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26 Mar, 2001

Nice I.T. Bells & Whistles but, Hoteliers Ask, Will They Deliver?

For all the hype surrounding the ‘solutions’ offered by the Internet and Information technology, hospitality industry investors and managers are taking a much more cautious approach towards further IT investments and demanding concrete proof that all the bells and whistles will deliver what the vendors say they will.

Burnt by the continuing dot-com bust and confused by the conflicting claims made by vendors, hotel owners are becoming much more wary about the tendency to ‘over-promise and under-deliver’ the so-called ‘technology solutions’ which often leaves them strapped with more problems and less solutions, both of which mean higher costs.

Technology vendors salivate at the prospects of selling to the travel & tourism industry which in many ways has become a guinea pig for people selling everything from digital maps and automatic key-lock systems to security gadgets, reservation systems, customer-relationship management software and a pile of other gadgets and gizmos.

All these sales pitches are invariably accompanied by the implicit threat of the ‘opportunity lost’ by not climbing on to the technology bandwagon and the ‘competitive advantage’ that a hotel allegedly will lose. While some vendors do deliver and honour their promises, many others are simply fly-by-night operators involved with here-today-gone-tomorrow companies.

Moreover, conferences and seminars on technology issues will rarely, if ever, feature discussions what went wrong or how many people got burnt by bad advice based on futuristic scenarios that did not work out, primarily because organisers of such events depend on the sponsorship support of these same vendors and management gurus.

But the dot-com bust has clearly triggered a reality check. Take for example this summary released last week of proceedings at Eurhotec, the European Hospitality Technology Exhibition & Conference, held in Paris last month by the International Hotel and Restaurant Association (IH&RA). The event was accompanied by a high-level Think-Tank on Technology.

Said the IH&RA summary, “Participants at the Think Tank could have been expected to talk about the future of e- and m-business, wireless applications, Voice-Over IP and ASPs. But they sidelined predictions about ‘the next big thing’ in favour of sharing their views on the most crucial challenge facing hospitality companies in the e-hospitality environment: The human and the business dimensions.

The group identified a series of ‘gaps’ exposed by the tech revolution which the industry must make a priority of closing:

— The gulf between the promise of what technology can do and what is actually being delivered;

— The polarisation of state-of-the-art hi-tech and the ‘high-touch’ personalised experience sought by guests;

— The ‘digital divide’ between senior management and the IT-savvy generations X and Y now entering the workplace;

— The widening ‘lag’ between the pace of IT adoption in the hospitality workplace and the aspirations of younger generation recruits;

— The techno-void in the existing ‘body of knowledge’ available to hospitality students;

— The technology skills vacuum in the industry;

“The bottleneck today is human bandwidth,” was how one participant summed up the group’s findings by facilitator Dan Connolly, Assistant Professor at the University of Denver School of Hotel, Restaurant & Tourism Management. There was unanimous agreement that the people dimension was crucial to the future of technology in the industry – the right skills, the right levels of IT awareness and the right organisational structures.

The Think Tank participants agreed that the hospitality industry also has a long way to go in inventing valid ‘tools’ to measure returns on technology investments, and to marry the on-line and off-line worlds successfully.

“Driven by a combination of customer demands, new technologies, competition, and labour force expectations, hospitality is progressing but is still held back by its fragmented ownership structure, the complexity of the infrastructure and the capital outlays required,” the summary statement said.

The group concurred that it was imperative to establish greater credibility and trust among investors. Because it is harder to demonstrate to an investor the value of improving IT than that, for example, of building additional rooms, a more convincing case for IT must be made.

“Participants identified a need for research into the critical success factors for technology as well as the elements of value that underpin the cost structure and revenue potential of technology-related investments.” Translation: If the IT people want to generate more sales among the travel & tourism industry, they had better start proving what financial benefits their products can deliver, within the promised time frame.

Indeed, there is more technology to come. A representative of IBM talked of a WAP phone that allows remote check-in and in-flight movie selection before arrival at the airport; in-flight video-conferencing with colleagues on other planes; voice-activated GPS equipment rental cars; hotel scanners that identify the guest upon on arrival allowing instant key delivery and customised information on the guestroom TV; bio-metric scanning to pass customs at the airport.

A representative of VingCard Elsafe talked of inter-connectivity of in-room devices that would make air-conditioning, locking, minibar, TV, phone, safe and energy systems all connected via a central server to key hotel departments, such as front desk, kitchen and engineering. This could, for example, make it possible to alert guests checking-out that they have left passports and tickets in the room-safe.

But another group of people took a more cautious approach and asked: How much of all this will guests actually want? And the critical question: How much will all this cost in relation to the supposed benefits they will deliver?

To install all these systems is one thing, making the staff familiar with them is another. Hotel guests also carry their own computers and want in-room accessories to ensure that their own equipment can be used properly. When things don’t work and if the staff do not know how to make it work, you can kiss that guest’s business good-bye.

Concluded the Think-Tank: “Technology will only ‘stick’ if it is customer-centric and if it helps the hotel to improve guest retention. The speed of the evolution of mobile-business will depend on the user-friendliness of the devices involved.” And finally, “It doesn’t matter why the guest can’t make the technology work – it will reflect badly on the hotel.”

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