Guest relations

As the travel and tourist industry faces up to some significant challenges, IT managers in the hospitality sector are turning to the latest industry-specific applications and solutions to give their businesses the edge. Piers Ford reports.

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Guest relations Nofal: Corporate travel departments are using the latest video and virtual technologies to reduce the cost of conventional forms of travel.
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By  Piers Ford Published  July 12, 2010

These are tough times for the hospitality sector. Global economic uncertainty combined with the disruptive impact of events like the Icelandic ash cloud means that businesses are more inclined to take a long, hard look at their travel budgets.

And travellers themselves are much more demanding when it comes to accommodation and location choices. Expectation is everything, and the technology-based services they are offered by hotels and conference centres is an increasingly important strategic element in an intensely competitive market.

“Economic recovery has been slow to reach many parts of the global hospitality sector, and one of the most sluggish areas to improve has been the meetings and association business,” says Hani Nofal, regional sales manager at Cisco UAE.

“Even as business activity resumes, the recession and other events, including the Icelandic volcano eruption, have caused firms to review their corporate meeting patterns.

“In parallel, a significant disruption with profound implications for the hospitality sector is occurring in the form of technology-enabled business-travel substitution. Corporate travel departments seeking innovative ways to reduce costs, enhance productivity, reduce carbon footprints, and transform the meeting experience are turning to rapidly maturing video and virtual meeting technologies to replace conventional transient and event-oriented business travel.”

IP technology vendors win either way, of course, and it’s up to customers in the hospitality sector to respond with facilities and service offerings that make a sufficiently compelling argument for the business benefits of physical rather than virtual travel. At the same time, players in the hospitality sector – hotels in particular – need to combine the delivery of cutting-edge technology-based services with reduced operating costs.

This creates several challenges that have a direct impact on ICT decision-making, according to Nofal. Guest expectations aside, many hotels still run their operations with a multiplicity of single-purpose proprietary networks and applications. As a result, they don’t benefit from business intelligence and comprehensive access to the information that would help them create opportunities for sustainable revenue growth and drive operational efficiencies for their organisations.

And if hotel owners take shorter leases on real estate, they want low-risk, future-proof systems that will help them optimise returns and manage operating expenses at low, sustainable levels – while continuing to grow their revenues.

Nofal says that several leading hotel chains in the region have introduced video and virtual meeting technologies as lines of business. If they adapt, he adds, they will be able to turn the disruption of new technology into a competitive advantage and increase market share.

Networking vendors clearly see the sector as a major market in the Middle East. Cisco’s Connected Hotel, for example, has been designed as a comprehensive platform delivering guest and staff services, and property management operations.

“It allows hotel properties to integrate communications, security, services and building management systems over one IP-based network,” explains Nofal. “Data, voice, video and critical applications can be managed over a single network that will grow to accommodate property needs in the future.”

At Avaya, director of hospitality solutions, Fredrick Sabty, says the vendor’s focus on the hospitality sector in the region is “huge”. Hotels are implementing more advanced solutions, with integration capabilities, multiple features and ease of use among their top criteria.

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