The online travel agents were extending their sights from ownership of the guest to ownership of the property, delegates at the Hotel Distribution Event in London heard.
While caution was urged in adopting such technology, panelists were in favour of harnessing the budgets of the OTAs and their investment in innovators who could bring improvements to the sector.
Toby Herbert, group IT director, Rocco Forte Hotels, said: “I would be wary of a one-stop shops, but where it gets interesting is when OTAs are investing in new entrants. I am in favour when it’s a partnership.”
Iain Cowieson, IT director, Malmaison & Hotel du Vin Hotels, warned: “We gave away a lot of advantage when the OTAs came in, so you would be cautious when adopting their PMS as well,” while Alan O’Riordan, business development manager, UK & Ireland, Apaleo, added: “It’s better that people focus on what they do best, I’m not not convinced by OTAs offering PMS”.
Driving the possible adoption of solutions offered by the OTAs was the complexity of the offerings currently in the marketplace, with Cowieson commenting: “In Europe there has been a complete under-investment in usability”.
Joe Cripps, MD & co-founder, Trailapp, called for more leeway for IT. He said: “We don’t have a lack of tech in the hospitality industry, but a lack of diffusion. Those in IT should have the chance to play around with tech. A lot of these companies have been on the marketplace since the 1990s, which mean there are constraints in the system Joe,” but, he added: “We are seeing an emergence of companies that base their business around that – middleware, looking at integration – which is a shift in the industry.”
Herbert agreed, telling delegates: “We need to bring life cycles of systems down, because competition moves on quickly. Look at the technology you’ve put in on a regular basis.”
O’Riordan was hopeful of innovation, commenting: “As products attempt to become all things to all men and then the user interface can become too unwieldy. With open API integration can become easier and as a hotelier you can build your own hotel stack. The cost needs to be melded into the stack, which is a blocker. But there are changes, our buying behaviour is driven by our experience as consumers. I am seeing sea change. Innovators must spread the word.”
On the consumer-facing side, Herbert said that the innovative advantage claimed by the OTAs was abating as the operators caught up. He said: “As a consumer I have been forced to use brand’s own booking tools after the OTAs have fallen away. It’s not rocket science to have an easy booking experience. We’ll catch up to the OTAs and then where is their advantage?
“Brands are trying to use choose-your-own room etc to keep their customer base in their own environment, but ultimately that will fade away once everyone has these technologies. Then the emphasis will be on making your solution open to all customers. You should have your guest as your single customer view – AI can help with that, because you may well be able to bring down the amount of human time invested in that process.”
Later in the day James Lemon, COO, Hostmaker warned that hotels had “perhaps become worse-than-home experiences. They must become more nimble in their offerings to compete with Airbnb”. Prior to his comments, Cripps said: “Since 2008 and the launch of the iPhone there has been a backwards waterfall in consumer tech – you have an Alexa in your hotel room because you have one in your house”.
Herbert commented: “We like to put as much technology as is necessary into the rooms but it must be part of the decor, not a differentiator.”
The issue of how much demand there was for technology that, in some cases was also being used to set apart loyalty programmes was raised by panel chair Mark Regensberg, head of information security, Zappi, who, when commenting on the vogue for keyless entry into rooms, using mobile ‘phones said: “Would it really be so much effort to put your hand in your pocket and get out your key?”
HA Perspective [by Katherine Doggrell]: The ‘really so much effort’ part of this debate served to underscore the state of hotel technology investment in the sector, which, at times can come across as having shades of home improvement programmes, where the hapless homeowner is persuaded not to spend all their budget on illuminated fountains which dance to Ravel’s Bolero. These consumer-facing technologies can be so very alluring.
What the people want, it turns out, is an effective room booking system rather than, as one enterprising hotelier suggested, your family portrait displayed on the TV, not that lovers up and down the land don’t enjoy getting a look at their rivals. Much was made over the course of the day of the impossibility of being able to book adjoining rooms, or accessible rooms, or rooms away from the lift.
Eagle-eyed readers will recall that OTAs have built a business on making things easier for hotels in terms of finding consumers to fill their beds – at a cost. They are now eager to help them manage those rooms that much better with their own PMSs. This hasn’t yet extended to being able to book adjoining rooms – although demand is clearly there and the OTAs have become very nifty at meeting hotels’ demands. This offering will be very tempting to many hotels, who are, in the main, still properly foxed by distribution and associated management systems. But should they sign up, what is left? Are they freed up to concentrate on service, or, like those of us who would use Apple products, have they learned that if you want to change ‘phones, you are sacrificing the connectivity you’d been seamlessly enjoying?