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Sun 4 May 2008 04:00 AM

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Making the call

Kuwait's Holiday Inn Kuwait deployed IP telephony from the start, tackle a number of challenges.

The Holiday Inn Kuwait deployed IP telephony from the start of the hotel build, and had to tackle a number of challenges to win through and deploy successfully.

"We wanted this hotel to have high-tech facilities in the rooms, in terms of internet, interactive TV, and in terms of telephones.

By the end of 2006 we faced a number of problems with Cisco's BBSM system.

We wanted to have a competitive edge in the Kuwaiti market, we wanted to be different to the other hotels," explains Carlos Malliaroudakis, the current general manager of the Holiday Inn Downtown Kuwait, when asked why the hotel decided to install an IP telephony system right from the start of the property's development.

Although IP phones are becoming more commonplace, many regional hotels still lack the technology, relying instead on older PSTN PBX systems.

While it can be understandable to not want to rip and replace a telephony system in an existing hotel - especially something familiar and reliable - the Holiday Inn brand's parent company, Intercontinental Hotels Group (IHG), along with many others, now mandates IP telephony for its new projects.

"We started the hotel from scratch with IP phones, with Cisco - Cisco is our standard, within IHG," elaborates Tamer Sherif, IT manager at the hotel.

"We're following our group standard - we need to have Cisco, there's no other choice for us. We needed to have the latest technology, and not to upgrade every year - we were looking for a long-term approach."

The hotel's initial management team, which included Sherif, but under a different GM, started planning for the project in 2005, and had the IT systems - including the IP phones - ready for the scheduled opening on 22 March 2006. To reach this point was not plain sailing however.

"During the installation, the project manager at our integrator left the company in the middle of the project, and his replacement didn't have much experience in the hotel industry and with hotel projects. He faced a lot of challenges during the implementation - it took time, but by the end he solved all the problems he encountered. He didn't have the experience to do this from the start, though - there was no significant handover between bosses," says Sherif.

He also explains another technical, problem he and his staff faced: "The Cisco switches were not capable of supplying all the 7970 telephone sets with power. The switches could only supply power for 11 rooms per floor, not 12 - so we had to put an adaptor in for the 12th room."Despite these issues, the hotel's team completed the project on time, and rolled out a number of services through the IP phones. To date, these include viewing the bill, checking weather forecasts, and browsing the hotel's service directory - usually seen in a bulky leather-bound book.

"Previously we used to have the services directory, which was a printed document that customers used to take pages out of, and write on. With this phone feature, it's a very user-friendly service - it also includes a city guide and guest messages," explains Malliaroudakis.

He adds that his staffs are making sure guests are aware of how to use the system: "What we're doing is trying to be proactive - we have trained our bell-boys, our concierge staff and our front-desk agents on the features available and how to use the IP phones. Whenever a guest is escorted to a room, one of the things the concierge or bell-boy will do is guide the client quickly through the features on the phone and how to use it, so the client will feel more comfortable with it. Usually clients are happy with the system - and we don't receive any calls saying the system is difficult, or asking how to retrieve messages and so on."

At the moment the Holiday Inn is not pushing any revenue-generating services through its IP phones - instead it is using the technology as a "value-add" for guests, and to boost the hotel's image, by listing IP telephony along with internet access and cable TV as services.

However, the current network deployment within the hotel has caused some problems for Sherif: "By the end of 2006 we faced a number of problems with Cisco's BBSM system. This is the system which is responsible for giving internet access to any guest within the hotel - wired or wireless."

"But after one year, the vendor told me there would be no support from Cisco for this system as it was obsolete, and there was no replacement. In 2007 we started facing problems with Windows Vista - we looked into it, and discovered that BBSM was not able to supply IP addresses to Vista systems. We asked Cisco to help solve this problem - it told us sorry, there is no support," he adds.

The hotel is now running without the Cisco system, and is simply assigning guest IP addresses from the core switch. Sherif states that this will be a problem if policies change.

"Now we are working without BBSM - fortunately internet access is free in the hotel, so we do not have to use it. Otherwise we would have to throw out Cisco. All the IP addresses are now distributed by the core switch. If the hotel decides to charge guests for internet access, I will need to change from Cisco, as there is no way we can use the system with the Cisco hardware," he explains.

Both IT and general manager seem happy with the current system and Sherif is now looking ahead to IHG's next hotel project in Kuwait, which will see it opening a 340-room Intercontinental hotel by the end of 2009.

He is looking forward to working with Cisco again, but this time states his desire that the vendor maintains direct involvment in the project, in preference to local partners.

"For this project I will need more input from Cisco, rather than relying on local partners. We need support direct from Cisco. To be honest, I do not trust in the local partners here. They are all showing me a lot of certificates from Cisco, and by the end I've lost faith," he concludes.

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