It is no surprise that all three-luxury hotels featured have recently been refurbished, or in the case of the Emirates Palace, are brand new. As the economy continues to grow, the market for high-end breaks is booming and the days of people putting up with anything resembling Fawlty Towers are, thank goodness, long gone. Analysts at Deloitte’s say the overall hotel industry in the UK is seeing double-digit growth across London, as well as strong growth in the regions and it expects this growth to continue. The international market for luxury hotels is also continuing to enjoy excellent growth, reflected by the number of construction projects currently under way.
In the year ahead, Deloitte thinks branding and development of hotel products will be big issues for hotels. It believes that, certainly in the UK, there are some saturation points in the big cities, so brand will become increasingly important. So will changes in guest lifestyles and the need to make their stays be ‘experiential’.
For CIOs in this competitive market there is the dual need to juggle the day-to-day running of operations while taking the technological lead. In the luxury market, it really is the little things that make the difference.
In technology terms this can be as simple as ensuring a laptop or iPod works in rooms or that conference rooms are able to handle the latest media inputs. Planning for the technology needs of the hotel and its guests is critical.
The technology infrastructure has to be one of the first things considered with new or refurbished hotels, according to both Iype Abraham, head of IT for the Mayfair hotel and Martin Coeshott, who was head of IT while the Emirates Palace was being built. There are two other factors that top hotels strive for, anticipating and meeting the needs of guests and differentiating themselves from their competitors. CRM tools to help build guest relationships are proving effective at anticipating needs of past customers but the paying guests at these hotels are very sophisticated and unlikely to be easily wowed by staff remembering their favourite tipple.
Abraham says there is a balance between providing a ‘home from home’ where the home in question has a fully-fledged cinema in the basement and providing treats for the more aspirational guest.
He thinks the most important technological innovation for the hotel market has been high-speed wi-fi links. The Edwardian Radisson group has always provided free wi-fi access, as well as not charging for services in its business centres.
There is some debate about the usefulness of the latest technology for guests, compared to tried and trusted in-room entertainment centres – that is TV.
One side prefers familiar concepts to ones that guests may not have come across before; while the other has thrown many technological advances into their offering.
Of course, for some luxury hotels, which differentiate themselves through their relaxing surroundings, like Alexander House Hotels, having the latest in-room gizmos does not really add up. It is the behind the scenes technology that seems more important, so that guests can be left to relax away from the busy mainstream. For the head of technology it seems getting the right balance is key to the luxury hotel market.
The guests may want to relax in their spa hotels, away from work and the masses but they still want wi-fi access to their email, just in case.
Headquarters: Abu Dhabi
Head of IT: Martin Coeshott, former CIO
The Emirates Palace hotel, owned by the government of Abu Dhabi, took 12,000 men three years and more than $3 billion to build. It dominates the coastline, occupying 1 million square metres of land and stretching over 1.3km from wing to wing. It encompasses 114 domes, 1,002 Swarovski crystal chandeliers, 12 restaurants, nearly a mile of private beach and 3.9m cubic feet of imported marble. Even the hotel’s most modest rooms, each with their 60-inch plasma screens and a personal butler, start at around £450 per night.
The integrated multimedia system is one of the largest and most advanced in the hotel industry. Underwriting that is a technology budget that would have financed the build of a conventional 300-room, five star hotel according to former CIO Martin Coeshott. “There’s more than 1,000km of fibre-optic cable in the backbone system. We have 4,000 devices connected to the network – phones, computers and printers. There are 755 plasma screens with multiple streams, the same number of DVD players, VoIP phones with Bluetooth headsets in the suites and 755 touch-screen control panels.” The advanced room technology was introduced to create a luxurious, ‘tomorrow’s world’ hotel environment, where guests have fingertip control of everything. It uses wi-fi internet access throughout the Palace that reaches from every room, through all the public areas and down as far as the private beach, landscaped gardens and pool areas. One such service is the Palace’s online library, which offers an extensive range of books, films and music that guests can choose from during their stay.
There are video-on-demand and network-based personal video recording facilities available in-room to guests, all accessible via the touch screen panels. “We have a very robust infrastructure, with lots of room for expansion – there are over 15,000 ports. Also, most hotels have 32 IP addresses – we’ve got three subnets to ourselves, giving us over a thousand,” says Coeshott. “When I arrived here, the hotel shell had already been constructed but because of the planned dÈcor – marble floors, walls and pillars, gold-leafed domes and mosaics – I had to walk through and make sure every planned port was in the right space. We had to envisage every conceivable use and piece of equipment – what’s its function, how would we use it in the future? I had to check and re-check every angle because once that marble went up, there was no way we could re-route or change things.”
There are 34 people in the IT team. “From first level on the help desk to second level – dedicated system and network engineers, plus application managers. Recruitment is key – we have 52 nationalities working in this hotel and most staff are at least tri-lingual, but we have deliberately built a team where no single nationality or religion is dominant,” he says.
“Insofar as security is concerned, we’re as tight as we can be,” he says. “There are 16 firewalls, six intrusion detection systems and three network monitoring systems – third-party penetration testing takes place every six months, which reports to server level. There can be no single point of failure with the network and we’ve got built-in redundancy to the ‘nth degree.”
Support-wise, everything is done inhouse. “Inhouse here means low cost but high technical ability and the benefits are incredible,” Coeshott says. “You can add highly capable inhouse staff, they’ll be available 24x7 and it costs you half what it would to buy-in the expertise. It gives us massive negotiating power with support suppliers as we only buy in third level cover.” His advice to other IT directors involved in this type of project is to come in at the start. “Without question, get involved from the very beginning. A lot of decisions are made early on that will affect you.” He also believes that in hospitality, newer does not necessarily mean better. “Guests get used to what they know and the newer you go, generally the more unstable the systems. That means more testing, more teething problems, greater potential for upset,” he says. “One other thing – if I were to do this again, I’d go straight to the source, rather than using middlemen. We had main contractors handling the integration and subcontractors handling the supply and support services – it just muddies the waters and complicates matters.”
Head of IT: Iype Abraham, group IT director
The Radisson Edwardian-owned Mayfair Hotel in London has just completed a £75 million refurbishment programme to restore it to its former iconic glory, dating back to the 1920s. The Radisson Edwardian is one of the UK’s largest privately-owned hotel groups and has 2,300 guest rooms and 95 meeting rooms. The biggest thing in the hotel technology landscape, apart from improvements in back-office reservation and distribution systems, has been in high-speed wi-fi links, according to Iype Abraham, group IT director of Radisson Edwardian.
“Most of the technology work done has been related to that area,” he says. “Wi-fi access has been an important part of the refurbishment of the Mayfair, and there is now free wi-fi internet access in each Edwardian Radisson hotel.”
He believes that internet access can be a differentiator between hotels. “There has been a lot said about charging for internet access. Our strategy has been not to charge for full broadband wi-fi access, as a competitive decision. We also do not charge for business centre services like using PCs, wi-fi access, the internet and printing. We have been doing this for a couple of years.”
At the new Mayfair, in-room entertainment is another critical area, according to Abraham. Most hotels now have plasma, LCD screens and some sort of in-room entertainment.
“It is part of a hotel’s positioning in this increasingly competitive market. But the Mayfair goes beyond the usual offerings.”
The hotel has a technology agreement with Bang & Olufsen for a specially designed combination of TVs and in-room entertainment. The equipment is called MyConnections and is aimed at guests who want to use laptops and iPods. Many hotels now have iPods stations in rooms but the Mayfair opted to accommodate all to allow guests a choice of device.
“The TV communications medium works with interactive video and music on-demand,” says Abraham. “Some rooms have all the top technologies. For example, 10 rooms have full home cinemas built in. The suites have a drop down screen and projector with a button called ‘cinema DVD’. This is a 30 second scheme where the lights dim, the curtains draw and then the amazing sound starts – it is totally unique in the top London hotel market.”
The hotel group wants lots of things to take the technology lead but Abraham says it knows it will not stay in front without constantly moving and innovating. Technology was one of the earliest aspects of the refurbishment discussed.
“Cabling and infrastructure planning had to be a priority. For example, there are 35 light circuits alone in the suites, so it was critical that planning took account of it all.”
The Mayfair also has IP telephony in rooms and this a first for the UK, says Abraham. “It is not just about new technology but also providing the right services through the technology.”
Unsurprisingly all the Mayfair conference rooms have very high technical specifications. There is a 201-seat cinema, with a digital audience response system, which has built-in microphones in the handsets. Eight cameras provide audience images to screens. “We have sophisticated clients, so to beat the competition and position ourselves as a ‘state of the art’ hotel, we have used technology effectively.”
Security in London hotels is now also a highly valued part of the package.
“The hotel has to be safe and secure for guests and staff,” says Abraham. “Over the last three years digital CCTV cameras have gone in across all the group hotels and there are now more than 700 cameras, storing 30 days of film for many locations. Security staff need to see what is going on.”
The Mayfair refurbishment has used technology to meet guest preferences and to build on them. “People are travelling more and have more experience of different hotels, so learning about technology in an attempt to move forward was essential,” says Abraham.
“A lot of work went into the Mayfair refurbishment but we still face many challenges going forward and technology aids our understanding of them.”
Alexander House Hotels
Headquarters: Dartford, Kent
Head of IT: Leigh Bennett, group IT manager
Alexander House Hotels is made up of three luxury country hotels in the south-east, including Langshott Manor near Gatwick, Rowhill Grange in Dartford, Kent, and Alexander House at Turners Hill near Crawley in Sussex.
Two of the hotels also have award-winning Utopia spas on site. All the IT operations are linked and IT is managed throughout the group as a single strategic entity.
Rated as one of the UK’s top 100 hotels, the Alexander House hotel (formerly home to a number of the rich and infamous, including the family of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley) was recently refurbished and reopened complete with a Utopia spa a year ago. It is part of Utopia Leisure and a member of both the Luxury Hotels of the World and Best Loved Hotels groups.
Day-to-day IT support is handled out of the group headquarters in Dartford and is mainly concerned with keeping the hotel up and running, while supporting the spa operations, says Leigh Bennett the head of IT.
Keeping the lights On
“The last significant project was renovating Alexander House,” he says. “We have been dealing with the day-to-day running of the hotels, but over the next 12 months we will be looking at upgrading communications and enhancing our transactional website.” The back-end IT systems are run inhouse by Bennett’s team, which concentrates on keeping operations running 24x7. The group uses applications software from Red Sky IT, and gets third-party support. More than 70 users in the group use the hospitality software Entirety from Red Sky on thin client desktops, which according to Bennett, handle just about every hotel eventuality. Each site has its own dedicated servers, with the main database and email servers located at the group headquarters in Dartford, where the IT department is also based. With the two premier spas, such important components of the group and totally incorporated into the hotel group operations, the emphasis for Bennett is on resilience, availability and security. Like most organisations in this particular industry maintaining cash flow is critical to success and this means no downtime, even for systems that guests would not necessarily be aware of. The in-room guest services are supported by a third-party organisation but the hotels have wi-fi across the three sites.
An effective website is now essential in the hotel industry, especially at the top end where Alexander House sits, says Bennett. “In this industry, an effective, compelling website is obviously very important, so over the next 12 months we will be developing the Alexander House Hotels site for a number of reasons. It will enable us to make full use of the internet as a sales tool and to push out more offers to existing guests and customers through emails and sales support. It will also make life easier for staff, as there can be a direct route to our customers, through emails and customer records of their stays with us. Of course, email means direct communications and allows us to enhance an already good relationship with guests,” he adds.
Gaining the advantage
He says: “Upgrading the company website will give the whole group competitive advantages, and doing it inhouse gives more immediate control, which is why we will not be using a third-party. Part of the 12-month strategy is to update the group’s automated telephone systems, so that it is more flexible and offers more for both staff and the guests. Bennett also hopes to be able to improve links between Alexander House and the rest of the group. At the moment it uses a leased line using ADSL circuits but the group is moving to an MPLS network, which will improve security and speed as well as efficiency.
Senior group management has had to spend money on the Alexander House project, but now that is complete, the IT function will benefit from strategic planning over the next 12 months. “We will be investing in projects that deliver competitive business advantages to the whole group,” says Bennett.