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Mon 30 Oct 2006 04:00 AM

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Luxury lines

The Burj Al Arab is renowned for being luxurious and high-tech, recently upgrading its telephony systems to bring the hotel into the IP age. NME checks in to check out the award-winning project, and the Burj’s plans for the future.

|~|sabty200x.jpg|~|“It’s the most luxurious hotel in the world, and Jumeirah has focused on us, so we can’t afford to fail.” Frederick Sabty, IT director, Burj Al Arab.|~|Rising 321 metres above the sea, the filled-sail shape of the Burj Al Arab is one of the symbols of Dubai. But underneath the outer skin, the hotel also boasts some of the most advanced hospitality technology in the world.

The hotel is spending heavily to ensure its IT infrastructure and services remain not just world-class but bleeding edge. The current spending on IT at the hotel is around US$6.8 million.
One of the most impressive recent projects has been the NME 2006 Award-winning IP telephony implementation; the hotel has deployed an Avaya VoIP system, using East Meets West (EMW) as its integration partner.

While IT implementations are rarely (if ever) straight forward, deploying new systems at the Burj Al Arab, which is part of the Jumeirah group brings its own particular challenges, according to its director of IT, Frederick Sabty.

“We looked at all our systems about three years ago – trying to get the best product, finding the best company for the implementation,” Sabty says. “Because the product could be a beautiful product, but not having the right company to implement it could make it a disaster project for us.

“We tried to focus on getting a local vendor with local support, but also having the support of a big international brand – we didn’t want to buy from a company that is going to disappear after two months; even if it’s a good company, they can make a decision to leave a business.”

The Burj’s IT team, along with the Jumeirah group’s procurement department, set down a number of key criteria around a possible VoIP deployment. As Sabty explains, because the hotel is in many ways the flagship Jumeirah property, any major decision goes through a process at the group level. Sabty says that large purchases and projects now go all the way to Jumeirah’s current parent organisation, Dubai Holding. From the start of the IP telephony implementation, though, one requirement came to the top – no shutdown.

“When we went to IP, we had a lot of criteria requested: conference facilities; call centre facilities; web interface facilities; telephony through the PC,” says Sabty. “All these criteria were on the table, and they were difficult to provide through most vendors – each vendor said ‘yes, no problem’, but when it came to implementation they told us they would need to shut down everything and begin from scratch. This was never going to happen in the hotel.”

In contrast, the Avaya/EMW team were able to keep the hotel’s systems up and running throughout the implementation; the Burj also had an existing Avaya (then Lucent) PBX, installed seven years ago, which was upgradeable to IP telephony. As well as not shutting down to deploy, the hotel also needed a system which would be 100% reliable.

“The most critical factor was zero downtime – this was the most vital part, and we began from that,” explains Sabty. “For us, the suite begins with the telephone – if there’s no telephones, none of the 202 suites open their doors. Second was the ease of implementation – minimum disruption to the guests, and minimum disruption to the business.”

The VoIP implementation began in 2003, with the upgrading of the PBX and the start of the shift to IP phones in all of the suites. One advantage of moving to IP telephony is that the Burj was able to utilise its existing network infrastructure throughout the hotel – every room already has an Ethernet cable, which could be used to install the Avaya phone.

Aside from no downtime, the other critical factor for the hotel was the ease of use and the transparency of the technology. Catering to the rich and famous, not historically known for their patience or willingness to learn about IT, the Burj Al Arab cannot afford to offer guests technology with a steep learning curve – or preferably any learning curve at all.

“There are some guests who do want to see the IT, to see that the hotel is very high-tech – for these guests we can provide a high-tech touch panel remote control for the TV, for example,” says Sabty. “But others get frustrated, they just want to watch TV – press ‘on’ and go to channels one, two, three, four. So we have to mix and match, to keep everybody happy.”

The Burj’s IT deployments are ongoing – in order to maintain its reputation for luxury, the hotel has to keep innovating, especially in the area of technology, according to Sabty. One of the hotel’s tenets is never saying no to a guest, and this alone means its IT department must be ready to cope with any number of esoteric systems.

The next major networking step is set to be rolled out within the next two months, and will take the Burj Al Arab’s IP telephony system to the next level. The hotel is preparing to launch Wi-Fi VoIP phones, which will allow guests to roam throughout the hotel and grounds and remain in contact. Sabty says he and his team had to deal with a number of issues to make the deployment a success, especially security for the hotel’s core systems.

The Burj’s IT systems are set to evolve even more this year, with the announcement of the first Middle Eastern deployment of Windows Vista scheduled for this month, during Gitex – the OS will be used for guest laptops. This suggests a high level of confidence in Microsoft’s latest OS offering, because, as Sabty states: “We can’t break in the hotel – it’s the most luxurious hotel in the world, and Jumeirah has focused on us, so we can’t afford to fail.”||**||

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