Interfacing with the Future

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Interfacing with the Future

By George Koroneos, Contributing Editor - 03/01/2006

Hotel Technology Next Generation (HTNG) was founded in June 2002 by a group of hotel executives and technology vendors with the broad objective of addressing the structure of the industry, with the ultimate goal of building systems that would work better together. Since then, HTNG has grown into a formidable organization of vendors, property owners, hospitality technology mavens, and systems integrators. "We have grown from basically nothing in 2002 to about 300 members this year," explains HTNG Executive Director Doug Rice.

According to Rice, the fundamental reason the organization was created was due to the lack of compatibility between hotel systems and their inability to communicate between one another. "Interfaces are part of the problem, but the bigger problem is interoperability, which interfaces are part of," Rice says. "To make a system work properly, you need more than just interfaces, you need an architectural design that makes it relatively easy to figure out how to hold together the building blocks. You also need an infrastructure to support it without lots of overhead and time delays."

To help solve this problem, HTNG is working with technology vendors to create a series of specifications to solve some reoccurring dilemmas. "Specifications developed by these workgroups are published for our members and we encourage open adoption of the specs," Rice says. Eventually, HTNG members hope these specifications will lead to an open-source interface approach where a significant number of companies can agree to support a basic hardware approach. "This could help drive standardization and more interoperability among systems," Rice says.

There are always plusses and minuses in any fundamental, structural change that occurs in an industry. According to Rice, some of the vendors have embraced HTNG's specifications and have stated that the specifications have helped them get out of the rut of selling non-strategic systems that customers buy because they have to, rather than because they deliver value. "It expands the capabilities of the systems being sold to all these other systems that they can be interfaced with, and it actually makes the interfaces cheaper to develop, support, and pushes hardware costs down," Rice says. Other vendors have taken a more cautious approach to guard strategic assets to their codes, and feel that they don't want to release them for open source integration. "We haven't run into that too much from very many companies," Rice says. "Most of the companies, at some level, have been willing to open up because they realize that they need to connect to other systems, they just might not want to give up lots of functionality to users who aren't strategic partners or in-house product companions."

There is also a group of smaller vendors that haven't realized what the benefits are of making their product easier to interface with other systems. HTNG still has a way to go. Of the estimated 10,000 relevant vendors in the hotel technology space, approximately 170 are members of HTNG. "We have a pretty good set of major ones, and a whole bunch of smaller innovative companies as well, but we still have a lot of vendors in the space that we haven't gotten yet," Rice says. "Each month goes by and we get a whole bunch more."

Customer Demand

The biggest reason for the boost in new state-of-the-art property management systems is customer demand. Guest's needs are changing--guests are more technologically connected in their offices and at home, and they expect this interoperability when they travel. "It used to be that maybe guests brought their PC to their room and that was it, now you have cell phones, PCs, iPods, DVD players, digital cameras, DV cameras--the list goes on and on," Rice says. "People are used to being able to just hook up and use the equipment at home and they come to a hotel and they can't do that. That's a competitive disadvantage for the hotels that can't if there are those that can."

This creates a need for major change in the way that systems are deployed to guest rooms. For a hotel looking to add bells and whistles to their existing management system, this can be a huge undertaking that can cost thousands of dollars. According to Michael Squire of Softscribe, while some hospitality technology vendors are willing to work with a hotel to build interfaces that can communicate with existing systems, others are either willing to make the connection for a premium, or will refuse altogether if the property owner doesn't buy the vendor's own add-on system.

Rich Newman, general manger of the Gainey Suites in Scottsdale knows all about connectivity. His hotel has set up numerous interfaces through the Maestro property management system that allow the property to control everything from Web reservations and credit card transactions to the pay-per-view entertainment system. "We started off not very long ago and we looked at a lot of different property management systems, but we wanted to maximize our ability to do things productively and efficiently and seamlessly with a duel benefit for the hotel and our guests," Newman explains.

The company settled on Maestro because the overall package gave them the ability to have multiple interfaces and access to partners that were already configured to work perfectly with the management systems. "Sometimes, when you get into these interface partnerships you can run into a lot of SNAFUs--just the slightest compatibility issue [can be a major problem]," Newman says.

System Support

As technology has become more sophisticated, systems have moved from simple, proprietary systems to complex workstations that can communicate with dozens of other systems in each hotel. The ability to support these systems has just gone from bad to worse to practically non-existent, Rice says. "The typical hotel has approximately 60 different technologies installed in it, and many need to work together with other ones. The complexity of supporting that and how to troubleshoot a system when something breaks as well as upgrading systems, requires an IT capability that cannot cost-effectively be placed in a hotel." Hotels then purchase the new technology and they don't get the maximum return on investment, because they don't know how to work the new system. "We need to change the business model that drives the way technology is deployed so that in can be remotely supported through the type of resources needed to do it right," Rice says. "To support these type of technologies effectively, you need three or four different people who are going to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each to do it right. That is completely impractical for a hotel to consider." One option is to move to integrated systems that can be supported over the wire or online, where an operator can bring in that expertise remotely. These experts would support many hotels, driving costs down.

When a guest looks at a TV screen and notices something wrong on the display, in an integrated world they have no way to tell, which of five or six different systems aren't working properly. HTNG is working to facilitate a network of vendors that can handle multiple situations with out charging a premium cost. The answer could be a major chain that can handle multiple scenarios or a third-party bureau.

"HTNG is really making great progress in getting vendors engaged on solving some of the really fundamental issues that have prevented the value of technology systems from being unlocked to benefit the hotel, the guests, staff and owners," Rice says. "Because we are dealing with a lot of things at the infrastructure level, but also being practical about what can be bought today that couldn't be bought yesterday or what can be bought tomorrow that couldn't be bought today that will give a benefit. There is both short term and significant long term value that we believe vendors in our community are creating by working through the framework that we provide."