By Louise Oakley
From safely storing data to the future of cloud computing, hotel IT managers tap in to the technology issues making an impact on your hotel.
Long gone are the days when the IT manager was seen as the company’s ‘Mr. Fix it’. IT departments have changed and developed in recent years - and their managers have changed with them.
Far from the ‘computer boffin’ image which has plagued a generation of IT personnel, IT managers now play a vital role in communicating the needs of their departments to hotel management, servicing the needs of guests, and establishing systems which allow the hotel to generate revenue.
Speaking exclusively to Hotelier Middle East at a roundtable held at Layia Oak Hotel & Suites in Al Barsha Dubai, the people behind the programming revealed the reality of their roles, how new technology is changing the face of hotels, and why it is not always best for hoteliers to invest their money in gadgets.
You all have a great deal of experience working in the IT departments of hotels. Have you found that the role of the IT manager has changed in recent years?
Fraidy Pinto: About 10 years ago the requirement of an IT manager was restricted to the back office - that has changed today because the role of IT is more centered towards guest services, whereas the back office is moving away in the sense that the user departments are taking control of their applications so I think in that extent the role has changed as well - there is a lot more responsibility but yes some of the hotel companies have recognised the increasing role that IT plays.
Thomas Huber: Today the guest support takes probably more than 50% of the IT team’s efforts. That is the biggest change in terms of the role. On the guest side, you have more guests who are travelling with equipment - from iphones to computers - and of course they want to be connected with one click, and often it doesn’t happen and then IT obviously is called and that is how things have changed.
Aamir Soorty: Thomas is right because years ago in rooms there was just one phone and one television - whereas now there is IPTV, internet, iphones, mp3 and you also have guests who are bringing their own gadgets to your hotel as well. If a guest is passing through duty-free, they may buy a gadget and then call the IT department when they get to their hotel and ask them to fix it; so the people who are working in IT must be aware of all these technologies because a guest is a guest and they may ask you to come and fix things. This is the area where we have completely changed.
How do you think the IT department can generate revenue, and should this be something which the IT department is working towards?
FP: I would put the question another way and rather than hold IT infrastructure against return on investment (ROI), I would ask can a hotel do without IT? I think IT is the key to running hotel operations. It’s like asking what the ROI on an AC unit is. It is that important. It is important to justify return on investment but I don’t think you can pin it against how much revenue it can generate - IT facilitates the running of the hotel. When you fill a car with petrol you don’t ask what the return on investment is.
TH: If you call your property management system an IT system then it is the biggest revenue maker in all departments, because my system is generating all the revenue but it is a stupid statement because a property management system, a sales system; they are business applications and IT is facilitating those systems. They don’t generate revenue because of IT; they generate revenue because of what they do.
AS: We are not front office or sales and marketing who are directly competing for money, but we are going to make sure that the tools you use to generate the money are working fine. This is our goal. The government cannot expect an engineer to fly a plane - his job is to build it and give it to the pilot and then it is the pilot’s responsibility to use the functions of the plane. This is how we work - the IT department is providing the tools and it is the responsibility of other departments to use them.
There has been a lot of debate recently about whether or not hotels should charge guests for internet use - what are your views?
TH: Do you give breakfast for free? No you don’t. Why should you provide a very expensive infrastructure at a high operational cost? Why should I give that away for free, I just don’t understand why I should do that.
AS: Nothing is free. It depends upon the management of the property and how they are going to take the money or charge the guest - sometimes they are merging the cost in with room nights so nothing is free, it only depends how we are going to take out the cost.
FP: Maybe we have a different point of view at Rezidor, we were one of the first chains to offer high speed internet access free of charge - the reason being that we treat it just like any other utility and we believe that over a period of time guests will expect these services. Yes there is a lot of effort and cost that goes in to it and I don’t want to say that just because it’s free we sacrifice on the service - we don’t, we make sure that we have the maximum bandwidth despite the cost.
How hard is it to convince your owners to invest in IT trends?
TH: I don’t have challenges with that because with Layia we do not entertain ‘nice to have’ unless the investor insists. Our attitude is to make sure you get the very best infrastructure. We don’t have gadgets and our owners are happy with our attitude towards technology in hotels. We have had discussions where people have asked why we don’t have the phones with pictures and colour screens and we explain why and they are usually rather happy with us because we are responsible for investing their money. When it comes to hotel technology there is not an awful lot you need that can give you a proper return i.e. improved guest services, or preferably improved revenue. The trend is still to put IP telephones in guest rooms so you can look up your currency exchange. Do you really want to use a telephone to do that? I don’t think so.
AS: As long as we are convincing the management of value for money, for example, the reasons that we need digital signage and so on, then that is fine, otherwise there is no use in putting more money into IT after the opening of any hotel. For example with IP phones, in this region voice over IP is still banned so you can’t use it for calls so if that benefit is not here then there is no use for us to have IP phones. When you check in to a room, you will not see the telephone logo - you will have a shower, switch on the TV and relax so why do you need an expensive phone for? Nothing - so you are spending millions for nothing.
FP: There are many companies who try to promote products, for example you have a company which can open a curtain in a room with a remote - but what do you do if you want to open a curtain? Do you go to the remote or do you go to the curtain? Three or four years ago, when there was a lot of liquidity in the market, people were not thinking; but now the recession has put a lot of sense in to the market so the owner thinks twice about such products.
Is it a struggle to incorporate the IT department with the other departments in the hotel?
TH: Communication, communication, communication. If you look at a hotel and operations, typically IT isn’t supported 24/7, which I disagree with – you are part of operations, you are a manager, so I make sure that all of my IT managers are also duty managers which to me is a promotion. This way they are integrated with the rest of the hotel. Today you cannot operate efficiently without IT. You must explain to the user wherever possible in non-technical terms what you did because the user has a right to know what’s wrong with the computer software, this issue could maybe be prevented if you educate the user, so IT skills are transferrable. I preach what my first boss told me - in IT your only role it to make yourself redundant. If someone is in your office every two seconds for problems it only shows you’re busy but it doesn’t show you’re good.
FP: Over the last few years I think that role is changing. IT is becoming more integrated. From an industry point of view it is also beneficial to have general managers who do understand IT.
AS: If the IT manager is not communicating directly with the GM, the actual message doesn’t reach the GM, it reaches through in a very manipulated way.
Should hotels be providing in-room solutions for guests’ own gadgets?
FP: It depends on the type of hotel - for example in a five-star property we would typically offer services where the guest can plug in his iPod; we provide something called Media Hub, where he can listen to his music and it’s connected directly to the television. Maybe if it’s a three-star property, it comes without all the bells and whistles - yet we are also trying to integrate this sort of technology into the three-star segment as well.
AS: If you are getting requests for one particular technology or gadget five or six times from the guests then it means it is really in the market and guests are really using it, so we will look at that technology and make sure our department is fully trained to care for these kind of gadgets.
TH: When you operate a hotel, you provide technology and entertainment services, pay for premium TV channels, and offer video and audio on demand - and you are offering a high speed, very expensive infrastructure for internet access, so I want guests to use my infrastructure and my services. If you bring your own entertainment and just use the facilities I give you in the guest room then I won’t be too happy. I have spent a lot of money to provide you with entertainment.
How will cloud computing change IT within hotels?
FP: Cloud computing is the way forward, at least that’s what I feel personally. IT managers are under a lot of pressure to control costs, and one of the ways to do that is share infrastructure - for example, there is even discussion with major hotel chains of having a single central reservation system. It definitely means a reduction of infrastructure costs and there is also talk of maybe sharing guest related services. Of course hotels will be reluctant to part with their critical data, but I feel that eventually cloud computing will be the way forward. You will have a better control on cost so that you can share infrastructure, so eventually there will be a lot of companies which can professionally manage the network without really affecting the quality of the service.
TH: I am not comfortable giving my data to an external organisation here in the Middle East. If I have my data and application hosted in your data centre, you have other customers as well so I have a control issue with that - what happens if you go bust? That is a problem. Financially, what happens to my data?
Are there any benefits to outsourcing the IT department?
AS: No not at all, because of confidentiality. I still remember one of my general managers saying ‘if I can’t trust IT, I can’t trust anyone’, because what we know - nobody knows. We know everything.
TH: The cost of an outsourced engineer, even here in the Middle East, is still significantly higher than having your own resource at your hotel. With my own resources, I can ensure that this person stays with me - whereas with an outsourced engineer they come and go, so they are of little benefit to me, and from a cost perspective, outsourcing simply isn’t attractive to me.
Very good article. As a frequent business traveller, I must say that the connectivity to the internet is a vital component to a successful business trip. Very often we must update presentations or get new figures and instructions from our home office. I have been to Dubai once and the internet was wireless and free and that is what I look for in a high class business hotel. I must admit when I stayed in Riyadh, there were issues, they made it complex to log on and they charged you. It was not the charges I most objected to but cutting off of critical internet connectivity at midnight when I still had work to do.
Stay on top gentlemen, you are our support team on the road and your work is very much appreciated by the business traveller!