to Farook, “This increased connectivity also enables proper record keeping of reservations, so that the front desk is prepared with key cards, room assignments, and meal plans in addition to
which, guest relations are better prepared to provide customised services to suit the guest’s detailed requirements.”

Record keeping in turn enables better guest profiling and maintenance of customer databases. This is especially helpful in the case of repeat customers, where hotels can serve customers specialised needs with the information residing in their own databases and records. Hotel staff can also structure frequent lodger programmes and discounts based on the profiles they have developed of their repeat customers.

Realisation of the importance of customer profiling has led many a hospitality IT team to invest in the latest CRM tools to help them maintain these records. These tools enable automated profiling and storage of a guest’s previous experiences with the hotel, the services he/she most commonly used and what more they needed (derived from feedback forms) to ensure repeat visits and satisfied clients.

Shafaat Rasool Hashmi, marketing manager at Range Hospitality says, “Ourkey investment has been in an interactive system for online enquires related to fractional ownership. We basically have an online setup where users can register their basic details and the screen displays all 12 months of the year. Oncethe user decides on the suitable period to travel he can choose the unit and month, with prices that vary according to peak periods as per the Islamic calendar. This is a convenient way to register an enquiry. The online setup is backed up by an SQL server and our database is updated regularly through automation. The set up also allows customers the ability to make amends to their enquiries.”

Range Hospitality has also invested in a customised CMS system that provisions an automated link connecting the hotel’s social media platforms and website to the hotel’s database. “The system tracks comments on social networking sites as well as on our website and these comments are automatically updated in our online guest feedback portal enabling better quality assessment. The hotel has also incorporateda solution that enables automated FAQs. This solution enables faster response to customer enquiries regarding our fractional ownership programme and questions concerning general enquiries,” says Hashmi.

While hotels work to make sure their interface with customers and the relevant backend is equipped to handle the changing needs of customers, they are also working to equip the workforce within hotels to be more proactive to guest demands.

“Equipped with BlackBerries and laptops the sales force and other employees are updated on their organisation’s operations at all times. They can actively check databases, ensure room availability and ongoing room rates via these communication channels,” explains Sachith Saranga, IT specialist at the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza.

The mobility enjoyed by internal staff are often extended by the well established hotels to their guests as well. Many of them, like the UAE based Jumeirah Group and the Accor group of hotels, offer their guests access to mobile apps and browser based services that enhance the travellers experience.

Mobility in the hospitality industry in the region is backed by investments in the networking arena, specifically in Wi-Fi technology and IP telephony.

“The reason to invest in the latest technologies is twofold, to provide better service to our customers who require 24/7 connectivity at efficient speeds and aid internal management and communications. Customers want efficient Wi-Fi connections and IP telecom technology, while we need efficient solutions for the front desk as well as database management,” says Shajiev.

Made to order

Increasing investment dollars in the hospitality sector of the region are being spent not just on Internet and backend solutions, but also the basic bricks-and-mortar solutions of IT, namely HRM, accounting, financials, building management and engineering, asset tracking and maintenance, material control,
restaurant POS systems, security, storage and backup, in addition to dedicated services for operational efficiencies.

More often than not these take the shape of customised solutions that work to offer a competitive edge by adding unique services to the portfolio that is offered to customers.

Says Farook, “The projects we have invested in facilitate operational efficiency for each of our different departments. For instance, for guests who interact with our online portals for reservations either
directly or through a third party site, we have developed a professional confirmation letter with imprinted marketing information called Sarinata mail. This has done away with the labour-intensive process of sending a manual letter or email, relieving our reservation folk to concentrate on other activities that will ensure a better experience for the guest when he is staying with us.”

Movenpick Hotel & Residence Hajar Tower-Makkah has also customised a portal for in-house guest requests. These requests are handled by a specialised department called Guest Service Centre, which coordinates with the service department and tracks the request till the task pertinent to the same is completed.

“The guests need not interact with all departments (laundry, housekeeping, front office, maintenance and room service) due to the establishment of this unified platform. We have also introduced iPads for Internet users and attractive large digital signage along with small information display screens. The restaurants are equipped with MICROS terminal, Wi-Fi ATM machines, IP phones and meal orders can be directly sent to kitchen printers,” he adds.

Farook and his team are also working on introducing a unique system to control guest access to restaurants during peak seasons like the Holy month of Ramadan. “Having more than 3500 guests checked-in to the hotel and an additional 500 guests visiting the restaurants during meal times is a big challenge. Thus, we are working on an automated system to identify a guest and his meal entitlement using ‘keycards’ to update the PMS automatically. This will be a dual interface and three companies are working with us on the project,” explains Farook.

According to him, the hotel is also considering introducing iPads to replace restaurant menu cards. These iPads will also be used to demonstrate hotel facilities at the time of check-in, highlight special services and also carry specific advertisement clips promoting the holy city of Karbala.

Room for more

Although IT decision makers within the hospitality industry are generally satisfied with the solutions and software that vendors in the region provide, many believe that there is yet room for customisation. Saranga says, “I think vendors need to develop user friendly solutions, so as to reduce the uptime and improve efficiency when servicing customers, specifically for front desk operations and quicker check-in facilities.”

Farook says, “The local vendors must work on a unique system of managing ‘hotel assets’ with hardware, software and bar coding systems. It should be a convenient, easy management system involving less data entry. This is a major lacking point in the market and certain items like Teledex bathroom phones, CCTV recording and telephone call recording for digital products needs added services and better products in the market.”

Hashmi says, “There is no denying the skills gap in the region and this can only be dealt with through sufficient training. Vendors need to be able to provide experienced service
staff to ensure efficient and rapid response
to problems or errors when their customers
deploy technology; this is part of what the
customer expects when he signs a contract
with a vendor.” He continues, “There exists a lack of one stop shops in the Middle East, a vendor who can provide us a complete suite of products and solutions that may be integrated with all brands of hardware. This is largely missing in the market and this is something Vendors need to focus on. We don’t want to deal with multiple service teams.”

IT decision makers within the hospitality sector in the Middle East also feel that introducing more competition in the telecom sector would ensure provision of better telecom and Internet services at competitive costs. Traditionally, Internet and communication costs in the Middle East are far more expensive compared to other countries. Lowering these costs would be beneficial to the guests using these services as well as to the organisation that caters to these guests.

PhoCus Wright Global Online Travel Overview’s second edition report predicts that travellers will book one third of the world’s travel sales online by 2012. The survey, which polled over 600 corporate travel buyers, agents, hospitality and travel professionals across the globe reported that 71% of these professionals ranked Wi-Fi as the most important technology solution that should be included in standard hotel rooms.

Additionally, 80% of those surveyed said that they would like to see mobile applications offering suggestions on restaurants and lounges around the hotel locations.

Visualising promising growth in the hospitality sector and the increased use of online and mobile channels of communication by their customers indicates more investment in ICT from this sector. Travel Facilitator, an online resource for the hospitality sector, says that hotels who deploy new technologies to deliver smoother, memorable customer experiences will be winners in the emerging
hospitality 3.0 landscape.

This much is true, as the economy continues to recover from the recession the hospitality sector will continue to grow and this naturally means greater investments in ICT solutions and software to service hotel guests. We can say without any doubt that these burgeoning investments are just the tip of the ice berg.

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