Managing the Property from Above

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Managing the Property from Above

By Dorothy Creamer, Managing Editor - 10/10/2014
The term cloud has become an industry buzzword over the past few years, but in reality it’s a concept that has been around for much longer. Housing immense amounts of data on property has become cumbersome and despite persisting concerns about security, research has shown that CIOs and other senior-level IT leaders are moving an increasing percentage of their organizational information into the cloud. Many of these executives are making growing use of private cloud and software-as-a-service (SaaS) delivery models.

Recently HTNG (www.htng.org) established the HTNG Above Property Systems Workgroup to create a framework document, including a list of best practices and definitions of terms that business and technical leaders need to understand. Hotels will be able to use the framework to ensure more effective interoperability between cloud-based systems, at both business (relationship and contracting) and technical levels. In this roundtable discussion, HT hears from hotel executives and HTNG’s CEO about their experiences, best practices and concerns for the future of managing hotels in the cloud.

Todd Davis
CIO, Choice Hotels
International  
(www.choicehotels.com)

Q
What were some of the reasons for moving operations to the cloud?
Our franchises use ChoiceADVANTAGE which is Choice’s branded version of the SkyTouch (www.skytouchtechnology.com) Hotel OS platform.  We moved to the cloud-based SaaS solution for three reasons. First, was infrastructure cost savings and reduction of overhead needed to implement and manage a distributed, on-premise solution for 6,000 hotels. Second was to provide reduced scope of PCI at the hotel. Finally, we needed an intuitive solution built for the Internet, where with a browser and Internet connection our hotel users have access to the information they need from anywhere. From a corporate perspective we have moved accounts payable/invoicing, human resource management and time tracking to cloud-based services. We moved these for many of the same reasons, plus advanced business capabilities over what we had in place.

Q What were some key objectives for moving systems above property?
A responsive and reliable system that is intuitive and not complex. We wanted something that was simple to train and manage, with economical light infrastructure client hardware. Other goals were to deploy a secure solution with global availability and advanced capabilities that address current and future business needs.

Q What benefits have you seen?
Cloud solutions help reduce the need for technology expertise at the hotel level. There has also been a reduction in overall infrastructure and communications needs at the hotels and Choice IT supporting the hotels. Dedicated satellite networks or costly MPLS circuits are not needed as an Internet connection is used. Large hardware and software implementations require significant patching and updates and hotels no longer need to manage data recovery and tape backups in case of system failures.  Also, every hotel is on the same version of the software or platform at the same time, which reduces complexity in training and hotel level support. Deploying new capabilities which support our franchisees in driving revenue are available to all hotels instantly; there are no more months-long deployments.  This has helped improve speed to market.

Q What stumbling blocks remain for managing hotels in the cloud?
Systems are not all 100% cloud-based and when this is the case, latency will cause problems. If the integrations are not built to handle recovery, data becomes “out of sync” and recovering can be a complex effort.

Doug Rice
Executive VP & CEO,
Hotel Technology
Next Generation
(HTNG; www.htng.org)

Q What are some of the issues that led to the development of the HTNG Above Property Workgroup?

The hotel industry lacks a common framework and the necessary information for above property solutions to operate effectively. There is no common understanding of the expectations among the various parties (hotels, application providers, cloud service providers, etc.) around critical issues such as data ownership, security, termination rights, and support. Many application developers lack awareness of software design considerations for above-property operations. There is a deficiency of interoperability when there is a greater need for it, and there are concerns around security, commingling of data in multi-tenant databases, offline fallback, and legacy solutions that have been in place for a long time.

Q  What are some of the problems inherent in not having a common framework among hotels for above-property solutions?
Many of the problems are business issues about coordination among vendors. These are issues that tend not to occur in on-premise solutions where things like version control, scheduled downtime, and troubleshooting can be managed onsite. As we move these systems above property, on-site coordination and support capabilities disappear. Unless these are architected into the solution (and this requires cross-vendor coordination), they don’t happen (or at least not predictably).   

Q  What role are vendors playing in the workgroup?
This is a shared problem between hoteliers and vendors, and everyone is feeling pain.  For example, cloud-based PMSs need to interface to many legacy systems. A lot of these are moving above property, but aren’t generally being fully rearchitected to a true cloud model, so disconnects occur.  This holds everybody back, so the vendors are as eager to solve the issues as the hotels. 

Q  What stumbling blocks remain for managing hotels in the cloud?
Coordination of downtime, date change, and system outages; coordination of version upgrades; coordination of support. Lack of understanding of different data storage models e.g. multitenant, single tenant shared with multiple properties, each property running in a database in a separate virtual machine. Data ownership and accessibility e.g. data extracts for reporting can often be done easily on premise-based systems, but this may require a level of access that can’t be provided for above-property solutions.

Mark T. Pate
Sr., IT Director, Highpointe Hotel Corporation
(www.highpointe.com)


Q What benefits have you seen with cloud-based management?
Currently, Highpointe uses AppRiver to host its Microsoft Outlook Exchange environment and Aptech Computer Systems (www.aptech.com) to host the Execuvue business intelligence tool. For Q1 2015, we are planning to move the Kronos Workforce Central (www.kronos.com) time & attendance application into the cloud and we are doing a pilot project with a cloud version of Office 365 for SharePoint. Gaining the expertise of these vendors that specialize in a particular application has been a huge win. Also, applications are usually more secure in a true data center environment -- upgrades are done automatically, hardware requirements are much less, and cost savings are possible.

Q What were some key objectives for moving systems above property?
Giving our hotels around-the-clock access and monitoring on key systems and reducing hardware and operating costs was one objective. We also wanted to relieve some of the stress on our corporate IT staff of monitoring multiple applications and making sure they were available 24/7.

Q What are some key traits a system must have to ensure that enterprise standards are met, while still giving enough control at a per-property basis? 
First, flexibility — pertaining to how easily modifications can be made to the application. Second, documentation — are the application procedures and features well documented and easy to follow/learn. Finally, availability of adequate training and shadowing.

Kristin Harwell
Corporate Director
of IT, Commune Hotels
& Resorts
(www.communehotels.com)


Q What benefits have you seen with cloud-based management?

Quick deployment and cost efficiency. Putting a whole bunch of infrastructure and CapEx on property slows things down significantly, especially when you are in the process of transitioning hotels, as we were several years ago. In terms of costs, we already had the infrastructure, so cloud solutions helped us reduce cost for ownerships. For the most part, we’ve eliminated the need for onsite IT. Now we have a centrally managed system that is monitored 24/7. Otherwise you’re looking at distributing a lot of monitoring systems across multiple properties where someone has to be responsible for it. That gets out of our model from a management perspective. We want to be as proactive as possible and when you go on property you lose that ability.

Q Security remains a major concern for many hoteliers operating in the cloud. How do you steel data against breaches or what safeguards are
in place?

We have partnered with a QSA, NetSPI (www.netspi.com) plus we have AlertLogic (www.alertlogic.com) for real-time threat management. We depend on our QSA and security as a service provider to help us in that area and give us real-time threat management throughout the entire collection.

Q What were some key objectives for moving systems above property?
The biggest things are system availability, uptime and seamless cutovers. Greater performance and consistence among the collections is also key.

Q What are some key traits a system must have to ensure that enterprise standards are met, while still giving enough control at a per-property basis? 
Our properties all run on Micros (www.micros.com) Opera PMS. For us, interoperability with the PMS is a given. For example, I can’t introduce a HSIA solution to a property that can’t integrate with the PMS to meet brand standards for tiered WiFi pricing. Concerning TVs, it could be as simple as I need to have an e-compendium component in order to meet a requirement of a particular system. It’s important to define those traits in an RFP.

Q What stumbling blocks remain for managing hotels in the cloud?
For me it’s always going to come down to security and privacy. That’s a stumbling block that depends on the partner, as well as compliance. It’s a very gray area of ownership. For right now it’s a little hard to get over. We tokenized our PMS nearly three years ago, so in that sense we’re not terribly concerned about credit card penetration, but we are concerned about protecting guest data. As we look to moving to the Micros data centers — we want to make sure our data is secure and no one else has access to it.