|By Elizabeth Lauer
Whenever I browse through the latest edition of UPDATE Magazine, I can’t help picturing myself standing in a remote, highly-secretive laboratory listening to a dapper guy name “Q”. He is prattling on at a precarious speed, while showing me the latest and greatest in “007 competitive advantage.” The same gadgetry that is supposed to save our hero in a predicament set forth by an unseen nemesis, can also cause instant, or slow and painful death if it fails. When I was a kid, I wanted to grow up and be a James Bond Girl. Today, instead of touring the laboratory on the arm of Sean Connery, I accept phone calls from Richard Siegel who invites me to research the forward adopters of the hotel industry. Business instinct, innate curiosity, and a duty to my organization (hint: not the British Secret Service) lure me down a adventurous path along which there is much to uncover.
One thing certain: The technology that once awaited us, is now coming to us. In droves these “enterprise solutions” come, to outfit us for the next century. Ours is an industry that has gained rapid importance, due in part, to sheer volume. A salesperson who lands a hotel company contract for a technical product has made a colossal sale. Which reminds us that unlike James Bond, we have to pay for it.
A License for Skepticism
It’s no wonder our industry has been on the lagging edge of technology
in recent decades. “Money for systems?” the controller would say,
“We can barely afford a new housekeeper with rising healthcare costs.”
Now hotels are accepting the reality that improved technology can actually
save labor costs. In some cases, it will even improve the top line.
That “expiration date” on some of our legacy systems and a concurrent labor
shortage indicate that there has never been a better time for our industry
to consider the most advanced technology it can demand. In some cases,
we will get what we ask for. In other instances, we will get a headache
that persists for months. I like to write about the awesome potential
of technology products, but having “gone live” more than a few times in
the course of my hospitality career, I have a license to be skeptical.
Wireless POS - The Chicken or the Egg
Extending POS functionality to areas such as poolside, ringside, exhibition centers, and casino floors, without laying an inch of cable is the reality of this application. Symbol, IBM, and InfoGenesis have been partners in some phenomenal feats of system capability in the equivocally challenging and high profile lodging market of Las Vegas.
At Turner Field stadium in Atlanta, GA about 50 handhelds are used during each sporting event to bring a higher level of guest satisfaction in the club level sections. The wireless handhelds are used for in-seat service via MICROS POS and can even accept credit card processing and have attachable printers for reciepts.
The demand for wireless infrastructure has been increasing for some time now, driven by hospitality and entertainment magnates such as Walt Disney World, Mandalay Resort Group, and Gaylord Entertainment. A handful of POS and PMS companies have been developing proprietary wireless handheld systems in partnerships with hi-tech industry giants that include: IBM, Microsoft, Ericsson, Intel, Nokia, and Toshiba.
Through my conversation with Dave Brigida, a Business Development Executive for IBM’s Travel & Transportation segment, I learned that “there may soon be a major market trigger for exciting, affordable wireless technology”. Soon, I interpreted, was not before programmers get some sleep, which is subsequent to the present era of Y2K and its residual “bug”. Read: at least six months from now, but realistically more than twelve. Dave Brigida along with Charlie Quinn, Vice President of IBM’s Hospitality Division emphasized the vendor’s quest for standardization of wireless protocol used to create the systems.
With standardization comes investment, then reliability and affordability, which drives the competition and so turns the capitalistic cogs of the hi-tech industry. Market demand, as I mentioned, is the chicken and the egg in this scenario.
Have You Ever Met a Guest Who Likes to Wait in Line?
Hotel operators are expecting streamlined operations, while the guest end user is also expecting service enhancing revolutions from our industry. For one, they hate standing in line. Any line these days is a serious waste of one’s time, especially for the commercial traveler who flies from NewYork to Los Angeles in the course of a day and squeezes eight hours of business into a four hour meeting, while working on five hours of sleep. Including flight, driving and dining time, the whole day is nearly accounted for.
Enter remote check in systems. Your shuttle driver retrieves this road warrior from the corporate lions den and delivers him directly to his guestroom, bypassing the front desk with a wireless device that interfaces with the PMS to assign room, reward loyalty points, and provide access card to the guestroom. You’ve just furnished someone with 10 to 20 extra minutes to do something constructive, even pleasurable, like phoning their spouse on the cordless guestroom telephone which allows them to converse while unpacking and changing for dinner.
Managing peak period is critical for maximum property utilization and profitability. Handheld service devices currently used by restaurant servers minimize the time needed to take and input a food order. This time saved translates into faster turnover of tables, increased covers, and increased revenues. Devices that simplify the ordering, payment, and communicating processes are sure to reduce costs.
Improving guest service with management communication and information systems requires many physical components; the hardware (in this study, the “hand held” device), the network (one without wires!), the operating system, the software, and a sophisticated relational database management tool. Remember that unless it can be extracted and reused, data captured during a transaction is useless. Another increasingly important component in the wireless LAN is the monitoring software that maintains the sophisticated network. Don’t sign up without it! All of these components must communicate seamlessly with one another for truly seamless integration.
And this is where standards are necessary. There are many ideas in the marketplace for what a wireless communication standard should be, but until the industry agrees on one, there is not yet a standard. This is the waiting and watching period for the prospective buyer of wireless hospitality products. Just one of the front runner candidates for a wireless communication standard is BlueTooth™. The five founding companies of the BlueTooth Special Interest Group (SIG) are each high-tech household names and mentioned elsewhere in this article. At one point 50 companies a week were enlisting with the SIG to contribute to and benefit from the specifications that are expected to form a standard. Research company Dataquest has predicted that 79 percent of digital handsets and nearly 200 million PCs will incorporate Bluetooth™ technology by 2002.
In addition to traditional hospitality functions migrating to wireless
networks, there is some intriguing and truly new technology being offered
over the radio frequency waves. Asset management tools such as Motorola’s
iFind™ wireless location system is another fascinating application of wireless
technology. The iFind™ components begin with a series of “tags”,
which are radio frequency transmitting devices affixed to the hotel’s assets.
Most of these tags are the size of a razor blade or a quarter, and have
the thickness of a nickel. So inconspicuous and easy to monitor are
these tags that you can mount them on your most precious and most mobile
assets, your employees. The wireless device can be tracked continuously,
or on demand. This means your guests can also be furnished with a
“tag” that will ensure your staff’s prompt attention if they opt to signal
Motorola’s technology is not to be confused with the Global Positioning System (GPS) technology that has been finding its way onto golf carts and fairways in recent years. Unlike GPS, which relies on unobstructed communications with orbiting satellites, the radio technology employed by iFind™ can be operated indoors as well, for total property control.
Asset tracking devices utilizing bar coding and handheld scanners have been managing inventory for mega operations for a few years now. InvoTech has recently expanded its uniform and linen tracking product line to include a broad scale Asset & Inventory Management Module which will use a bar code label or a radio frequency chip to track items. What makes this wireless technology exciting is that it is becoming available to more properties. Economies of scale and the price curve of the products is making them a reality for non-resort properties. Harvey Wells, CEO of InvoTech, notes that “the demand is now coming from many types of properties, but their common objective is to protect assets, manage the cost of expendable items, and ensure accountability.”
From the Front Lines to the Front Desk
Perhaps more than any other sector, the defense industry must demonstrate accountability for each and every item of supply and weaponry. The United States military is also considered the original pioneer of wireless communication. Former Army artillery officers Keith McNally, Dan Drummond, and Bill Roof believed they could apply the wireless management tools used by their former employer to the hospitality industry. They were also looking for more comfortable quarters.
Together they founded Ameranth™, a wireless systems solution that is mesmerizing industry leaders with its portable potential. The 21st Century Hotel™ is comprised of a rugged UltraPad™ 2700, a portable encoding printer, Symbol Technologies™ Spectrum24 wireless LAN, and the Microsoft Windows™ CE operating system. The product is brought to market through partnerships with POS and PMS companies such as: HSI, InfoGenesis, Squirrel, Aloha, and PosiTouch to name a few. More software vendors are eager to take advantage of the high level of interoperability offered by the Ameranth products which include the 21st Century Restaurant™ and the recently unveiled 21st Century Casino™.
Keith McNalley, CEO of Ameranth™ credits the UltraPad™ 2700 with being a world-class mobile wireless terminal. Featuring a laser scanner, finger-on-glass touchscreen sensitivity, and a magnetic stripe reader, the waterproof, dustproof, and greaseproof palm computer weighs in at ¾ of a pound. And speaking of palm computers, 3Com’s recent decision to spin off its Palm Computing unit is further evidence that wireless technology is coming of age and is ready to stand on its own. 3Com will hold an initial public offering for a 20 percent stake in Palm Computing which had $570 million in fiscal 1999 sales. Palm revenues have more than doubled annually for the past several years, while the cost of a palm computer has dropped by nearly more than 50 percent.
So Where Are the Pitfalls of Wireless Communication?
Why have we yet to see the proliferation of these wonder tools? The products I have described throughout this article are in beta sites throughout the country. A standard remains a key concern. Then there is the actual key, the last step in the remote check in process. To date, no one has been able to deliver a wireless check in product with a portable key encoder. Inter-American Data (IAD), who also sells and develops mobile solutions expects to deliver their CIAO (Check In And Out) solution by year-end. They are waiting on the final delivery of a “thin client” Palm Pilot that will be able to speak to their AS/400 applications natively using an eXtensible Markup Language (XML). The XML format ensures that the operating system will not be dictated by the thin client. Also in beta will be a mobile key encoder and printer.
IAD provides some of the most robust PMSs known in the industry and has a strong presence in the gaming hotel market. As systems providers in some of the most discerning service environments including the Breaker’s in Palm Beach, the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, and the Greenbrier in West Virginia, the developers at IAD have been holding out for the final piece of the puzzle. “We have been able to check people in remotely for years” says Criss Crestman, Chief Technology Officer for IAD, “but we always had to send them to a different line to get their key, so we weren’t quite sure of what we were accomplishing. We consider the mobile encoder to be the “key” technological factor for the success of this application.”
Charlie Quinn at IBM cautioned me at the beginning of my research that there are some amazing wireless innovations entering the marketplace, most of which have not yet arrived at their full potential. These are the products to watch. They have competitive advantage written all over them. Don’t be too zealous, but don’t put them off too long either. Once proven, the demand will be so high that nobody will be available to field your inquiries, let alone come out and install it.
Elizabeth Lauer is a consulting and valuation analyst for HVS International. She can be reached via email at email@example.com.
|Also See:||Business Centers: Finally a Revenue Producer / Elizabeth Lauer / UdpatePlus / Summer 1999|
|Confused about Hotel Property Management Systems? It wouldn’t be surprising since there are so many choices / Jon Inge / UpdatePlus / Summer 1999|
|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|