Silver Service

For hotels to deliver a home away from home IT is becoming a core factor in customer care. Comprehensive, integrated solutions form the basis of the internal IT infrastructure, providing hotels with the data transparency that enables them to give guests a variety of services.

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By  Zoe Moleshead Published  August 26, 2001

Silver Service|~||~||~|If you want to stay ahead of the competition and provide the most comprehensive, friendliest and swift guest services the underlying answer is IT. That’s the reality for the hospitality industry in the region, which is rapidly learning not only the importance of an internal IT infrastructure, but also the importance of IT itself as a service for guests.

Jumeirah International, which includes the Burj Al Arab, Jumeirah Hotel, Jumeirah Beach Club, Emirates Towers, World Trade Centre Hotel, Wild Wadi, the Shopping Boulevard and two Internet cafes, is looking to be a world leader when it comes to the world of hospitality and guest relations, and IT is a key enabler.

Jumeirah International’s IT director, Thomas Huber, has convinced his management team of the underlying importance of an IT infrastructure.
“If I go to the hotel manager with a choice of buying 200 sun beds or a data warehouse for several thousand dollars, they will typically say they want the sun beds,” comments Huber. “But it was a group decision to invest in a data warehouse to analyse data.”

With the Burj Al Arab looking to live up to its 7-star rating, Jumeirah International has deployed a comprehensive yet discreet IT infrastructure to ensure its guests, whether on business or vacation, have IT facilities beyond their expectations.

Each suite is equipped with a “notebook with Office 2000 running on Win 98 and wireless network cards,” says Huber.

The hotel also incorporates a state-of-the-art entertainment system. Films, five at one time should you so desire, can be enjoyed on 42-inch plasma screens, or programmes can be digitally delayed and stored for you to watch later.

“The Burj Al Arab has a very sophisticated digital on demand system, a very large NQ Video server with 700 G/byte of memory, and 3T/byte of disk space. The movies are stored on DLT,” says Huber, explaining just one simple feature offered to guests.

Providing guests with their own notebooks also necessitates the need for guest IT support. The hotel offers a 24x7 helpdesk for IT support. “There are various terms for that; some call it ‘cyber butler’, but the idea is that we have a guarantee that whoever is in charge of guest IT support will be a highly qualified IT professional,” explains Huber.

Jumeirah International is not alone in recognising the guests’ IT needs, and particularly those of the business guest. The Ritz-Carlton hotel in Doha offers its guests the opportunity to rent Compaq laptops, HP printers and PCMCIA network cards to provide users with Internet access.

The hotel has also invested in the concept of ‘technology butlers’ to ensure guests IT queries or problems are met swiftly and efficiently.

A solution by InterTouch allows users to keep up-to-date with developments in the business world. “[The solution] will be able to cache all the well-used sites, like CNN and other business sites. We will be able to provide the pages straight to the room faster than going to the Internet and pulling them down again,” says Walid Ibrahim, regional information technology manager, EMEA region, Ritz-Carlton.

The Metropolitan hotel chain in Dubai, also realised the importance of basic IT functions to its guests, and the provision of these facilities in the comfort of a guest’s room is key.

“Every guest that I see comes in here with a notebook, they are business guests. [They] need to print and ask where to do it, and we normally say you have to go to the business centre. But that’s not the solution — we want him to feel comfortable, his room is his home,” explains Suku Mathew, IT manager, The Metropolitan Hotels, Dubai.

The idea of providing guests with a home from home, however, extends beyond providing them with laptops and printers.

The hospitality industry, whether it be a hotel, restaurant, or café wants to offer its visitors the friendliest, easiest service. To that end, acquiring and handling guest information and details is essential to providing that personal welcome.

“With a walk-in guest who has stayed with you once before, you should be able to say ‘yes I know your preferred room, I know that you like a basket of flowers when you come in or a welcome drink’. The IT infrastructure should be able to do that,” comments Mathew.

||**||Metropolitan Hotels|~||~||~|The Metropolitan Hotels Group, which include The Metropolitan Beach Resort, The Palace hotel, The Metropolitan Deira, and The Metropolitan, has followed much of the hospitality industry, standardising on the Fidelio system for the property management, Micros for point-of-sales (POS) in its restaurants and a customised back office package.

To ensure it can provide guests with the personal greeting and service, the Metropolitan Group is in the process of networking its four hotels to guarantee easy information sharing within the group.
“At the moment all the computers are on the local area network (LAN),” explains Mathew.

“Linking the hotels is one of our priorities because we have information of guest A, B, C who has stayed in the main hotel or the Palace hotel, but we don’t know if he has stayed at another of our hotels. Equally, the other hotels don’t know he has stayed in the main hotel.”

The group is looking to establish a wide area network (WAN), which will consolidate information more efficiently and improve data transparency. The move will enhance not only customer services, but also enable management decisions.

“We have a lot of group managers who get different reports from different hotels, at the moment [they] get four copies from four different properties. [They] don’t want that on their table, they want one sheet of paper,” adds Mathew.

While the hotel chains may develop their own in-house solutions to meet specific requirements, Fidelio remains the dominant player in terms of property management solutions for the hospitality industry. Jumeirah International and the Metropolitan hotels are just two of the regional subscribers to Fidelio.

The solution includes modules for reservations, check-in, check-out, guest history, bookings for both guests and groups, food & beverage, sales & catering, and an accounting module which links into the back office.

The solution also works hand-in-hand with Micros POS solution enhancing integration between the two systems.

“We decided to go with Fidelio food & beverage because when I sell an item in Micros I like to know the effect of that item on my [stock],” says Mathew.

New Technology Systems (NTS) is also looking to break into the international hospitality market with its solution HostNet, and has teamed up with Oracle to provide a seamless integrated solution, offering front and back office solutions as well as a POS system.

“Two years back we decided that it was time to look at the future, and we needed to go with a database application, which was going to be web-based” explains Naresh Kothari, director of Intertec Systems. “We choose Oracle as a platform to begin with, and got support and people trained in Oracle.”

Oracle has integrated its Financials and customer relationship management (CRM) solutions into HostNet, which also provides a modular package offering reservation, registration, housekeeping, system administration, cashier, sales, marketing and POS solutions.
An information database was also a key factor in the development of HostNet, as handling guest information efficiently and swiftly is of utmost importance.

“Before a guest arrives you should have all the information, and he can wait just a second for his key. The system should be ready to give all the information about the services,” says Naviz Arshad, technology director of NTS.

NTS also explains that the solution has to be not only friendly to the user but also to the guest: “Maybe the manager wants to deliver the check-in staff a message to smile and say welcome, he can do this automatically, and when the staff log in they are going to see that message,” adds Arshad.

However, providing guests with a warm welcome when they walk through your doors is not enough, the hospitality industry is looking to reach their guests before they even reach the hotel, and the Internet is key to this strategy.

“It becomes paramount for all industries to look at the new market, or to tie up new guests or customers away from the Middle East,” says Alakh Verma, business development manager alliances, Oracle, Middle East. “Technology wise [it is] very important for us to provide all this information with a web interface, so wherever you are, you are able to register with a particular hotel, find out room availability and rates, and make reservations.”

The Metropolitan Group is also in the process of improving its web site to enable online bookings, with completion of the online reservation module expected in the next two months, and completion of the hotel network anticpated to be finished in six months. The group is planning to purchase a package from Serenata to facilitate its web development.

“We’re going to have an interface engine sitting in between our Fidelio server and our web server. The initial web server will host the general information of the hotel that people get to see, and when they click on reservations they will be moved onto another web server, which interacts with the interface machine on to our Fidelio system,” explains Mathew.

While IT is forming an integral part of the hospitality industry and developments continue apace, finding the skilled IT workers with an understanding and competency of the hospitality industry is a more difficult task.

“An IT manager in a hotel must have a hotel background. Its not just about fixing broken computers, its about improving business processes how to be more productive, reduce workloads, and using information technology to assist departments to be more effective,” says Jumeirah International’s IT director Huber.

||**||Boardwalk pages customers|~||~||~|The technology revolution has deprived us of many skills, one of which is waiting, and this is especially prominent when it comes to waiting for a restaurant table.

However, as of this month, this will no longer be the case at Dubai’s Boardwalk restaurant. The Dubai Golf Club-owned eatery has turned to technology to ease waiting times, increase its efficiency and enhance customer service.

Now, when you arrive at the Boardwalk, you will be issued with a pager, which will go off when your table is ready, and leave you free to lounge in one of the numerous drinks areas, or stroll around the golf club.

“As the Boardwalk is split over a number of levels there are a number of different waiting areas. This can make it difficult to find people when their tables are ready, especially when relying on the old system of making notes about either [a customers] physical appearance or what they are wearing,” says Sanjay Narula, IT director, Dubai Golf Club.

The new system combines the restaurant’s key business software, Micros, an online application from OpenTable, and pagers from Long Range Systems. Whilst Micros is available locally from resellers Key Information Technologies, the application and pagers have been shipped in from the US, which according to Narula, shows how far his team is ahead of the game.

When asked whether the pagers are just a gimmick, Narula is very forthright in his answer. “If it was using technology for technologies sake then we would be implementing it across all of our facilities, but we are not and there is a definite need at the Boardwalk,” he explains.

The pagers, which will be limited in number to begin with, are fitted with an antitheft device which means that if you stray too far from the restaurant it will start to beep. Although not enough to deter the hardy thief, it should reduce the number of pagers that are carried away by mistake. In addition, the pagers have an auto-locate mode. Using the system’s built-in clock, the restaurant can program the transmitter to send a signal to all pagers at a preset time — like an alarm clock. If closing time is near then the signal can be set off and the pagers located by staff.

Although Narula is unable to say how much the pagers and application package is costing the club, he believes that when the cost benefit analysis is done it is not that expensive. In other words, it is cheaper to shell out for this technology than have empty tables. “The product is not too expensive, especially when you consider what the turnover is,” he concludes.

||**||Ritz-Carlton Doha invests in technology butlers|~||~||~|IT has been a top priority in the construction of the Ritz-Carlton Doha. The hotel complex, which opened last month, has deployed an IT infrastructure not only to streamline its own internal operations, but also to offer a collection of technology services for guests.

“We have technology butler positions to answer or assist any of our guests, and tackle any technology related matters,” says Walid Ibrahim, regional information technology manager, EMEA, Ritz-Carlton Hotels. “They will be the first line of trouble shooters for guests’ laptops,” he adds.

On opening, the Ritz-Carlton will offer guests accelerated Internet connectivity from their rooms. The hotel has invested in a 256 k/bit leased line, which guests can access from their rooms over the hotel’s network. “On average guests should get a connection speed of anywhere between 64 k/bit to a 128 k/bit [per sec]” predicts Ibrahim.

Alongside technical support from the cyber butlers, guests will also be able to dial down to the business centre and rent a Compaq laptop or a HP printer for the room. Furthermore, if a guest’s machine is without a network card, the hotel’s IT department will provide one, “so guests can get the benefits of the network,” says Ibrahim. “We are responsible to provide genuine care for the guest, so accordingly we need to expect and anticipate what the guest is going to need. Most business travellers carry laptops and they need to connect to the Internet and e-mail. They also need to download files, work on presentations and so on. However, some of these people will need someone nearby who is technically capable to solve any problems,” Ibrahim explains.

The Ritz-Carlton Doha has also invested heavily in its infrastructure to support backoffice functions. The hotel staff, following specifications defined by the chain’s headquarters, has deployed a multi-vendor environment, based largely around Novell and Oracle technologies.

The NetWare 5.1 environment is being used largely to support the Fidelio property management system. The Fidelio application is interfaced with other systems such as the interactive TV system and Micros point of sale terminals within the hotel’s various outlets.
The close integration between these systems enables messages to be logged in Fidelio and then distributed to the other systems. For example, Fidelio can send messages up to guest’s rooms via the TV system interface.

Similar messages can be sent to the Micros point of sale devices in the hotel’s restaurants.

“The technology in the back of the house makes the workflow easier and faster. This in turn keeps the guest satisfied,” says Ibrahim.

“The staff need the proper tools to serve the guest. Having all these systems interfaced helps the staff to fulfil the guests’ needs.”
The Ritz-Carlton has also deployed ZENworks 3.1 to manage its 150 PC and eight file server environment. ZENworks also enables the IT department to control ‘user rights’ and beef up the security of the hotel environment.

The hotel chain has already deployed Oracle File Server, to manage a lot of its file/print services. All of the backoffice applications are running on Oracle 8i databases.

The file servers have all been configured using Novell Clustering Services. Currently two servers carry the main load of file/print and application serving. In the event of a server crash, the redundant server will fail-over.

“There can be no disruption in services… As the Ritz Carlton we cannot afford to have the guests waiting in the reception if we have down time,” says Ibrahim. Novell Clustering Services, “will also send an alarm to the systems manager,” if one of the server’s breaks its safety parameters.

||**||Learning the art of virtual hospitality|~||~||~|As many hotel groups struggle to extend the use of information technology beyond the front desk, Jumeirah International (JI) is taking its high-tech vision of hospitality another step forward. Throughout the group’s five Dubai-based hotels — including Emirates Towers, Burj Al Arab, The Jumeirah Beach Hotel, The Jumeirah Beach Club and the World Trade Centre Hotel — and Wild Wadi water-park, IT is seen as a core business enabler.

JI is aiming to take its combined IT and service ethos to the next generation of hoteliers, with its most recent business unit, The Emirates Academy of Hospitality Management. Having successfully rolled out the first four modules of the Professional Development Programme (PDP), The Emirates Academy of Hospitality will open its doors to its initial BSc students in October this year,

Throughout the academic programme the use of IT is a strong undercurrent in JI’s approach to enriching customer service. “IT has a very big role to play in the service aspect of a hotel,” says Thomas Huber, director of information technology for Jumeirah International. “Today in the hotel industry they have to use IT. As far as the academy is concerned the aim is to educate the students in IT — not to become IT managers — but how to use information technology in the hospitality environment,” explains Huber.

The curriculum of the four-year BSc course will use IT at just about every turn, from courses on food preparation, through to restaurant management. “Information technology is very much an integrated element in most of the courses in the curriculum,” comments Huber.

Floor Bleeker, IT manager with the academy explains, “ IT is often taught as a separate subject in the curriculum but we aim to integrate information technology in the courses, as an element of the education so the students can apply it directly.”

Efforts to integrate technology into the daily routine of the students will not stop at the classroom door. Throughout 2001 the IT team within Jumeirah International has been constructing an advanced IT environment to cover the campus and support approximately 400 students, all of whom will be using HP Omnibooks as core educational tools.

In particular, the last eight months has seen intensive work, including the fitting of a 100 M/bit Gigabit Ethernet network backbone, a wireless network covering much of the campus and the deployment of 12 HP servers running a Windows 2000 Advanced Server environment.

Working closely with UAE-based Telematics, the project team rolled out Avaya’s WaveLAN wireless technology to cover much of the academy, including the auditorium, classrooms and common areas of the campus, such as the clubhouse and the pool area. “We spoke to students from other institutions and one of the biggest concerns they have is access to the network. Without access to a network many people used their laptops as standalone typewriters… and this is what we do not want to happen,” explains Huber.

“Our aim is that the students will use their Omnibooks as their primary study tool and the only way to accomplish this is with a flexible network. Wireless was the perfect solution to achieve this goal,” comments Bleeker.

Initially, there were plans to implement a wireless network for the whole campus. However, the student accommodation, some classrooms and various ‘study areas’ have been hardwired. This enables students to bypass the bandwidth restrictions of the wireless environment and download large files, or work on centralised applications for assignments.

With much of the Academy’s administrative processes and educational resources accessible via the intranet, the BSc students will be issued with ‘business-configuration’ notebooks from Hewlett-Packard. The machines will stay with the student for the four years of their course, including their six-month work placement and one-year studies at Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne in Switzerland, with whom the Emirates Academy is in academic association.

The Emirates Academy plans to take on 50-60 BSc students every semester until it reaches its 400-student capacity. However, the possibility of managing so many laptops meant the Academy had to find a robust management platform. Using Windows 2000’s Active Directory Services (ADS) user access to the machines is controlled and managed. There is also a strict management policy for the loading of extra curricula software on the laptop. “We will only allow the students to use [the notebook] as a business tool,” says Huber.

As far as humanly possible, The Emirates Academy is aiming to operate in a ‘paperless’ environment. Many of the academy’s educational processes have been automated with the deployment of EduWare— an Oracle-based student administration system. The application enables students to login over the intranet with their student number and access information pertinent to them, such as grades and the state of their student account. “From the first day, students receive an ID that will be with them forever. With this they will be able to come in through the intranet and find everything that is applicable to them” explains Bleeker.

More significantly, the Emirates Academy is working closely with Microsoft to rollout SharePoint Portal Server — Microsoft’s document management and intranet portal platform. When the implementation is complete SharePoint will act as the single student information resource, enabling access to all forms of course material. For example, students will be able to access library resources, discussion forums, student administration and computer-based training courses… Also, the Academy has deployed HP scanners with OCR technology for both students and staff, enabling them to upload information into the SharePoint environment.

Students will also be able to set up collaboration rooms online where they can work together on larger projects. “We’re going to be one of the first companies to implement SharePoint to such an extent,” says Huber.
“All the [HP Digital Senders] will be integrated with the portal, enabling students to categorise information from the scanner and post it to the portal where it will be directly available to the academic community,” explains Bleeker.

The collaborative functionality of SharePoint will be vital when students travel to Lausanne. While they are in Switzerland students will be expected to work ‘virtually.’

Students will be able to logon to the Emirates Academy’s intranet via a Cisco virtual private network, and access all the information they need for study.||**||

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