Software integration has been a long-standing item on any hotel operation’s to-do list. As with all things related to the pandemic, however, the focus is changing. Not only have integration efforts accelerated, hoteliers have had to take an entirely new perspective on the technologies that need to be adopted or enhanced when restrictions are lifted.
Not surprisingly, the largest immediate priority is safety. “The only way to get the industry back to where it was before is if guests and employees feel safe,” says Tanya Pratt, VP of Strategy and Product Management for Oracle Hospitality in Toronto. “Guests don’t want to touch anything. Neither do employees. Before [COVID-19], touchless and low-touch experiences were talked about. Today it’s non-negotiable.”
Operators are now pushing harder to move away from legacy systems to cloud-based integration that will allow them to get to market more quickly, she explains. “In the last 12 months, the people doing and supporting legacy technology are no longer there. Cloud adoption rates are much higher than we’ve seen in the past and the number of software vendors has gone through the roof.”
Behind the Scenes
Cloud-based services have long been an underpinning for the Choice Hotels brand. Dating back to the 1990s, it introduced one of the first apps for real-time rate and availability information. “ChoiceADVANTAGE PMS, was created entirely in the cloud rolled out 15 years ago,” says Brian Leon, president of Choice Hotels Canada.
The pandemic has had an impact on accelerating some processes on its roadmap, such as touchless check-in and keyless entry, he notes. “For us, the biggest technology happening right now is our CHOICEMAX revenue-management platform. It makes it super simple and intuitive for our franchisees to be able to set and manage rates and inventory.”
Even with lower occupancy rates, Leon stresses it’s critically important to have real-time information at all hotels to provide the technology and resources to drive the best performance possible. “We absolutely believe now is the time to be investing in technology. There’s no pulling back. It’s not time to batten down the hatches and look to save money on technology.”
Technology won’t replace good service, he stresses. “Guests will actually feel better served and staff will have more time to be better hosts. It’s the transactional jobs that will be replaced.”
That’s also an area where artificial intelligence (AI) will come into play. Pratt predicts a huge demand for AI, machine learning and productive analytics for automating routine manual functions such as room assignment, inventory management and upselling. “In other words, they can be applied to any repeatable tasks that don’t require deep thinking and don’t necessarily need someone to execute. It’s about really understanding who the guest is and what they are buying to better predict demand, pricing and marketing spend.”
Upping the Guest Experience
Beyond the safety factor, which is a given, the guest experience is something that hotels will be focusing on more than ever, Pratt notes. “That’s a big, big emphasis right now. Building and maintaining relationships and truly understanding the guest is more important than ever before. Everyone is fighting for those travellers. It’s all about the data you can capture and use throughout all direct and indirect touchpoints, understanding and synthesizing it and putting it in front of the people who interact with guests.”
An integral part of enriching the guest experience will be software integration through a single platform, says Frank Pitsikalis, founder and CEO of ResortSuite, a Toronto-based software-integration platform for resort properties. He notes resorts and boutique operations in particular have been tied to a fragmented collection of booking systems for far too long.
That may have worked until now, but consumer expectations have changed dramatically, he says. “Guests have gotten used to sitting at home and ordering food and groceries on their own. When they return to travelling, they’ll have brand-new expectations around technology.”
Mobile apps are becoming essential focal points for check-ins and keyless entry, booking rooms and dinner reservations, filling out intake questionnaires, or scheduling activities. “People want everything to be as frictionless, seamless and contactless as possible,” Pitsikalis says. “It also allows operators to have fewer staff. Those that are there can be much better hosts, because they’re not spending their time booking activities.”
One shouldn’t under-estimate the value of self-service capabilities given the changing climate. A prime example that has proven the value of integration in keeping things above water is U.K.-based Watergate Bay Hotel. The 80-room resort property in the Cornwall region was already working a long-term software integration plan before COVID-19, replacing many of its systems with a single platform. When it re-opened in October, it launched its mobile platform for everything from spa bookings to menus and digital forms and payment.
Clearly the integrated approach did nothing to dampen the guest experience. In fact, it proved to be a significant boost. In October alone, the property ran at 97-per-cent occupancy, equating to 960 arrivals and 2,400 individuals, according to Judi Blakeburn, brand manager for Watergate Bay. Its analysis shows there were more than 800 active app users running 16,000 sessions in total. The app was used to book 2,800 free pool, cardio and kids-club sessions, 200 paid-for spa treatments and surf lessons and a further 800 table bookings. Much of those were typically a job that teams used to do over the phone with guests each day.
As Pitsikalis points out, mobile is an ideal alternative for the shifting demographic. “The generation coming to resorts now are digital natives. They’ve grown up with technology. If you tell them they have to call a property to make a dinner reservation, they would rather text. It’s an entirely new generation of guest. The good news for hospitality is, they are not materialistic. Rather than wearing Gucci they would rather spend premium amounts on an amazing experience.”
Written by Denise Deveau