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Tue 16 Mar 2010 04:00 AM

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Don’t be confused by convergence

In the first of a series of technology analyses from Mövenpick’s regional IT guru Roger McFarlaine, hoteliers come under fire for a lack of foresight. Future trends are just around the corner, not light years away — and there’s more to technology investment than dollars and cents, says McFarlaine.

Don’t be confused by convergence

I remember being laughed out of a boardroom 10 or so years ago when I suggested investment in convergence technology. I realised then that the education process of future technology trends must start now — so fast-paced is this sector that the developments we think are 25 years away inevitably turn out to be just five years round the corner.

Convergence technology is one such trend, and I am pleased to say that those that laughed at me soon returned with heads hung as they accepted it would be a huge asset for hotels.

For those that might still ask what convergence technology is, I can only reply ‘where have you been during the noughties’?

In brief, a converged network enables the deployment of many IT services on a single cabling architecture/network. For example, it is possible to run services such as data, voice, IP TV, CCTV, WiFi, BMS and multimedia on one cabling architecture regardless of their manufacturer.

In my view, it is common sense and good business that such services be leveraged off the existing infrastructure and core technologies.

Hotel chains and GMs should not be wary of such technologies and big buzz words, but rather embrace it as a product differentiator amongst those in their competitive set.

Maximising internet use and service is one way of setting your hotel ahead of the competition. For me, it is clear — providing broadband connectivity anytime, anywhere across the property is a strategic imperative across the industry. Today’s business travellers aren’t willing to slow down because they are not in the office and leisure guests expect to be able to share their experiences with loved ones through technology.

Wireless capabilities have become more widely deployed across devices and as a result, guests will increasingly expect to be able to access information and resources wherever they are.

Broadband connectivity also provides an infrastructure for hotel employees — such as event coordinators, maintenance and security personnel — to stay connected and thus be better able to respond to day-to-day challenges or emergency situations.

One such example of this process intuitive service is ‘one-stop-shop guest request tracking’, whereby a call received at a central service centre can be forwarded by a service representative to a ‘runner’ (equipped with a WiFi device anywhere in the hotel complex), who can service the request within minutes.

This is the sort of service that sets a hotel apart from the competition. With such an example, ROI should not be viewed in terms of dollars and cents alone but from many intangible rewards e.g. word of mouth, product differentiation and a competitive edge amongst those in our competitive set.

Recent findings and word from the field is that programmes like this one have improved hotel operational efficiencies by 100%. Hotels can’t afford to ignore this; it’s time to look at the middle line. To date, hoteliers have been very one-eyed, lacking the foresight to see what is going to happen down the track. Remembering that dollars and cents are just a small part of the picture will help the industry analyse the demand for technology more objectively.

Increased integration

This brings me to IP Telephony, which enables new phone-based services. It is an emerging technology that will be here to stay in the luxury hotel segment. With screen-based IP phones, there is now a more friendly approach to putting hotel personnel, services and any web-based multimedia information at the finger tips of their guests. For example, special promotions could be offered such as discounts to loyal guests on spa services during off-peak hours and accepted via a touch sensitive colour screen phone.

These primary in-room communications vehicles become ‘virtual concierges’ that enable enriched functionality like city maps and points of interest, internal and external advertising (as forms of direct and indirect revenue generating opportunities).

These complement IP TV for video on demand, music on demand and online games, to name just a few, providing a more holistic approach to enhancing the guest experience.

In my view the strategy for new hotels and hotel projects should be to look at greater levels of integration of applications and services with property management systems and the room environmental control system including temperature control, air circulation, lighting, and curtains.

This not only personalises a guest’s room to their likings during their stay, but actually saves the hotel monies in operating costs by way of more efficient use of room lighting and air conditioning.

And yes, this also means that this technology will make your hotel greener, but that is a subject for another column.

Guest relations

But why all the hoopla for network convergence and this new generation of technologies? For me, the answer is simple; it’s all about the experience we provide and guest recognition.

The aforementioned can be encapsulated by my favorite buzz word at the moment; digital profiling. Digital Profiling not only addresses guest preferences such as pillows, preferred wines and newspapers but addresses the physical attributes of the hotel room and its associated ‘physical’ environment. The above examples demonstrate just that.

Delivering rich and easily accessible ‘just in time’ service to its guests will set a hotel apart from the competition, while tapping into new revenue opportunities.

If hotel general managers and IT professionals are only now starting to think about the aforementioned then they have missed the boat. It is imperative all are on board because network convergence is a reality in the hospitality industry and the strategy to leverage this technology is pivotal if a hotel chain is to delight its guests and stay ahead of the pack.

About Roger McFarlaine

Mövenpick Hotels & Resorts vice president technology Middle East and Asia Roger McFarlaine has been an IT professional for close to 30 years, with experience ranging from computer operations, development and systems management.

As at one with the hotel industry as he is with technology, McFarlaine has worked across the world and also held regional positions with Marriott Hotels & Resorts and InterContinental Hotels & Resorts.

In his current role, McFarlaine manages a team of 23 IT managers and develops Mövenpick’s regional IT strategy, implement MIS/IT area strategic plans for existing and upcoming hotels, lead the development and deployment of network convergence and cabling architecture and further develop the in-room technology concepts.

A self-confessed hotel technology geek, McFarlaine aims to “lead the pack”, firmly believing that the technologies we think are 25 years away are actually going to be with us in under five years — meaning now is the time to invest for the future.

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