By Sathya Mithra Ashok
Swanky and sophisticated, the Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi has built a name as one of the best hotels in the region. Sathya Mithra Ashok chatted with Hakam Sourani, director of IT for the hotel, on how technology has helped to establish the hotel as a luxury haven.
ACN: Could you give us an idea of the IT infrastructure in place at the Emirates Palace hotel?
The hotel was very conscious of technology and the benefits it can bring in the long run. This is why the hotel management planned and designed for futuristic IT implementations from day one. The infrastructure that we have today is one of the best that you would find in the hospitality sector in the region.
The entire hotel has been linked on fibre cable which provides 1Gb/sec bandwidth connectivity. The backend includes IP networks for voice and video connectivity, audio visual systems and also security elements. These networks are either separated physically or with VLANs.
Internet connectivity is provided to rooms at a throughput of 8Mbps. Wireless connectivity is provided throughout the hotel using Cisco Wi-Fi systems.
We have an integrated data centre on site, with consolidated server and storage architecture and adequate inbuilt redundancy.
All controls in the guest room are automated and can be controlled through a handheld device. We have a Room Management system in place as well.
The backend infrastructure has been built to last for at least five years.
We have a 35 member IT and AV staff. We also have a dedicated help desk that is manned by ten to 11 people and provides support to administration and guests. We have an internal software and projects team which works on different programmes at any one time.
ACN: What have been the major technology changes in the hospitality sector?
The most critical thing that has changed in technology to hotels has been the increase in Internet bandwidth provision. The second is the increasing use of interactive systems in rooms across phones, TVs and other equipment.
Guests today expect more. They want video and voice on demand, they want to digitally check bills from their room, they need to connect to the net more easily. Guests expect the home and office environment in a hotel room. And that is what you have to unfailingly provide with technology.
ACN: What are the biggest challenges you face as the CIO of a luxury hotel?
The Emirates Palace hotel is huge. That is a massive challenge. You have to find the proper resources in terms of manpower and technology to manage it. It also needs a huge amount of co-ordination and integration of applications. Everything in the hotel is connected to something else. For example, the phones link to the property management system, the billing system and others. All of this has to work together smoothly.
Providing the guests who visit our hotel with the right technologies and supporting them are also major challenges. There is an educative role that is needed of the IT team in familiarising the guests with the technology implementations in the hotel. Guests might come in with different laptops, various security configurations and demands for diverse kinds of connectivity to corporate networks. They will also have requests based on their relative importance. For example, a guest might need several telephone lines, fax connectivity and even a separate network for the net. All of this has to be taken care of by the IT team ass promptly as possible.
ACN: What advice would you give to any chief information officers new to working in the hospitality sector?
CIOs in the hospitality sector need to pay more heed to operations and how IT integrates at that level. They will have to understand the needs and challenges of operations. The face of IT has gone through a sea-change in recent times. There was a time in the past when the IT manager reported to the financial department. Now, the IT manager reports to the top management at any large organisation. And this practice is constantly growing.
At that level, I have found that it is often better that IT managers come from an operations background. People with IT backgrounds tend to think technical almost always, while those with an operations backing, think in terms of needs and challenges. It is necessary that IT managers understand the business considerations of the organisation to provide satisfactory solutions.
ACN: What are the projects that you are working on currently for the hotel?
We want to provide a permanent laptop in all the rooms so that guests do not have problems with their devices. We also want to have more advanced features in existing interactive systems. We are also considering putting in place a tracking technology for people and assets in the hotel. This would enable us to find things at any location in the hotel premises.
We are also working on network bandwidth management elements which would allocate bandwidth to guests based on what they are using the internet for.
The new role of Project Manager for IT has been created within the technology team to initiate and follow up on such projects.
ACN: What is your vision for IT in Emirates Palace? What changes would you be putting in place?
Simplification - that is the larger goal of the IT team at the hotel. We want to achieve a balance where we add more technology but constantly simplify the usage and processes linked with implementations.
This will lead to a better user experience for the hotel's guests and visitors.
We frequently follow up on changing requirements in the hotel, work the points out and create projects that enhance or simplify existing systems. This is a continuous process.
The hotel is one of a kind in terms of operations, IT, equipment, maintenance and support. It is a bit like a big company that has many branches housed in one building. Its sheer size presents many challenges for the IT team and drives the need to simplify process and infrastructure.