Monday
Feb212011

Are You Keeping Up With Today’s Traveler?

As a frequent traveler, I am ever so grateful when the entire travel process runs smoothly. Granted, just during a typical business trip, there are endless possible bumps along the road: airport security, flight delay, weather, baggage claim, traffic, missing reservation, unprepared guest room, incorrect folio billing…and the list could go on. In fact, when my wife asks “How was your trip?” my standard response is “Uneventful.” And, that’s a good thing.

Thankfully, today’s ever expanding technology options allow travelers more and more ways to manage their own travel experience to meet their specific expectations. Not only can you book your entire reservation online from flights to car rentals to hotel accommodations, but you can customize your experience with onsite activities, dining reservations, local events, etc. - all from the convenience of your personal computer or mobile device. And now, through the beauty of social media, you can easily track your reservation, complete your check-in process or share comments about your stay.

Heck, my nine-year old son is proof. For our family vacation last summer, he completed his own online registration for the resort’s onsite children’s program, indicating such items as food allergies and favorite activities. Then, hand him my iPhone and he can do just about anything. Directions and traffic conditions to the hotel – no problem. Reservations to the local restaurant – easy. Schedule a golf tee time for his dad – yes, he’s even done that too. As I see it, with the increasing number of user friendly, travel technology options, we are easily becoming a generation of “Do-It-Yourself travelers.”

It’s all about streamlining your experience. I recently read an article by Rob Lovitt on msnbc.com about how “some hotel chains are ditching the front desk” altogether. He asserts that “thanks to improvements in technology and the realization among hoteliers that, for some travelers at least, the traditional front desk process is actually a hindrance to good hospitality.” According to Daniel Mount, as associate professor at the School of Hotel Management at Penn State, it’s all about consistency. “Self-service is consistent – it’s not always outstanding, but it’s consistent.” So as more and more tech-savvy travelers embrace this self-service model, hoteliers need to respond.

How is your hotel organization keeping up with this demand? Do you have a system in place that allows your customers to streamline and automate their stay? Do you know, for example, that Mr. Smith, your frequent business guest, prefers extra pillows and would like them automatically delivered to his room prior to his arrival? Or, better yet, do you have an online customer portal that offers stay-aware content and self-service options for your in-house and frequent guests to have direct access and control over their account information?

But, it’s not just that simple. As Lovitt points out, “The thought process is evolving. Excellence in customer service revolves around letting (your) guest choose the way they want to interact with the hotel.” Remember Mr. Smith with the extra pillows? Yes, he may want to follow a self-service model while traveling on business, but then prefer more personalized interaction while on a family vacation. There is the human factor. “Whatever the system, proponents of self-service travel insist it’s not about eliminating human contact, but rather changing the nature of it and, potentially, enhancing it. Those who prefer to interact with a human being (should) always have the option of doing so.”

And, here’s another consideration: self-service technology may not be right for some market segments. Mount’s studies indicate that “It probably won’t work in resorts where guests have a lot of questions – Where is this? Where is that? – or at high-end properties. The higher the average rate, the more people want human beings to wait on them.” So, when Mr. Smith takes Mrs. Smith on a once-in-a-lifetime, romantic, second honeymoon to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary, he expects the ultimate in personalized, guest service. He wants champagne delivered to their suite. He wants a couples massage at the spa. He wants dining reservations at the finest restaurant.

The question is – does your hotel deliver? Granted, every traveler is not headed to a high-end property; every hotel doesn’t offer chocolate dipped strawberries. But, does your organization meet the ever changing needs of today’s traveler? Do you offer self-service options for the tech-savvy customer to manage their own experience? Can you also provide customized, personal service for the guest who prefers more human contact? And, most importantly, do you currently have a technology system in place that enables you to manage both of these different guest expectations?

A comprehensive Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system provides a complete 360-degree view of your customer, so you can build and maintain strong, lasting customer relationships, no matter what type of traveler they may be. It facilitates collaboration and communication across your organization so guest expectations are easily met. It integrates with your other hospitality management systems and synchronizes with current social media networks. It even offers customer portal technologies that enable your guest to have direct access to their account, offering ease and convenience before, during and after their stay. Ultimately, a CRM system provides you with the tools to meet the needs of every type of traveler and deliver guest satisfaction.

Are you keeping up with today’s traveler? CRM may be your answer.



Thursday
Oct282010

Data Analytics – Things That Make You Say Hmmm...

Assigning monetary value to customer data is a concept that few hotel businesses seem to be embracing, although it makes a great deal of sense to do. We treat everything else in our organizations as assets with measurable financial worth: inventory, people, property, etc. But, have you ever sat down and calculated a dollar value for your customer database? What about the monetary value of a specific guest? My guess is that you probably have not.

So what would go into such a calculation? You should certainly consider past, current and future earnings for each customer in your database. Then, with a fair degree of certainty, this information will reveal how much revenue you can expect that account, group or guest to spend in the future based on past performance. Over the years, hospitality organizations have “guesstimated” this information when forecasting based on a variety of sales and performance metrics that they track. Rarely has this information been obtained from an easy to access, real time, on demand data source – until now. With the rapidly expanding development of cloud based technologies, hotel organizations now have the ability to examine their customer database and accurately assign monetary value.

But, what about risk? The loss of any data that you maintain, particularly if it contains information subject to regulatory control (credit card numbers, etc.) carries a certain amount of risk if that data was ever lost, damaged or stolen. It’s the same as if you had inventory lost, damaged or stolen. And, as you accumulate more data, your risk of loss increases. This is why a cloud based solution is so ideal. Take Salesforce.com, for example, the global leader in customer relationship management and cloud computing. Salesforce.com is not only the world’s #1 sales application, but it also utilizes some of the most advanced technology for Internet security available today. So, when you access their site using industry standard Secure Socket Layer (SSL) technology, your customer data is automatically protected using both server authentication and data encryption, ensuring that your information is safe, secure, and available only to registered users in your organization. Your data is guaranteed to be completely inaccessible to your competitors.

Here’s another consideration when managing your customer information: many technology vendors actually charge their customers to access their own data. Now, this baffles me. It’s your data so you should not be charged anything additional for using it. It’s not like it’s the vendor’s own proprietary database; most likely, it’s Microsoft, Oracle, SyBase or some other flavor. And, the copy and exporting of that data is not affecting the vendor’s application. Your customer information should be available to you to be freely exported to another system so that it can be analyzed and used more effectively. Or better yet, you should be able to have data exchanged between vendor applications and other external solutions.

So, now that you have all this customer data, what do you do with it? Comprehensive data analysis is critical for the Revenue Analyst who, for example, may want to prepare next year’s budget by querying, “What effect do various business sources have on our revenue?” To answer this question they need to examine hotel sales through such sources as online travel agents (i.e. Expedia, Travelocity), GDS, property website, direct sales, 800 number, etc. Then, with these clearly reported statistics, they can determine which sources are most profitable, produce the highest return on investment, and should therefore be accounted for in the future budget and part of the hotel’s distribution strategy.

Knowing all about your frequent customers is also a very important aspect of your overall business success. But, what about those customers that have stopped or decreased the amount of business with your hotel? For example, do you know which one of your frequent, loyal guests has not visited your property in the past six months? An effective CRM should be capable of examining your producing and non-producing accounts and contacts, see those guests, travel agencies, and companies that have changed their stay patterns and buying habits. From those results, you can then create an email campaign to reestablish contact or an action item for your Guest Services or Sales Manager to telephone the customer directly.

A final consideration when analyzing the overall value of your customer and their stay tendencies is to collect the information from various sources (PMS, CRS, activity management systems, etc.). One source is not enough. For example, what if your customer stays in your hotel only a few times a year, but dines in your restaurant three times month? Or, what if they exclusively have treatments in your Spa on a regular basis? Relying on only one data source can really skew the analysis of your customer’s value to your organization. So, having a comprehensive system that brings all that information together is the key.

Things to ponder about your data analytics:

1.     Can your current system assign monetary value to your customer data?

2.     Is your data secure?

3.     Do you have complete and free access to your data?

4.     Are you using all your data to improve your customer relationships?

No doubt that effectively collecting, analyzing and securing all your customer data is as important as ever to your organization’s success. Hmmm…

Wednesday
Aug252010

Leveraging the Power of the Internet

According to Internet World Stats (www.internetworldstats.com), there are over 1.9 billion Internet Users (roughly 28.7% of the world’s population). Over 77% of the North American population uses the Internet, followed by Oceania/Australia (61.3%) and Europe (58.4%) with the highest levels. As of July 2010, 500 million people all around the world are actively using Facebook to stay connected with their friends and the people around them. There are now over 100 million Twitter accounts, tweeting 65 million messages per day.

Does your hospitality organization have an Internet strategy? That’s a loaded question. That’s because, today, there are various components to the Internet. First, most hotels are available to be booked on travel agency systems (GDSs) and other online travel agencies (OTAs) like Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, along with thousands of others. In fact, approximately 90 million American adults planned travel during the past year, with 76 percent of them using the Internet to plan their trip. Most online travel planners are somewhat or extremely satisfied with their experiences in using the Internet to plan their trips. Importantly, most see the Internet as a very useful or essential tool for planning many/most aspects of a trip including where to stay overnight, planning travel routes, potential places to visit, attractions to visit, as well as learning about what to do. The primary tools for travel planning are online travel agency websites, search engines, company websites and destination websites. Airline tickets, overnight lodging accommodations and car rentals are the dominant travel products and services purchased online by travel planners. (Source: Travelers’ Use of the Internet)

Your organization’s website probably provides your customers the ability to book rooms directly. But, is that all it does? As the general public becomes more Internet savvy, it is more important than ever to position and represent your hotel properly on your website, while providing plenty of features and functionality. For example, in addition to pictures and directions, does your website allow you to communicate and exchange information with your customers? Can they make changes to their profile? Update their preferences? Manage past and future stays? Get a copy of a past folio? Make service requests?

A Customer Portal is a consumer-facing application that offers stay-aware content and self-service options for hotel guests and customers. It can also be extended to include links to your hotel’s web booking engine, car rental reservations or airline check-in options, thus providing your customers with a single access point to all their travel online. It’s been established that people are more likely to provide details about themselves (phone numbers, email address, birthdays, likes, dislikes) in a secure Internet environment than in a paper questionnaire or face-to-face interview. Embedding a Customer Portal into your website provides this security to your guests along with upcoming reservation information to print property maps, directions or even coordinate airport pick-up. Additionally, your customers may request room assignments, review concierge offerings and make activity reservations for their stay.

A Customer Portal can also provide a set of applications that are stay-specific. These features allow your in-house guests to learn about hotel amenities, along with local attractions, weather and maps. Customers can request housekeeping services or review their bills. They can even schedule spa appointments, golf tee times and other activities at the click of a button. From dining reservations and room service to posting their online survey, customers can directly customize their stay. And, for those guests that have already checked out, they are able to view past stay information and guest folios, sign up for email offers, post travel reviews and update their stay preferences for future visits.

A Customer Portal can also become an integral part of your loyalty and rewards program by offering program members a way to view and manage their membership data online, redeem reward points, purchase gift certificates and request room upgrades.

And here’s the best feature. A Customer Portal can integrate seamlessly with your Customer Relationship Management application. What’s the benefit? All information such as guest preferences, service requests, activity reservations or survey results is then automatically reflected on your customer’s profile, triggering any pre-defined task assignments and workflow rules.

What’s your go-forward website strategy? A simple booking engine doesn’t cut it any longer. Your customers are demanding more, and a Customer Portal can deliver.

Monday
Jul052010

Libra OnDemand Summer'10 Release Adds Major Enhancements

We are pleased to announce the release of the Summer’10 version of Libra OnDemand, which is a major release that incorporates several significant enhancements on both the back-end and the application levels.

Back-End Enhancements

Optimized Data Model

The data model for the application has been optimized to provide better support for the functional enhancements that have taken place since the product launch in March 2009. We have removed deprecated data components, standardized the structure of guest preferences, improved the model for storing statistical data, introduced new objects for storing availability and rate information, introduced dynamic components on reservations and built support for group blocks and multi-rate records. This new optimized data model provides a solid foundation for future growth of the product.

- Removed deprecated objects and fields
- Removed non-essential Tabs and Report Types
- Removed LOD Settings object, replaced with Salesforce Custom Settings functionality
- Combined Reservation preferences, notes and specials into a single object
- Combined Contact preferences, notes and specials into a single object
- Enhanced standard Activities object to support Flags on Reservations
- Synchronization of Flags and Preferences between Reservations and Guest Profiles (Contacts)
- Converted multiple field types on Reservations from Text to Lookup and Picklist
- Added Group Blocks, Room Types, Rate Codes, Room Rates and Negotiated Rates objects to support new functionality
- Replaced Revstat Rooms object with Stat Roomtypes to support storing of availability data
- Replaced Revstat Accounts object with Stat Reservations to support storing of both daily reservations statistics and planned daily rate and roomtype changes
- New Queue object for receiving and updating statistical and availability information
- New MatchQueue object for receiving new and updated reservation profiles data
- Matching logic is now stored in unmanaged state to allow customer-specific customizations

Optimized Matching Engine

The matching engine is a core component of the application that provides the ability to match incoming reservations with existing guest profiles and other reservations that already exist in the system. A number of significant enhancements have been introduced in the new release, with the focus on flexibility and ease of customization of matching rules based on specific requirements of each implementation.

- Matching is now done between incoming and existing guest profiles, incoming reservations and existing profiles, and incoming and existing reservations
- Ability to create custom matching formulas for each of the three matching groups
- Ability to configure custom matching rules by Site
- Ability to store reservations without profiles if match not found (default behavior, will greatly minimize data storage requirement for guest who stay only one time)
- Option to create profiles only after on checkout
- Option to always use PMS profile without matching

Informatica API Integration

Libra OnDemand has partnered with Informatica to use Informatica Platform and Informatica Cloud services as the foundation for third party system integrations. Current release ships with a web services connector between Informatica Cloud and Libra OnDemand, utilizing standard Libra OnDemand web services APIs (Reservations WSS and Stat WS).

Application Enhancements

Guest Room Availability Management

To support the use of Libra OnDemand as a Group Sales Management application, we have enhanced the product with the ability to manage guest rooms inventory and are allowing for both interfaced (with the PMS) and non-interfaced usage scenarios. In an interfaced environment, rooms inventory will be uploaded from the PMS, and availability will be calculated based on received group blocks and reservations. If there is no PMS interface, then a user is able to manually specify rooms inventory and transient allocations.

- Guest room Inventory and Availability by property by room type
- Transient Allocations (to support non-interfaced customers)
- Automatic computation of availability based on Reservations and Group Block data
- A new visualforce screen to display availability by Property, by Date and by Room Type
- Two-way Room Type and Rate Code synchronization with PMS

Reservations Enhancements

Reservations object has been enhanced to allow modification and creation of new reservations natively in Libra OnDemand, with back-end support for dynamic API calls to PMS and CRS applications.

- Last Name is now used as the primary record name field
- Support for daily room and rate changes during stay
- Lookups on room types and room rates
- Picklist fields for configurable parameters

Group Blocks and Group Rates Management Enhancements

To provide full end-to-end group sales functionality, we have added the ability to define  Group Blocks and Group Rates, including the ability to manage Agreed, Blocked and Picked Up values. The new Rates Management functionality allows to set up Rate plans with default and group-specific values, including the support for shoulder rates and comp room allocations.

- Group Name is now used as the primary record name field
- Group Blocks by date and by room type
- Agreed, Blocked and Picked Up values by room type, by date
- Rate Codes and Room Rates with occupancy-based property-specific default rate amounts
- Group Rates with group-specific rate amounts
- Complimentary rooms by group
- Shoulder rates (rates for guest stays before and after the group block)
- A new visualforce page to manage group blocks
- A new visualforce page to manage group rates
- Optional integration with standard SFDC CRM Opportunities object
- Lookup relationship to Events object to allow multiple groups under one Event

Guest Services Enhancements

The new release consolidates all previously released features on guest services management that have until now been customer-specific and existed outside of the main package. We have streamlined the process of managing guest preferences, notes, amenities and flags and implemented synchronization of these items between guest profiles and reservations.

- Guest Preferences and Contact Preferences objects now combine all types of guest-related information, such as notes, preferences, specials and amenities
- Automatic lookup of Specials if matching categories found
- Synchronization of Preferences between guest profiles and guest reservations
- Guest Flags as a Task type
- Recurring Flags (between stays and between days of stay)
- Two-way Specials synchronization with PMS (configurable)

Analytics Enhancements

The changes made to the data model of the application allow us to introduce enhanced reporting capabilities, that cover not only past performance, but also allow forecasting on occupancy, revenues and group performance (based on reservations on the books data). The optimized data structure makes reporting more straight-forward and easier to use. Removal of managed report type components allows a user to create a greater number of custom report types.

- Ability to forecast occupancy and revenues
- Ability to create custom report types
- Ability to drill down into reservation level from statistical reports
- New Stay Analytics dashboard
- New Top Producers dashboard

Release Availability and Upgrades

The Summer’10 release is available now for all new customers, through the Trial subscription at www.libraondemand.com.

Existing customers on previous release levels will be upgraded by Libra OnDemand Customer Support. There is no cost for performing this upgrade and there will be minimal downtime that will be coordinated with each customer. To schedule your upgrade, please log a case through your Libra OnDemand Support Portal or contact your account executive. 

Thursday
Jul012010

HITEC 2010 in the Cloud

The “cloud” was certainly a popular topic at this year’s Hospitality Industry Technology Exposition & Conference (HITEC) in Orlando, Florida.  It seems that many vendors are touting that their solutions are now “in the cloud” and therefore are offering all the benefits that come with this technology.  But, are they really?  There’s a lot of what I call “cloud washing” in our industry (and others), whereby companies re-label their products as cloud computing, produced by marketing innovation instead of real innovation.  The result is a lot of overblown hype surrounding “cloud computing.”

What, exactly, is this cloud?  Put simply, the cloud is a collection of computers and servers that are publicly accessible via the Internet.  This hardware is typically owned and operated by a third party in one or more data center locations.  The machines can run any combination of operating systems; it’s the processing power of the machines that matter, not what their desktops look like.

Cloud Computing: What It Is — And What It Isn’t

To some, cloud computing might sound a little like network computing — but it isn’t.  With network computing, applications and data are hosted on a single company’s server(s) and accessed over the company’s network.  Cloud computing is a lot bigger than that. It encompasses multiple companies, multiple servers, and multiple networks.  Plus, unlike network computing, cloud services and storage are accessible from anywhere in the world over an Internet connection; with network computing, access is over the company’s network only.

The key difference between network computing and cloud computing is the cloud itself.  The applications and data served by the cloud are available to a broad group of authorized users using different operating system platforms via the Internet.  It isn’t apparent (and, in most cases doesn’t matter) whether cloud services are based on HTTP, HTML, XML, JavaScript, or other specific technologies; to the user, the technology and infrastructure behind the cloud is invisible.

In short, cloud computing enables a shift from the computer to the user, from applications to tasks, and from isolated data to information that can be accessed from anywhere and shared with anyone.  The user no longer has to take on the task of data management; he doesn’t even have to remember where the data is.  All that matters is that the information is securely in the cloud, and thus immediately available to that user and to other authorized users.

Inside the Cloud: How Cloud Computing Works

In cloud computing, a network of computers functions as a single computer.  This network exists in the cloud of IP addresses that we know as the Internet, offers massive computing power and storage capability, and enables wide-scale group collaboration.

Individual users connect to the cloud from their own personal computers or portable devices (such as Apple’s iPhone or iPad).  To these individual users, the cloud is seen as a single application, device, or document.  The hardware in the cloud (and the operating system that manages the hardware connections) is invisible.

This cloud architecture is deceptively simple, although it does require some intelligent management to connect all those computers together and assign task processing to multitudes of users.  Each cloud uses various monitoring and metering functions to track usage so that resources are apportioned and attributed to the proper user(s).

This automation of management tasks is key to the notion of cloud computing.  The system isn’t a cloud if it requires human management to allocate processes to resources.  For a system to attain true cloud status, automated processes must replace manual management.

Understanding Cloud Services

Any Web-based application or service offered via cloud computing is called a cloud service.  Cloud services can include anything from calendar and contact applications to word processing and presentations to business applications, including but not limited to PMS, CRM, CRS and POS.  An individual user runs the application over the Internet, typically within a Web browser. The browser accesses the cloud service and an instance of the application is opened within the browser window.  Once launched, the Web-based application operates and behaves like a standard desktop application.  The only difference is that the application and the working data remain on the host’s cloud servers.  On the downside, cloud services can only be accessed when a user has a live Internet connection; they’re not suited for instances where no Internet connection is available.

Why Cloud Computing Matters

Why is cloud computing important?

For developers, cloud computing provides increased amounts of storage and processing power to run the applications they develop.  Cloud computing also enables new ways to access information, process and analyze data, and connect people and resources from any location anywhere in the world.  In essence, it takes the lid off the box; with cloud computing, developers are no longer boxed in by physical constraints.

For your hotel’s IT department, cloud computing offers more flexibility in computing power, often at lower costs.  With cloud computing, IT departments don’t have to engineer for peak-load capacity, because the peak load can be spread out among the external assets in the cloud.  And, because additional cloud resources are always at the ready, companies no longer have to purchase assets (servers, workstations, and the like) for infrequent intensive computing tasks or new hotel openings.  If you need more processing power, it’s always there in the cloud — and accessible on a cost-efficient basis.

For a hospitality organization’s end users, cloud computing offers all these benefits and more.  An individual using a Web-based application isn’t physically bound to a single computer, location, or network. Their applications and data can be accessed wherever and whenever. They don’t have to copy every document and file when moving from office to home to remote location.  Gone also is the fear of losing data if a computer crashes. Documents hosted in the cloud always exist, no matter what happens to the user’s machine.

And then there’s the benefit of group collaboration, for both individuals and organizations.  General Managers and other key personnel can collaborate on the same documents, applications, and projects, in real time.  It’s a whole new world of collaborative computing, all enabled by the notion of cloud computing.

For everyone concerned, cloud computing does all this at lower costs, because the cloud enables more efficient sharing of resources than does traditional network computing.  When you tap into the power of the cloud, you get supercomputing power at personal computer prices — something that offers particular appeal to hotel companies in today’s economy.

Bottom line?  When considering a solution for your organization, I offer the following criteria to be used when determining if a vendor’s application is truly in the cloud:

  • If they are trying to sell you hardware… it’s not a cloud.
  • If there is no API… it’s not a cloud.
  • If you need to re-architect your systems for it… it’s not a cloud.
  • If you know where the machines are… it’s not a cloud.
  • If you need to specify the number of machines you want upfront… it’s not a cloud.
  • If it only runs one operating system… it’s not a cloud.
  • If you can’t connect to it from your own computer or personal device… it’s not a cloud.
  • If you need to install software to use it… it’s not a cloud.
  • If you own all the hardware… it’s not a cloud.