The importance of technology

Hospitality technology consultant Ted Horner discusses the latest trends to hit the region.

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By  Administrator Published  July 15, 2008

Tech Talk speaks with leading hospitality technology consultant Ted Horner about the latest tech trends to hit the region and the problem of persuading hotels to embrace new technology.

What experience do you have as a technology consultant?

I've been consulting for more than 20 years in hospitality technology. I'm based in Sydney, Australia [as is my business EH&A], although I spend a lot of time flying around the world and speaking at conferences and attending trade shows. I think I did about nine trips last year, all around the world.

What experience do you have with hotels in the Middle East?

I first came to Dubai in 2003 and 18 months later I was fortunate enough to be engaged by the Jumeirah Group to do consulting. I'm proud to say I'm still consulting Jumeirah today. It is one of the principle reasons that I keep coming back to Dubai. I was its PMS (Property Management System) consultant in 2005/6 and I'm still doing some other consulting for Jumeirah.

I will be running a big workshop for them at the biggest hotel technology show in the world, HITEC in Austen Texas. This year will be my twentieth in succession at that show. It's the number one show in the world and I was fortunate enough in 2004 to become one of only two people outside of America to be elected to their technology hall of fame.

There are only about 28 people in the hall of fame. There's myself and an Australian guy who's going to get elected next week, so I'm going to have to change my marketing now from ‘the only one outside America to be in the hall of fame'. I'm now also forging some relationships in Abu Dhabi, also in the UAE.

What service can you offer Middle East hotels?

I usually consult to owners because in hotels it's the owners that handle the technology. I don't consult to operators very much. My job is to review the recommendations from owners, go out to marketplaces, help select systems, do the price and contract negotiations to help save my owners money. That's what I've been doing for 20 years.

Now I have a worldwide reputation because I do the circuit. I go to all the trade shows. I spoke at The Hotel Show in 2007, they invited me back in 2008. I've been coming to The Hotel Show in Dubai for four years, for the first time in 2004, so it's a good opportunity to network and see everybody as EH&A is just me.

What makes you stand out from other consultants working in the Middle East?

I describe myself as an independent consultant, because my sense here in Dubai is that the consultants are not independent, they're systems integrators or people masquerading and writing documentation around the products they sell themselves. There's nothing wrong with that, that's how the market's got to where it is today, so I can hardly stand and criticise it, but in the true sense of the word they're not independent.

What challenges do you face working with hotels in the Middle East?

One of the problems that I've had is that there is still a perception by people that you have to be located here. I don't agree with that, but if you're around the corner you have got to have an advantage over a guy that's half way around the world. When I worked with Jumeirah on its PMS I did most of my work from my office in Sydney.

That's an education thing, I've got to get that message over. If you're an architectural consultant do they ask that you be based in Dubai? No. So why should a technology consultant have to be here.

What technology hurdles does the Middle East hotel industry face?

It's a process of education. It really is a challenge sometimes to convince owners that there is a serious return on investment in technology. You've got an awful lot of owners, there's nothing wrong, their developers, they would rather spend money on gold taps and beautiful furniture in the lobby than investing in cabling or things that they can't even feel and see or new technology.

It's a challenge for me and in my role as an educator and somebody who gives lots of speeches, I'm giving a speech tomorrow morning to the Emirates Academy, the same speech I'm giving here at The Hotel Show to all the students at Jumeirah's academy, because I'm really big on educating the industry, that's one the reasons why I got elected to the hall of fame.

It's not because I'm great as a consultant, but I am actively pushing the envelope in advancing technology in the hospitality industry. It's all education, and that doesn't happen over night, convincing hoteliers that this is where they need to be, using technology as a competitive differentiator.

You look at Dubai and the differentiators are the glitzy towers and the highlight of this trip this week has been a three hour tour of Atlantis, the chief engineer there is a very dear friend of mine. I made a decision when I started my consulting career in 1989 that I would educate myself and the way to do that is to do a lot of professional development, fly around the world, talk to lots of people, attend conferences, either speak or write articles on technology, which I've been doing for more than 20 years.

It's a general thing. It's fair to say that there's a lot more money washing around the system here, and if there's any one segment or one geographic presence in the world that's going to embrace technology and spend more money.

The other thing is that it's all very well to spend the money but you've got to spend it wisely and select the right systems and often that doesn't always happen. In this respect the technology spend at a hotel like Atlantis is impressive.

What technology challenges does the hotel industry in the Middle East face?

Another big challenge is reaching out to Y-generation people through guestroom technology, because now guests are beginning to focus on what's in that guest room, what a guest interacts with. If you're a Y-generation person then you're bringing all your content on the road with you and are asking how do I connect it to the LCD? How do I plug it into a speaker system? How do I recharge my i-Pod?

So the challenge now is cost justification. Where's the ROI on LCD screens, HD technology and all these other things? It's a constant challenge. Consumer demand is forcing hotels to move forward. You've got a lot of new hotels in the Middle East, so it's a bit different from older parts of the world where you have to refurbish.

How could hotels improve their service with technology?

I stayed at the Grand Millennium Hotel during The Hotel Show. They have a door card, which I plug into the wall to turn on the lights. When I leave I take it out and it turns everything off dead. The problem is that I get two of these, so it defeats the purpose.

I don't think this is a very effective way to tackle energy management. You need two things in a room. One is a next generation building management system (BMS) to talk to the front office system, so that when I check into a hotel room it's actually turning things on and off in the room.

When I check in it changes the Heating Ventilation Air Conditioning (HVAC) from a set back position to a level of comfort, and then when I check out, instead of someone running up to the room and turning all the lights out, it automatically turns everything back to cut consumption.

What, in your opinion, is the future of technology in hotels?

The focus will remain on guest service over the next few years. I'm a great believer in kiosks, for example. If I come into a hotel lobby straight off a plane at six o'clock in the morning, am confronted with a queue and there's a kiosk in the corner to facilitate a check-in I'm going to make a bee line for that kiosk. Airlines have educated us as consumers how to use a kiosk. Another thing you will see is a greater emphasis on CRM (Customer Relationship Management) and that's going to be the competitive differentiator.

If I stay at a hotel all the time, that hotel will have to ask, what are my likes and my dislikes? I come into the room and my favourite music's playing on the stereo system or I happen to be a CNN fan, so when I turn the TV on it defaults automatically to CNN. You're going to see more emphasis on people accessing content from home.

If you've got cable TV at home then in the future you'll have a piece of software that will enable you to communicate with your cable system at home. People are time poor today so you're going to see more emphasis on lifestyle content, programmes from home, so if a large percentage of your guests come from Russia, what Russian TV content do you have?

Is there a Russian news service? What you're seeing in hotels now is moving away from the blockbuster movies to lifestyle content in high definition, 600 or 700 channels.

The big challenge for hotels at the moment is that nobody uses the phone in the room. Why? Because you've only got to look at the phone and it wants to charge you. When you pick up the phone you don't even know how much it's going to cost. Dubai is, without doubt, one of the most expensive cities in the world to communicate in. What hoteliers have to do is convince guests to use the phone in the room, and with the arrival of VOIP you will see more of that.

It will hopefully get to a stage where there's price transparency and people will start using that service instead of their mobile roaming because they know that picking up that phone is certainly going to be a lot less expensive.

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