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Selecting new computerized systems: some thoughts on easing the process

The Room Chronicle, Vol. 6, No. 5

September/October 1998.

Rooms Division personnel are being asked to participate more and more frequently in the selection of new computerized systems for their hotel. Property owners and managers are recognizing the competitive advantages to be gained through the astute use of these systems and high occupancies are making their purchase possible.

Whether selecting a Property Management System (PMS) or one for call accounting, revenue management, in-room entertainment system or any of the dozens of other tasks where computerized systems are available, the purchase consists of many steps.

Thoughtful, thorough progression through that shopping process -- determining what is needed, what is available and how it will be installed -- is key to a successful installation. It is a complex journey, a road that I as a consultant to hotel companies in their selection of central reservation systems and electronic marketing with those systems though Global Distribution Systems an the Internet, have been down many times. May I share some of the lessons I have learned?

  • Determine the Needs of all Users -- Think carefully about all of the individuals who will be affected by a new system. Take time to explain the plan to install new technology and ask both the direct and indirect users for their comments and suggestions. Their ideas - and buy-in - can be pivotal to the system’s ultimate success.

  • Write and Prioritize a Needs List -- Prepare a detailed description of the features you want in the system. Prioritize them as either Essential, Important or Desirable. Writing this list ensures that all needs are identified, that everyone is looking for the same features and that there is a checklist with which to evaluate each vendor’s product.

  • Plan for the Future -- Ensure your Needs List reflects expected or likely changes in your operation during the foreseeable future. Might you add more rooms, change your F&B format, install more communication services? Identify future needs so that the system ultimately selected will support those later-added tasks.

  • Attempt Single Stop Shopping -- Consider the benefits of using a vendor who offers a full package of hardware, software, training, installation and support. If this one-stop service is important, assign it a high priority on your Needs List.

  • Remember Interfaces -- the automatic communication of data between systems -- between the Point of Sale terminals and the PMS, for example, is increasingly important. The development of system to system interfaces is being aided by the AH&MA’s HITIS initiative which this year is writing the specification for about 40 hotel system interfaces. Determine the interfaces you need in your new system and add them to your Needs List.

  • Demand to See "The Real Thing" -- At any given time many new computer systems for the hotel industry are "in development", "coming", "nearing completion, "in beta test", etc. What they are NOT, is finished. Be very skeptical about vendor claims -- buy completed systems which you can thoroughly examine and rigorously test. Remember that some prototypes and demos are never completed, to the frustration of hoteliers who have committed to them.

  • Examine the System Thoroughly -- Test all of the procedures you want the system to complete on a fully functioning model of the system (remember, not a demo version!). As you watch each process take place, consider how user friendly it is, how fully it meets your needs and the reporting and logging it provides.

  • Training -- High staff turnover is a fact of life in the hotel industry. The training program that accompanies a computer system is therefore an important consideration. It must be simple to use and understand, quick to complete and possibly multilingual. Ideally it will be both self-administered and computer-based, for on-screen learning. Tests to verify successful completion of each lesson should be part of the training program.

  • Total Cost of Installation -- The purchase cost of the system may be far less than the total cost of installation. In considering bids from vendors, carefully identify all additional costs for such items as site preparation, modifications to other systems, options such as interfaces, shipping costs, taxes, training fees, licenses and installer/trainer travel expenses. Consider too, the length of training and the costs of that employee time.

  • Vendor Stability and Prospects -- The technology sector generally, and certainly that segment of it serving the hotel industry, exhibits never-ending vendor churn, as companies enter and leave the marketplace. In examining computer systems, take time to consider how long the vendor has catered to the hotel industry, how well they are doing and if there are any indications that their future may be shorter than the anticipated life of the system you are seeking.

  • Vendor Attitude -- You are the customer. You deserve a vendor’s undivided attention, prompt responses to your questions and consistent demonstration of their commitment to your satisfaction. If these are lacking, possibly you will want to shop elsewhere.

  • Get It in Writing -- The hotel industry is replete with stories of verbal commitments that are somehow forgotten once the contract is signed. Make sure every special arrangement you make with a vendor is put in writing.

  • Check References -- Don’t rely on references supplied by the vendor. Ask for a list of customers already using the model and version of the system you are evaluating.  Select the companies you will call and then speak with several contacts in each of those companies - one in each area of the operational areas affected by the system. Ask them if they would buy the system again if they had the choice.

  • Examine Customer Support Program -- Consider if the support options being offered to you provide the assistance you need, when you need it, and at a cost you consider acceptable.

  • Prepare a Detailed Installation Plan and Timetable -- Define every step of the installation process during your system evaluation. Identify who will be responsible for what, and the recourse available if the vendor fails to meet each of his deliverables on schedule.

  • Be Thorough -- Take the time required to perform a complete evaluation. You will have to live with the consequences of a rushed decision -- to pay the operational and revenue penalties -- for several years, maybe longer. Investing time in the evaluation process will result in the results you want and need

This list of reminders may appear overwhelming, but its use during system selection will substantially increase the likelihood of the project’s success.