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Sun 20 Nov 2005 04:00 AM

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Five-star upgrade

Al Habtoor Hospitality has deployed a fully converged IP voice and data network to provide advanced communication capabilities across its UAE hotels. ACN’s Sarah Gain paid a visit.

|~||~||~|The Al Habtoor Group owns and operates hotels throughout the Middle East through its subsidiary Habtoor Hospitality. Established more than 25 years ago, the Dubai-based international hotel company is a leader in the local hospitality market and is determined to retain this position. “To stay ahead of the field we need to continually reassess our level of service quality,” says PK Ravi, IT manager at the Habtoor Grand Resort & Spa. “Our new technology investments will enable us to provide even better service to our customers and reinforce our position at the top.”

The exponential increase of visitors to the Middle East as a whole is forcing the hospitality and leisure sector in the region to adopt a more strategic approach to operations. Al Habtoor Hospitality has been striving to find ways to keep apace with the competitive demands of brand differentiation and customer retention while trying to curb expenditure. “The hospitality sector in the Middle East, especially in the UAE, has become highly competitive, and differentiation relies very much on building a reputation for luxury, elegance and superior customer service,” confirms Rahim Abu Omar, chief executive of Habtoor Hospitality at the Group.

In light of this, the Al Habtoor Group required a solution that could deliver an affordable, highly responsive, full-service hotel environment based on an integrated voice and data network with hospitality-based services. “By converging data and voice communications on a common IP network infrastructure we found that we could minimise the overall costs of communications, building and management,” explains Ravi.

The VoWLAN solution, designed to support campus mobility, enables Habtoor Hospitality to improve customer responsiveness by allowing mobile staff in different service and engineering departments to replace unpredictable walkie talkie systems and expensive GSM communication with VoWLAN headsets. “The employees used to communicate interdepartmentally via GSM. This was very expensive and inconvenient,” explains Ravi. “Now the employees are able to roam around while still remaining accessible and connected, and the costs have been greatly reduced.”

The new solution provides applications such as VoWLAN at the poolside and in other public areas, internet protocol (IP) telephony, and an interface between the property management systems (PMS) and the billing systems. “By seamlessly integrating IP telephony with a WLAN infrastructure, and in turn with the back-end systems, the users have been provided with high quality mobile voice and data communications throughout the hotel premises. This is particularly useful in the restaurant and for the maintenance and housekeeping departments where staff are always on the move,” Ravi enthuses. “It allows us to be more responsive to our customers’ needs.”

According to Ravi, the hotel group chose Nortel to deliver the new solution for the vendor’s track record in the hospitality sector, where it has previously delivered customised solutions to a number of major organisations with similar requirements. Al Habtoor Group selected the vendor’s IP telephony Communication Server 1000, which provides unified messaging and a secure integrated WLAN. The core data network consists of Nortel’s Ethernet Routing Switches 8600 and 5520, which deliver power over Ethernet to the edge. “The solution comprised all the elements we needed, from the handsets and infrastructure to the open application interface… it is secure, adaptable and cost-effective — everything we were looking for.”

Habtoor Hospitality completed the deployment in conjunction with Nortel’s channel partner in the UAE, PACC Mideast Data Systems. From planning to rollout, the deployment took only six weeks, with cutover to the new system being completed in just one night, according to Ravi. “It was very important to us that we could carry out the implementation with a minimum of disruption to the hotel guests,” the IT manager says. “The switch-over occurred in just a few hours in the middle of the night to ensure there was no disturbance.”

Having gone live in September, the new solution is now being managed via Nortel’s enterprise management system. Engineers from Nortel’s partners, PACC, are also still onsite to provide assistance and support as Al Habtoor adjusts to the new systems, but will hand over the day-to-day running to the company’s in-house IT department once the team is up to speed. “PACC’s experience and knowledge have supported us in this deployment and have helped us make it a success. Because we planned thoroughly, there have been no major complications and all in all the transition has been easy,” enthuses Ravi.

The VoWLAN communication system is now providing call processing and telephony features to the Al Habtoor Group’s four properties in Dubai, as the group has made the new technology standard across all of its hotels. The solution has simplified the company’s network dialling plan, increased scalability and simplified system management. “The solution comprises a great many features,” says Ravi. “We now have conference calling, call forwarding and transfer, caller ID and much more.”

Ravi says the hotel group is now able to exploit the full flexibility of its IP network as the solution has ensured its new technology is specifically tailored to meet Al Habtoor’s needs. The VoWLAN solution provides the high-availability necessary for the business, according to Ravi, who adds that the communication network has contributed to improved staff efficiency. The IT manager is also confident that the group will continue to reap return on its investments in the long term. “The benefits delivered by the system will continue to save us money in the future. As our business grows, the solution will grow with us, protecting our investment,” he says.

Al Habtoor is now turning its attention to maximising the potential of the new technology. The group is examining the possibility of expanding VoWLAN to all guest rooms over the next twelve months, and is also evaluating the viability of providing a guest service centre and adding text messaging capabilities to the existing services package. “Now that we have the infrastructure implemented we will be able to maximise value and quality for our customers with minimum effort and investment on our part,” says Ravi.||**||

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