|By Jon Inge, Summer 1999
"Complexing" (as if it wasn't difficult enough already)? The good news is that the PMS market has seldom seen such a variety of different approaches to solving your property's automation needs. The further good news is that the systems available have never been better for what is still the key system, the hub around which all other property systems revolve and in which you collect a huge amount of highly valuable guest data.
The bad news is that you still have to make a choice. If most of them are good, and all of them cover the basics well, where do you start to make a selection? This article takes an overall look at the market, and offers some guidelines for finding the best PMS match for your operations.
The market at the moment can be summed up in one word - vibrant. There's a greater variety of offerings and more new ideas on how to use them than we've seen for quite a while.
Windows-based systems have generally matured well and there are now several established, reliable and highly functional systems, usually based on Windows NT and SQL Server 7.0. But the more traditional systems with character-based screens are still around, and thriving. Whether running on DOS, UNIX or OS/400, there are plenty of choices, and they've been updated to suit modern demands. And the Internet is opening up all kinds of new possibilities for access to the systems and their data, possibilities that seem to expand every day.
Consolidation amongst the upper tier of vendors has resulted in fewer but stronger companies, while still maintaining a healthy level of competition. The mid-tier, such as MSI, RDP, Visual One Systems (formerly NGSC), HSS, Northwind and many others, continues to thrive, having expanded its customer base sufficiently to provide a solid base for growth. Increasing standardization of systems by the major chains - Fidelio/Geac for Starwood, REZsolutions/MSI/HSS for Cendant, Fidelio/HSI/MCorp for Carlson, Choice and Promus developing their own systems, and so on - seems to leave less room for the smaller vendors. Yet new systems continue to arrive, bringing fresh ideas and approaches such as Lodgical's focus on selling rooms by attribute, and Fabco's highly modular LodgeMaster, which offers a wide range of basic functions with in-depth add-on modules wherever you want them.
This is partly due to modern technology leveling the playing field and making entry more practical than ever for new developers. Windows, despite its programming complexity, makes it possible to create innovative, distinctive and intuitive user screens, and simplifies the integration of the PMS with office automation tools. Protocol Technologies' standard interface box provides an affordable, off-the-shelf solution for many of today's sub-system interfaces (point-of-sale, PBX, movies, credit card authorization, etc.), and HITIS continues to make progress in developing interface standards, which will be a boon for future developers. Standard report-generators such as Crystal Reports, and links to standard packages such as Microsoft Office, greatly ease reporting, in any custom format a property could want. And fast, reliable communications networks and remote-control software permit effective software support at virtually any distance from the head office.
The international scene is also flourishing, with several international vendors gaining significant market share in, for example, Britain (AremisSoft, InnSite), Europe (Hogatex) and Australia (CMS Hospitality). We found some exhibiting at HITEC, looking for partners and distributors to help them launch into the US market. Are they competitive? Absolutely. We live in a global economy, and in one of the most international of all industries. The major US vendors long ago learned that multi-country capabilities are essential to large-scale growth. The international vendors start with multi-country environments as their "domestic" territory. And don't forget that Fidelio, the largest PMS vendor out there, was a German company before being acquired by MICROS. Competition can come from anywhere, home or abroad.
So How to Choose?
So, the market is full of modern, attractive choices, almost an embarrassment of riches. You still have to narrow the field. Your first thought might be to focus on functionality. After all, the system must do what you need, at your property and in your environment, whether you have a 40-room resort or a 2,000-room convention hotel, though these will definitely have different priorities. But that doesn't really help to start with, but there are many different ways of satisfying similar operational needs, and most systems cover the fundamentals (reservations, room selection, guest folio management, etc.) very well.
In the real world the first decision most people actually make is, "Windows or not?" This seems like a simple question, but the underlying question should really be, "How much technology do I want to support?" Windows is powerful, but it takes a lot to make best use of that power. Let's review the main technology options.
What major benefits do hoteliers look for from a Windows environment? Those quoted most often are ease of training, ease of data transfer with other programs, and integration with office automation products (usually Microsoft Office). Are these expectations being met in practice? The answer seems to be "Yes, certainly, but."
Yes, the systems are in general very satisfactory, the staff likes using them and likes their "modern" image. Yes, it is significantly simpler to set up data transfers between systems. Yes, they are easy to integrate with Office. And yes, they provide the power and flexibility for management to accomplish far more with them.
But like many powerful and complex tools, their benefits are only fully realized when you make a definite, committed investment in them, learning them thoroughly and making sure they're in the most productive environment.
For example, Windows takes a lot of horsepower to run properly. This isn't a problem if you're putting in a new system from scratch; it's hard to buy a slow PC these days. But if you're upgrading to Windows and try to save money by running it on old PCs and networks, you'll regret it; it'll be slow and unreliable. If you're going to do a lot of data analysis too, you need a high-grade database (Microsoft SQL Server 7.0, or Oracle, perhaps) underpinning the application, and these are expensive.
You ask a Windows set-up to do a great deal more than you needed from your older, non-Windows system, and it takes more maintenance to keep it running properly. Give it enough memory, processing power and support, and it will perform brilliantly and reliably. Invest in the right tools for the job; you can drive anywhere in an underpowered car, but you'll constantly be shifting gears to keep up with traffic, and both you and it will wear out faster.
Ease of use is highly subjective. Windows systems are typically very flexible, and have many options - which gives you more things to learn and more ways to get lost. Good screen design can make a big difference in usability, though it's difficult to do well. Take the time to check that a potential system handles the key functions for your property unambiguously, and that it works the way you do. Each Windows system has a different character, just as properties do; make sure you get along before you commit.
Despite these challenges, Windows systems have become well accepted and productive, as witness to their growing adoption by more and more chains. If you're at HITEC, check out HIS' Lodging Touch, REZsolution's GuestView, Eltrax's Medallion and HSI's Jaguar, all of which have received significant chain orders. Look also at the systems from smaller providers, especially those with a long track record with Windows systems such as Northwind's Maestro and VisualOne Systems' VisualOne, and those newer products from vendors with a long industry presence such as MSI's WinPMS, Fabco's LodgeMaster, Fidelio's Version 7 and Opera, and the British AremisSoft. And there are many, many other worthy systems out there.
If you fall into this group, you still have plenty of choices among the character-based systems. A great benefit is that most have been around for quite a while, and have the full feature set that comes from years of steady development. A long history usually also means that the vendor has worked out most of the bugs, and the systems are highly reliable. They're not necessarily the prettiest to look at; some make good use of color, some pack all those features into quite crowded screens. But they work and work well.
They're up-to-date, too. The current release levels are all Y2K-ready, of course, and their vendors continue to release enhancements for such functions as Internet connectivity and data import/export. Eltrax, for example, recently released such enhancements for its Sulcus LANmark (DOS-based) and Encore Performer (Unix) systems. MAI's HIS keeps its Paragon (AS/400) and CLS (Unix) systems current and reports steady demand for them, as do Fidelio (DOS) and Geac (Unix), still Starwood's two standard PMSs. And MCorp, which sells Northwind's Maestro in the USA, also continues to receive chain orders for its ImagInn (Unix) PMS.
How much longer this will continue is certainly a matter for debate. The Windows movement will grow even larger as its environment and stability mature, and it's probable that many users of non-Windows systems are only waiting until their hardware investment has been more fully amortized before switching. More complex and demanding Internet-focused uses may at some point become more difficult to incorporate into the older platforms, requiring a shift to an alternative. At some point the vendors' installed base, especially of DOS-based systems, will shrink below an economic size to support. Although for now that still seems to be a few years off.
Unix and its headline-grabbing cousin, Linux, remain an interesting and viable option, although, unless Windows eventually implodes under the weight of it's massively complex code, one that is likely to remain in the minority. Originally designed by AT&T for communications purposes - almost all Internet servers use it - Unix is fast and stable, if not always the most intuitive operating system to work with. A number of very successful PMSs have been built on it - some listed above - and, while it does need it's own server, it can run on a standard office network without conflict.
Linux has gained widespread publicity and rapid growth as a cheaper and more universal option to the vendors' proprietary flavors of Unix, and is well-supported by a huge network of volunteers via the Internet. All HSS' current implementations use it, including the three thousand systems being installed in Cendant brands under the Power-Up program. Unix/Linux don't exclude you from the attractions of Windows-like user screens, either, since X-Windows offers a very similar graphical appearance and usability. Although X-Windows has yet to appear on a PMS, HSS does use it for its back office accounting modules.
The superficial advantage of thin-client is that the hardware cost is lower, since the users' workstations can be simpler and less costly. They're smaller, too, since there's no processor unit, and this can help in tight situations. However, this is offset by higher central hardware costs, since the server needs enough power to handle every workstation and the network must have enough bandwidth to handle the much heavier traffic. Microsoft's per-station software cost is also not insignificant, and overall it often balances out.
The real advantage is one of control. Everyone is always on the same version of the same program, since they're all accessing the same copy on the server, so updating to a new version is a one-shot deal. And since there's no local disk storage, and no direct access to the Internet, non-standard programs can't find their way onto individual users' workstations. Not every program is a suitable candidate for thin client, but it can be worth looking into, especially for larger properties. Four Mirage properties in Las Vegas, for example, including the new 3,000-room Bellagio, use a thin-client implementation of Springer-Miller's SMS|Host PMS.
The Internet raises some interesting options, of course, here as everywhere else. Several vendors are looking at browser-based versions of their PMSs, which would allow remote users to access a central server using Internet technology. This may even lead to PMSs being available over the Internet from franchisers, or direct from vendors, to rent by the month to any property with a fast, reliable communications line.
Some complexing configurations allow each property to run entirely independently; others allow them to share rooms inventory and a single night audit process. Apart from the cost savings of sharing the server costs between locations, this also makes it easier to justify a central systems support group, leading to a better-running, more efficient operation for all.
There are several other issues to keep in mind though. One is interfaces, since all POS, call accounting, movie and other charges from each property must find their way to the PMS server. And e-mail and other office automation tools may mean that you still have a server-driven network at each site. For properties already linked with a high-speed WAN, complexing can make a lot of sense.
What About Functionality?
OK, you've addressed the fundamental technology question - how much am I willing to support? Then you can focus on which are the key functions that matter to your property.
Also ask some key questions of the vendor. How long have they been in business, and how many installations do they have of the system you're interested in and of all their products? How large is their support staff, and which of their customers can you call for references? Ideally, you could find the names of some of their less enthusiastic users, too - no one can keep everyone happy all the time - but always keep a sense of perspective about what you hear, from both camps. Their support needs are probably different from yours. When checking prices, don't forget to include all interfaces (these really add up), installation and training for your staff, annual service fees and any additional software needed to run the PMS, such as a database license.
Check on training, too, to make sure there's a balance. Too little is a waste of time and leads to frustration and inefficiency. Too much can be overwhelming, with the same result. Focusing on the essentials up front, and scheduling a return visit after a few months to build on them, is a better approach.
Once again, when choosing between similar systems, don't underestimate the value of matching the system style to your operational style. A PMS is only a tool, after all, and a good tool feels instinctive in use, fading into the background and not getting in your way.
Hot Topics For Today
Hot functions that many hoteliers look for today include:
How about future options? Touch screens at the front desk are likely to become more popular as prices fall. Mice just aren't practical there, and while you should be able to perform every single function at a front desk position using only the keyboard (check this when you're looking for a system), sometime it's just plain quicker to point to the place you want to go.
Concurrent PMS and POS programs on the same workstations also become more practical with touch screens, not just for checking details of a disputed restaurant check at the front desk, but also to let central guest-service agents place room service orders directly from a PMS PC. Faster, more effective, and better guest service.
Wireless terminals also have a place, and again could become much more practical as their costs come down and wireless networks become more affordable. Portable tablet-like devices have been available for some time for remote check-in or check-out, similar to the way rental car companies use them, but also think of the possibilities for system-connected PDAs (PalmPilots, Windows CE handhelds, etc.) for the housekeepers, engineers and managers to use. Enticing.
There's so much choice out there that you can easily feel buried in options, but with a methodical approach you can quickly narrow them down.
The starting point, as always, is to know thyself. Understand your operations and management style well enough to know what key functions are really important to your property, in your market, and decide how much technology you want and are prepared to support.
Given these main criteria, then pre-qualify vendors against these fundamentals, get quotes from three or four that seem best suited to your needs, trying to balance large and small vendors, national and local. Have them run demos focused on your needs, not theirs, and check references. Always check references.
Then go ahead and implement with confidence, sure in the knowledge that you've made a good choice.
Jon Inge is an independent consultant specializing in property level technology. He can be reached at JonInge@earthlink.net or at 206.546.0966.
|Also See:||Revenue Management Systems “Must-Have” or Luxury? / Jon Inge / Nov 1998|
|Damn Interfaces!How Will Standards AffectThe Hospitality Industry Today? / Mark Hamilton / Mar 1999|
|From the Hotel Property's Perspective; The Network Computing Alternative / Richard M. Brooks / Spring 1999|