Five star solutions

The IT department has become one of the most important behind-the-scenes operations in the region's hotels and is likely to become even more so. Colin Edwards checks in to find out more.

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By  Colin Edwards Published  September 3, 2006

|~|hospmurooj200.jpg|~|Behind the glamour of Middle East hotels, there are critical IT systems runnng 24x7.|~|Few hotel guests soaking up the sun around the pools of five star hotels that populate the Middle East think too much about the IT infrastructure that supports their stay as long as the computerised timer keeps the pool circulating and chilled, the restaurant's automated air conditioner monitor clicks in and keeps the ambient temperature at a comfortable level, and the bill has been calculated properly.

Little do they know - and if truth be told, neither do most people working in general IT realise - that these are not places of fun when it comes to IT. A hotel, more so than most commercial enterprises running in the Middle East, is truly a 24 x 7 operation and has to have the IT infrastructure in place to support it.

"It's very important to build in redundancy when you're building your IT infrastructure," says Carlos Abou-Diwan, IT manager of the Al Murooj Rotana Hotel in Dubai. "This is a 24 x 7 operation and IT has to make sure our systems don't go down."

This is why, when Al Murooj was planned, its IT department paid attention to ensuring redundancy not only in the core business systems, but also the network and the telephony solutions.

"Our core hotel system - Opera - runs on HP clusters. There are two nodes, so if one goes down the other kicks in and no one would even know there was a problem," he says. "It's not happened, but we have done tests by closing down one of the nodes and reception was totally unaware of it."

The hotel is also running two IP cores on its HP ProCurve network, which supports 3,000 data points across the organisation's facilities. These include nearly 250 guest rooms and a further 140 apartments in a sprawling campus that will soon be overshadowed by the giant Burj Dubai skyscraper.

"In fact, this is the most extensive network I have seen in a hotel complex," says Abou-Diwan, whose career in hospitality IT includes two and a half years at the Intercontinental Beirut, which, while being one of the largest hotels in the Levant, is not as dispersed as Al Murooj. "There the network came from one place. Here we have one core in the hotel and another at the adjacent apartment complex."||**|||~|hospdamasc200.jpg|~|Mohmoud: Damascus Four Seasons to take wireless to its guestrooms.|~|On the telephony side, which is based on Mitel technology, Al Murooj opted to implement both IP and analogue PBX controls - one for guests, one for administration and one for the apartments. According to Abou-Diwan, guests prefer to have an analogue phone in their rooms. It also serves as back-up should the IP network go down, which did happen during the pre-opening testing and bedding down of the systems.

Walter Casinillo IT Manager, Traders Hotel, Dubai concurs on the need to ensure the IT environment is able to support the hotel around the clock. "All hotels need to have a cost-efficient, innovative, robust system in place. Since our aim is to never have a system breakdown of hardware or software, the challenge I face is ensuring that we work closely with vendors to get 24 x 7 support," he adds.

But that support is not always readily available according to some IT managers in the hospitality sector. For example, Soroush Nazemi, IT manager, Park Hyatt Dubai says: "The biggest business challenge in Dubai is support and service. There are companies that promise you everything, but after finishing the installation phase you hardly find them to support you. Most of the support centres are either under-staffed or they are not quite qualified to support.

"Now considering the hotel industry is a 24 hours job and needs 24 hours support you can imagine how magnified problems become not having good support centres. Most of the companies also are outside of Dubai and have a time difference. It is not that easy to find their second level support if their first one is not helpful," he says.||**|||~|hospamman200.jpg|~|Sourani: There is a need to support the hotel guests' use of technology.|~|One company offering specialised support services is ITQAN, which has a long-term agreement with the Dubai-based Jumeirah Hospitality and Leisure group. It is the sole Microsoft desktop provider to the group, which includes the Burj Al Arab, Jumeirah Beach Hotel, and Bab Al Shams Desert Resort & Spa.

The US$500,000 annual contract that runs to 2008 sees ITQAN providing all the group's Microsoft solutions including Microsoft Office Professional, Windows OS, and Microsoft CORE Client Access, along with ITQAN's region-specific, Arabised solutions. It includes the supply and support of more than 2,000 desktop and 200 server software packages.

At Al Murooj, Abou-Diwan says that monitoring and analysing network traffic has become critical to pre-empting problems. "The challenge of working in such an extended networked environment is that monitoring and analysing network traffic becomes critical. You have to be constantly checking the network," he says.

The Al Murooj network, which uses 1Gb fibre optics in the vertical core and 100Mb for the horizontal infrastructure, is the hotel's lifeblood supporting everything from wireless access in the hotel's public areas, to interactive TV to all the rooms and apartments, IP telephony and the entire administration infrastructure with billable inputs coming from restaurants and bars, hotel rooms, telephone systems and telephones. And as needs grow Abou-Diwan is confident that the network can be easily extended.

Emerging technologies such as push to talk and handsets that automatically switch between GSM and IP wireless could soon see the hotel deploy wireless throughout its facilities, but because of the expense involved, it has to be cost-justifiable, says Abou-Diwan. More imminent is likely to be the use of wireless PDAs in the hotel's restaurants.
Ayman Mohmoud at the Four Seasons, Damascus is at a similar stage in its plans to expand the wireless infrastructure beyond the public areas and into guestrooms to provide wired and wireless facilities.

At Traders Hotel, Casinillo is also planning to improve the hotel's high-speed internet access so that it is more guest-friendly and offers a hassle-free connection. "We also want the system to allow automatic roaming internet access, from wired to wireless or vice-versa, with a secured connectivity, and to provide an automatic virtual private network connection," he adds.||**|||~|hosptraders200.jpg|~|Casinillo: The aim is to never have a hotel system breakdown.|~|The Chedi in Muscat has already deployed wireless broadband in the guest rooms and is up to date with other trends in hospitality such as i-pods and LCD TV and, according to Kirti Bhatia, IT officer, is planning the installation of an interactive TV system in the near future.

The Sheraton Amman Al Nabil Hotel & Towers, which sees VoIP as the future in hospitality networks, is upgrading its infrastructure and has just finished implementing a wireless network in the hotel.

However, delivering all these facilities is something that itself needs some support from internal resources, as Hakam Sourani, area IT manager, Levant & CIS at the Sheraton Amman points out. "When we started to offer guests a piece of hotel technology like high speed internet, Printme and wireless connectivity, the challenge we found is that every guest has a different IT environment and we have to make our systems compatible with all systems out there and make it friendly for the guest and sometimes we even need to support it," he says.

Apart from meeting guests' high tech needs, IT also has to be able to support internal needs such as front office and back office systems, billing solutions, reporting, HR and CRM and the use of mobile technology for applications such as order-taking at restaurants and bars.

Nine out of 10 five star hotels in the Middle East use MICROS-Fidelio solutions as their core systems. Inevitably this virtual monopoly is now coming under attack from global players at the high end as well as in the mid-range sector, where MICROS-Fidelio is less dominant with an estimated at 60% market share in the region.

One such player is Brilliant Hotelsoftware, which has secured the contract to supply its property management and point of sale systems to 35 Express Holiday Inn hotels in the GCC over the next five years.

"MICROS dominance is really a phenomenon that we have only encountered coming here to this region," says Josh Easton, business development manager, Middle East, Brilliant Hotelsoftware. ||**|||~|hospbrill200.jpg|~|Easton: It is important that hotels have a technology choice.|~|"MICROS has such a hold on the marketplace. In Egypt it's also very much a one-horse town. It's been challenging," says Easton, who has come to the Middle East to set up a sales office and facilities to support the new Express Holiday Inns.

"MICROS is in North America as well, but there we also have quite a big share of the marketplace. In Europe we go toe-to toe with these people. So we think we are here doing something important because I think people should have a choice," he adds. Brilliant has already made inroads into the market beyond its key Express hotels account. The Holiday Inn Sharjah and Dhow Palace Hotel, Dubai are among its most recent wins.

Easton believes Brilliant differs from other solution providers by specialising in developing and customising solutions to meet specific and regional needs. "For example, for some of the US groups, including all the Intercontinental hotels, we do an interface with their central reservation systems so that when people make reservations they get it automatically into their system," he says.

Specific integration is not a problem, he adds, because Brilliant has a team of programmers based in Holland. The team recently worked with a number of suppliers in the Middle East and wrote interfaces almost overnight for the products.

"For the Holiday Inn Sharjah and Dhow Palace hotel, we had to work with a number of local suppliers and the interfaces went very smoothly," he says.

Typical of the company's approach to meeting local needs is a development to obviate guests' concern when their passports are retained. "When I first travelled here, I was quite surprised to find they take away your passport on arrival at a hotel. But I later realised the police reporting system meant they had to keep and scan the passport and make sure all the details are correct and report to CID."

Working with the Intercontinental's area IT manager, Brilliant developed a system whereby passports are scanned automatically as the guest checks in and often without them being aware of it. ||**|||~|hospsymbol200.jpg|~|Hassaniyeh: Scope for 'queue busting' solutions for check-in.|~|Whether such innovation will win ground over MICROS is debatable judging by some of the comments from the region's IT managers who use the system, especially as often it is a group decision rather than an individual hotel's.

Bhatia, at the Chedi, Muscat for example says he runs mostly MICROS-Fidelio products chosen because they are the "leaders when it comes to hospitality solutions."
Moreover most of the staff have worked on the systems before which helps to ease the learning curve.

Alaos at the Crowne Plaza Dubai Primal Fernando's use of the property management suite is guided by brand standards from the corporate office. It is the same with Mohmoud at the Four Seasons Damascus, which runs an Oracle-based Opera with Opera Sales & Catering and Micros point of sales and at the Park Hyatt, Sheraton Amman and Traders Dubai.

Rotana group also renewed its MICROS relationship last year. It opted for the OPERA Enterprise Solution in all 40 locations covering 7,891 rooms. Al Murooj was the first to deploy and all 40 hotels will come on stream by the end of 2008.
Brilliant is not the only contender to MICROS' domination in the region. India-based IDS is also making inroads, particularly among mid-range hotels.

Among its 1,000-strong customer base across 20 countries are more than 70 in the Middle East and Levant. These include the San Rock Hotel, Bahrain Carlton and the Manama Tower Hotel, Bahrain and the Cataract Resort & Vera Club Queen in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.||**|||~|hospphyatt200.jpg|~|Nazemi: Biggest business challenge is support and service.|~|Another area the IT infrastructure has to support is the use of PDAs or handheld computers in restaurants. Usee to take orders and transmit them wirelessly to the kitchen, these reduce customer wait time and eliminate errors that can arise from poorly handwritten orders. Mobiles solutions from Symbol Technologies are being used by the Carlton Hotels in Saudi Arabia, Emirates Palace and the Irish Village to name a few.

"We have worked with numerous F & B outlets in the region and have helped them successfully address their most strategic priorities: expand their services, improve their guest loyalty and bolster profitability," says Tarek Hassaniyeh, sales manager, Symbol Technologies Middle East, adding that hand-helds are also used in the hospitality sector asset management where bar-coded equipment and furniture can be easily logged and tracked.

Internationally, Symbol equipment is being used to speed up the processing of new guests by starting the whole check-in procedure at the kerb side and enabling guests to skip the front desk booking-in chore.

"We haven't provided this solution in the region, mainly because processing at the kerb side is impractical in the heat, but it could work on the journey from the airport," says Hassaniyeh. "A queue busting concept, however, could certainly be used successfully in the hospitality sector. It's so easy to walk up to a guest on arrival and instead of letting them queue at reception, staff could start the registration process on their handheld."

Nazemi at the Park Hyatt Dubai is considering achieving similar objectives with its upcoming deployment of an Express Check-In kiosk for speeding up the whole check-in process.
It is also trying to reduce the time wasted by guests with a Fast Board system that provides them with the means to receive a printed boarding pass at the hotel prior to departing for the airport.||**||

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