New reservations technologies help maximize profitability
When the resort village of Whistler, B.C., opened as a winter destination in the late ’60s, families interested in booking a weekend on the slopes picked up their rotary phones and called Marge, from Marge’s Travel & Bake Shop, and she did the rest. Twenty-five years later, Internet-savvy travellers use websites to book everything from flights to scuba lessons — and they expect the same service from hotels.
This trend has created unique opportunities for hotel brands to maximize profitability by becoming one-stop vacation shops. But to make it happen, they require advanced central-reservation systems (CRS) and property-management systems (PMS) with multi-platform functionality. Now that e-commerce dominates global business, and upwards of 50 per cent of all hotel bookings are done online, upgrading reservation capabilities are crucial to growing revenues.
With new integrated software, individual hotel operators can link all internal applications, sync up with other locations and brands, and establish a presence globally. Third-party distribution can maintain accessible inventory coupled with hotel packages, or connecting to local business like restaurants, spas or even dog sled tours via the website. This also allows third-party booking engines, such as Expedia, to have the most up-to-date rates.
And it’s not just the larger hotel brands with deep pockets that can afford to develop customized systems. Smaller brands and independent hoteliers can use the new systems, too, even without a team of techies or web geeks. Leading reservation and property-management software companies such as Micros, Sabre, and Galileo have developed packages to facilitate easy, incremental upgrades to a more advanced system.
“It’s a matter of keeping up with the demands in the industry as a whole,” says Lisa Jane Wheaton, Rooms Revenue manager for Niagara-based Vintage Hotels. “As a hotelier, if you’re not up to speed from a technology standpoint, you’re missing out on the [online] consumer base.”
When choosing a CRS, Wheaton says the most important functionalities are rate, inventory management, guest history, and yield management. The latter identifies purchase trends and enables hotels to recognize opportune times to adjust rates or add promotions and packages.
David Doucette, the director of Internet Strategy at Toronto-based Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, says larger chains such as Marriott, Starwood, and InterContinental have their own proprietary central systems created in-house. “[But smaller] companies like Fairmont don’t have a team of 50 technology architects to manage that.” Thankfully the latest systems make it easy for them.
In early 2006, Fairmont partnered with Micros, implementing its Opera software for both PMS and CRS. The switch from the old platform took about 14 months. There were hundreds of rates built for each of the brand’s properties, thousands of corporate profiles, group and convention data, guest records, and service codes that needed to be migrated into the new system. Extensive testing followed to ensure all functionality components between platforms were working. Fairmont’s old system was only able to merchandise third-party distributors on its site — integration with other systems was problematic. “Now we have seamless communication between properties and the corporate entity,” says Doucette. “Everyone [at Fairmont] is able to see the entire view of property reservations. And we’re seeing the rewards and benefits. The new technology has a more flexible and open architecture.” For example, even though its guest loyalty program may be different than Starwood or Marriott, Fairmont can still transfer a guest’s loyalty program data to competing brands through the new interface.
But don’t expect the new software to be tailored to your operation’s needs right out of the box. In this instance, both Mircros and Fairmont extensively customized the new solution. Some management-related requirements mandated specific programming, and Web services elements were used to interface between property management and sales systems.
What’s most crucial is that any new CRS or PMS implemented meet its operator’s needs. “It ensures revenues are being generated,” says Doucette. “And it’s the touch point all other areas of distribution feed into — whether it’s global distribution, websites or the call centre. The reservation system supports all those functions.”
For resort destination companies such as Vancouver-based Intrawest Corp., online capabilities and multi-functional platforms are also essential. Launched six years ago by Intrawest, the Rezolution platform enables travellers to book entire vacations to resort villages like Whistler over the Internet. Richard Kunz, vice-president of the Advance Sales Team for Intrawest, says the in-house team continues to build more functions into the program. With advanced design and architecture, it’s currently a fully integrated call-centre application, including a reservation system for booking engines supported by Microsoft SQL servers on the back end.
When Internet consumers visit Whister.com, they can book accommodations, arrange for lift tickets, ski rentals, snowmobiling adventures and spa treatments, even securing fresh tracks to be the first on the hill. And it’s all ready when guests arrive at the hotel. “All our resorts, products and services are unique,” says Tom Brauser, vice-president of Sales for Intrawest. “We sell everything above and beyond just the accommodation or lodging component.”
Intrawest supports two different business models for its reservation systems. One is a CRS model that books several properties — some of which are owned by Intrawest and some that are outside partners. Using this common system, each participating resort can load its own product into the system and manage it themselves. Additionally, distribution channel partners, such as ski rentals, spas or tour companies, can do the same, enabling booking agents to access products or services from any supplier in the system.
The other model appears in properties where Intrawest may not use a CRS, but essentially owns the entire resort and all its related services. In these situations, Intrawest can simply book all the [guests’] activities for them internally. “What we really want is for guests to be able to call us for one-stop shopping. They can book their vacation with us and be confident they are going to get everything they want,” says Brauser.
One major challenge when upgrading to a new system is downtime, which can cost operators dearly in lost bookings. Similar to any new interactive application, it’s essential to test functionality before going live. Kunz says upgrades and general maintenance for the Intrawest system are implemented between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m., when business slows. “Knock on wood, but we’ve yet to have any major security issues or any a major [power] outage with the system to date,” he says with a nervous laugh. For Fairmont, the transition to its new system was completed with just under a day of downtime.
As technology continues to improve, it begs the question: What’s next? “The future is having all reservation systems integrated, so any channel can book any reservation at any time,” says Brauser. “To have absolute full integration — that’s the nirvana we’re moving towards.”
But no matter how far technological advancement takes the industry, Doucette believes people will always want to know more than what can be provided in an online environment. “It’s in people’s nature to want to talk to someone.”