The most advanced property management systems (PMSs) on the market today provide all the tools hotels need to handle everything from reservations, check-out and room inventory to accounting and billing. Moreover, these solutions can be configured to the specific needs of any property or group of properties – whether that be a large international chain or a small boutique-style operation – no matter where in the world it is located, and can be connected seamlessly with other core systems, such as customer relationship management (CRM), yield management and, soon, social media.

But are hotels maximising the benefits of these increasingly sophisticated systems? For Hilary Murphy, professor of digital marketing, customer information management and strategic IT at Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne, the answer is, not yet.

"Unfortunately, as we’ve discovered from our research, PMSs have not been exploited to their full potential," she says. "A lack of training and knowledge-sharing are identified as the main obstacles to full usage, while there is also little budget allocated to training and training is often on-the-job.

"Information is lost in this process – for example, when the manager trains the assistant, who trains the receptionists, who trains the new receptionist – and it rarely covers a sufficient knowledge of the complete functionality of the PMS."

For Gustaf Burman, vice-president of technology for Morgans Hotel Group, the nature of the hospitality sector also presents problems when it comes to training.

"Training levels can diminish due to the high employee turnover rate for the hospitality industry," he notes. "Keeping comprehensive training once the system is rolled out can be a challenge."

"At MHG, it took us less than six months from start to finish to roll out the new PMS and train our operations staff, all with minimal impact to guest services."

Moreover, according to Kermit Littlefield, vice-president of global property management systems for Marriott International, which announced earlier this year that it had selected the hosted MICROS OPERA PMS to be used across all Marriott brands worldwide, many hotels and hotel groups simply haven’t upgraded to the latest technologies yet.

"Many property management systems in today’s hotels were developed several years ago and have not maintained pace as other technology has continued to evolve," he remarks. "The systems being created today offer greater flexibility and features, but operationalising those capabilities is difficult due to the cost and effort of replacing the current systems."

Yet, those operators that have put the time, effort and investment into replacing their out-of-date systems with the latest PMS solutions on the market are certainly reaping the rewards.

"Morgans Hotel Group can now regulate standard operating procedures to ensure that guest preferences are reflected at all of the hotels within our portfolio, to ensure a consistent guest experience when staying with us across the globe," Burman explains.

Next-generation technology

This year, Morgans Hotel Group also chose to implement cloud-based MICROS OPERA across the 13 properties in its hotel portfolio.

"These standards allow us to effectively track preferences, history on stays and other pertinent data that allows us to offer an unparalleled guest experience," says Burman. "From the back-end of the system, the PMS allows companies to effectively track rate codes and promotions, too, so we can better evaluate results and ensure we maximise revenue. Moreover, as we look to drive innovation in this space, we can quickly roll out new programmes that can be applied with minimal disruption to operations."

Furthermore, many of the latest PMS solutions are hosted in the cloud, which, for Littlefield, is another key benefit.

"The burden is taken off the property," he says. "Instead of having to upgrade the system every few years and replace the server, it is hosted in a data centre, which means skilled technicians can respond to any issues and when we want to upgrade the PMS, we can literally do it overnight."

That’s not to say there aren’t several challenges for operators to overcome during the process of choosing and installing a new PMS: not only is a well-thought-through training programme absolutely crucial, management also needs to ensure the system will work across all of the different regions in which it operates, as well as in all the group’s different types of properties, and take into account how to get buy-in from the hotel operators who will ultimately foot the bill for the solution.

When it comes to training, it’s the smaller groups, according to Murphy, that are often at a disadvantage.

"The motivation and close-knit family community that smaller, independent hotels profit from promotes data
sharing and a vested interest in the best exploitation of the system," she says. "However, on the other hand, smaller, independent properties find it more difficult to release staff for external training and may rely on the one, local IT expert, who may not be the specialist they need in hotel technology systems."

"Getting buy-in from the hotel owners and franchisees, who will ultimately foot the bill for their property’s PMS, is another hurdle operators must overcome."

Burman, however, disagrees: "I definitely feel that smaller groups and independent hotels have the advantage, not only because of the quicker time-to-market and deployment of the systems due to the quantity of hotels, but also for the ability to train and manage the system more efficiently," he remarks.

"At Morgans Hotel Group, it took us less than six months from start to finish to roll out the new PMS and train our operations staff, all with minimal impact to guest services during the conversion."

Whatever the size of the hotel group, a comprehensive training programme that makes use of the expertise of the PMS provider and the hotel operator is essential.

"We designed our training programme and worked with MICROS to develop it," Littlefield notes. "We will then generally train the MICROS team in the Marriott business processes and the MICROS team will deliver it into the market."

Getting buy-in from the hotel owners and franchisees, who will ultimately foot the bill for their property’s PMS, is another hurdle operators must overcome and, according to Murphy, the first step should always be emphasising the cost and flexibility of the system.

"Though it is difficult to calculate the return on investment for any technology, at least the total cost of ownership should be presented so owners get ‘buy-in’," she advises.

Marriott decided to go much further than this, setting up a specific advisory council to discuss the group’s PMS options.

"Every step of the way, for about a year or so, as we went forward, we went to the advisory council, gave them our recommendations, and took their advice as we structured the solution," Littlefield says.

Yet, at Mövenpick Hotels & Resorts, which currently has two preferred PMS providers – MICROS and Protel – Roger MacFarlaine, vice-president of information technology, Middle East, decided to follow a different tack.

"We have a dual platform strategy," he says. "Both are strong, both are powerful and both have capabilities to do the things that we want. But it also gives our owners a lot of satisfaction as they have the choice between the two. With our guidance, they pick which one is right for their hotel.

"Standards are good if they make sense, but standards are not good when they don’t make sense. I’ve always taught people in the companies I’ve worked for that they should think internationally and apply locally."

Interoperable systems

Indeed, many hotel groups, Mövenpick, Marriott and Morgans included, operate across many different jurisdictions, as well as having many different styles and sizes of hotel to contend with – another challenge for these operators, you might assume. Not, as they are all keen to emphasise, if the most up-to-date PMSs are being used.

For example, at Marriott, the group’s select service properties such as Courtyard by Marriott and Fairfield Inn use a ‘skinnied down’ version of MICROS OPERA – OPERA Xpress.

"They have fewer functions, but it better supports their business model," Littlefield explains. "It’s also easier to train and a more economical choice."

MICROS OPERA, too, can operate in any number of different regions around the world.

"We needed a system and infrastructure that could support local fiscal and regulatory requirements," says Burman. "We also needed to ensure we had local ground support to provide assistance at the regional level. And, as most of our growth is in key global gateway cities, we needed a product that could operate in various environments.One of the biggest reasons Morgans Hotel Group chose this PMS was the international scope of the company."

Littlefield agrees. "In all candour, one key reason that we chose to go with MICROS was that they operate in every country and taxing jurisdiction we operate in," he says. "They follow the local laws and do a good job of it, so we think we get a little bit lower cost and better service."

Looking to the future, will today’s PMSs, like the out-of-date systems many hotels are still using, soon be obsolete? According to Littlefield, to a large extent no.

"MICROS OPERA, for example, is moving to a more flexible architecture over the next couple of years," he explains. "It will even have the capability to use input from social media. So, for example, if you wanted to see what a guest was saying on TripAdvisor and use the PMS as a way to track responses, you could."

As PMSs become increasingly sophisticated, more and more hotel processes are being integrated into these solutions, and, for MacFarlaine, this is only the beginning.

"We will be relying a lot more on the PMS as we go forward," he concludes.