Interview of the month - James Harrison talks to us about technology
James Harrison – the former of Technology Consulting Services answers our questions about technology in hospitality. With 15 years’ experience in technology, and more than half of that time dedicated to the Hospitality sector, James has a wealth of knowledge but also a millennial’s eye view. James has worked with a multitude of consultants over time, many of whom helped shape the knowledge he now brings to the table, others just reinforced the need to share his experience with others.
James’ career has encompassed many technical and consultative roles, focusing on network architecture, WiFi, VOIP and IPTV. With a blend of technical skills that also includes RF architecture, this completes a “holy trinity” of requirements for the Hotel Guest Room. Spending the last 8 years travelling the globe, has given James a close insight into requirements of all regions of the world.
The Initiative: In the hospitality sector, the biggest energy, and what follows – the revenue, come from operations. We know those best in managing the constant chaos of a busy hotel or a restaurant, those who place the relations between the host and the guest, are rather unlikely to be tech geeks. Many modern managers understand some of the modern technologies that surround us, but they don’t fully comprehend the vast oceans of new products available for both, Front of the House, and Back of the House. Even the IT department in hospitality are used to managing hardware and networks, rather than multiple software and systems. Do we have to change the way we manage our hotels, restaurants and employees in the era of technology? Is this the high time for getting more hands on? Or should we be introducing Technology Development as a part of our organisational structure?
James Harrison: As a technology consultant, and someone who is passionate in the use of technology, I believe very strongly that technology should be complimentary in its use. This is to say, that changing the way a hotel is managed is not the starting point. The starting point should always be correctly identifying the problem, and seeking out the correct person, or software to solve the issue.
As for getting more hands on, technology should be the enabler that allows you to get more hands on, but that is hands on with your actual day job, giving the guests the experience they crave! Good technology should enable you to be “hands off” the technology. While we know that a “set and forget” mindset is dangerous when it comes to technology deployments, this is no excuse for a poor deployment that needs constant fine tuning!
Technology development however, is a critical part of any organisational structure. Hotels, restaurants, all hospitality providers should look to have technology champions. People who do the day job, have a passion for technology (or at least an interest), but are not part of the IT department. These people should be allowed to identify issues where they believe there is an opportunity to improve process, reduce costs, or improve guest satisfaction. Long gone are the days of IT departments making technology decisions because it makes their lives easier.
TI: Technology seems to start saving us a lot of time in running our businesses, and it also optimises revenues in many ways, and for as much as in case of large organisations it is quite obvious we need dedicated teams to roll out, implement and monitor the systems in use, many owners of small businesses are left confused. To what extent can we trust our own research and judgement in what products we need to implement? When do we need to turn to a consultant for help?
JH: Absolutely. Technology deployments should not be taken lightly. As for where you take on help, and whether you turn to a consultant depends on the knowledge level in your existing team. As a consultant, I would first say it is key to analyse the knowledge you have as part of your team to see who can bring their skills to your project. Maybe there is people who can help identify where you have needs, issues, pain points. If you first identify these then you could turn to a consulting firm, such as HotelTCS, who can help you determine which technology products can solve some of these issues.
Correctly selecting a consultant can then help you manage and deploy the project, ensuring it stays within the agreed budget.
If you struggle to find time or knowledge internally, a consultancy firm can help by beginning the project with a business analyst or process consultant, before engaging the technical team.
TI: Technology advances so fast nowadays, we see new software popping out like mushrooms after rain on a cool November day. Executives, directors and managers in hotels get literally bombarded with invitations for free dinners with system presentations, demos and staff trainings, sponsored products, you name it. There are AI systems for Front of the House that help with guest profiling and chat bots, systems to integrate the guest room tech, not mentioning the extremes like self-check in stations for some hotel brands. For the admin side, we now have countless systems for almost everything – employee sign in with geo location that is connected to payroll, employment engagement measuring phone apps, too many to name. Maintenance, purchasing, stocktaking, people management – literally every area of hotel operation has something new, innovative, exciting happening now. For the smoothest operation, all those systems need to be able to speak to each other, and we know data transferability is slowly becoming an issue nowadays. How to make sure we are choosing right products for our businesses? Do we have to create technology implementation strategies?
JH: You mention some important points there, some of which strike fear into managers. Firstly, I totally agree, all those systems MUST speak to each other to enable seamless operations. There is no space in our industry for software which operates within a closed ecosystem. Even the historic big players are finally becoming open to be open (my favourite phrase).
Data transferability is a concern these days, but not an issue. Any software provider you engage with is bound to design their software within data production rules/GDPR compliance. If you are looking to work with systems that previously didn’t communicate, it is wise to engage with a consultant who offers a specialism in GDPR compliance.
A technology implementation strategy is key to any business deploying technology. This doesn’t need to be anything that is to in-depth, but a consultant can help you develop one. In its most basic sense it needs to very clearly out line what any technology project should achieve. Something that’s clear but applies to all the projects you will deploy and can be returned to at any time to see you are achieving it. It’s also important to implement a lessons learned process following deployment, and use this to build and improve the strategy ready for the next project.
I just named some examples of the FOH technology and BOH technology. One makes our lives easier and helps us control our costs better, the others are to make our guests’ live easier and generate better revenues. Which of those two ways you see as more valuable for hospitality?
TI: Is it at all possible to go forward without complex technology in place?
JH: Yes! I say yes as a technology consultant due to one word in that sentence, “Complex”. There is no need in our industry for unnecessarily complex software. While some of it may be complex to deploy, it should be deployed with ease of use, simply integrated into the day to day operations. Complex comes when you deploy technology for technologies sake! If you run a huge restaurant, handheld ordering is great because of the available data, the details of the order hit the kitchen before the server has left the table. This is great for planning, and timing in a busy kitchen. In a 20-cover bistro, with 2 chef’s, it probably just over complicates things! Always think of what you want to achieve first, before you look at what the technology can do.
TI: What are the expectations of our restaurant and hotel guests when it comes to tech in hospitality? Can we generalise and say younger people take tech for min standard and older generations perceive it as a novelty?
JH: Interesting view. As providers of hospitality we should be aware of sweeping generalisations, however we do know there is some truth in what each of the generations want from technology, and indeed their hotel stay. I recently wrote a post over on the HotelTCS blog regarding Millennials, and what the each (apart from Avocado’s). As a technology consultant and proud member of the Millennial generation I know what I want, but perhaps I’m an anomaly.
What we do know, is that regardless of generation or age, all our guests want technology to “just work”. They want a seamless experience, technology that improves their stay, and something that is easy to operate.
At the Baby Boomer and Gen X end of the spectrum they are now familiar with using technology, but will not use it if it gets in the way of what they actually want. For example, tablet based room service ordering may be used by this age of guests, but if they haven’t hit what they need in 3 clicks, you can bet they give up and are on the phone to the concierge!
Our Millennials and Gen Z’s (and perhaps with their Gen Alpha kids), have a similar experience but for different reasons. These guests have grown up in a connected generation. They have 2 or 3 smart devices of their own which they operate all the time with no issue. When using an in-room tablet or IPTV system they will easily become frustrated if it doesn’t deliver an experience similar to what they are familiar with.
The key take away here is that actually, all guests will interact with technology to some degree, if it is correctly deployed!
TI: What is the tech we can't go without vs. the new technology that will make us jump much ahead our competitors?
JH: Linear TV, as we approach 2020, is something that we believe would be dead. Yet, we still have it. This is because our average guest still requires it, and it will be some time before we see it totally removed from hotels. While the delivery to the building itself may change (IP deliver rather than satellite), guest will still demand it. Many a guest will still wish to have a rolling news channel available in room, even for the background. That’s not forgetting casting of course, this should be standard now, and indeed many chains have standardised its deployment. That said, this is still considered newer technology, even though hotels have been deploying these solutions for 6 years now.
The technology that will make us jump ahead? Anything that enables dynamic pricing. Dynamic pricing has of course been common place for reservations for many years. 2020 is the year when this will be brought internally, for room service, mini bars, experiences. Deploying technology that allows you to price F&B or services dynamically to the time of day or week, room rate, or occupancy level will be a winner for increasing revenue.