There is an argument to be made that the sign of a truly successful hotel CIO is that you never see them. Technology’s role within hospitality has always been to enhance the guest experience, with an emphasis on integration rather than substitution. The smoother that process is executed, the less visible the CIO’s influence becomes.

This certainly remains true front of house, but in the back office, technology is playing more of a revolutionary role, transforming operational practices and eradicating outdated systems. Thanks to increasingly complex property-management systems, the growth of cloud computing and an unrecognisable telecommunication infrastructure, the last ten years have seen CIOs attain unprecedented significance in dictating the manner in which hotels are run, a trend that is gaining in momentum.

The 250 attendees at the International Hotel Technology Forum (IHTF) 2013 were certainly conspicuous by their presence. Celebrating its tenth anniversary, this leading event for the hotel technology industry visited Portugal for the first time, and was hosted by Lisbon’s recently opened Epic Sana Hotel.

Engage, share and learn

As has become the norm for IHTF, the line-up was stellar, led by an advisory board that counts among its numbers leading figures such as Jumeirah’s Floor Bleeker, Bryan Hammer of Starwood, Mandarin Oriental’s Monika Nerger and Jeremy Ward of Kempinski.

On top of the quality of contributors, what has always set this event apart from its competitors is the exclusive opportunity it offers delegates to engage in pre-arranged, private business meetings with the organisations of their choice. All registrants are matched according to their business needs as well as immediate and future priorities.

These one-to-one networking sessions run in parallel to a comprehensive conference programme, which features presentations on the latest strategic thinking, business model evaluation and technological advances. Highlights of this year’s event included roundtable discussions on mobile platforms, cloud computing and Wi-Fi.

Elsewhere, Hammer, Starwood’s director of IT in EMEA, conducted a series of public interviews with technology leaders. In conversation with Floor Bleeker, Jumeirah Hotel Group’s VP business solutions, he discussed the challenges of building a global brand from the Middle East, focusing on the manner in which his group has invested in new technologies and leveraged existing platforms in order to underpin rapid growth. In his interview with Brian Garavuso, CIO of Diamond Hotels and Resorts, Hammer took a big-picture approach to the technology challenges facing the industry, as the pair discussed how investment in 2013 compares with previous years and the areas on which the industry should be focusing.

Guest speakers and ‘hot-spot’ presentations also played a significant role in proceedings. Matt Muta, global hospitality and travel managing director at Microsoft, offered delegates a glimpse into the future, looking at the impact on the hospitality sector within the context of economic and technological shifts already underway around the world.

David Benjamin Brakha, founder and CEO of Hotel Cloud, also looked at impending challenges for operators and owners.

"We believe there is a storm coming," he said. "A full generation of travellers will come through your doors with expectations you cannot respond to today. They have grown up with technology being an extension of themselves and they communicate almost exclusively through their devices."

Such emphasis on connectivity and fully engaging Generation Y was a recurring theme throughout the event.

"It’s time for you to know your guests in a deeper and wider way than before," Brakha added. "Technology allows you to collect and share data on guests and, in turn, provide a better service. When they arrive at your hotel, you can already know them and leverage that knowledge to do what you do best: create memorable experiences. If you can understand and meet guest expectations before they’ve been expressed, that means more loyalty and more profitability."

Andrew Jacques, IT director at Apex Hotels, agreed that guest expectations were proving a game-changer for him and his peers.

"The hotel industry over the years has always tried to meet guest expectations, but it was a very different place ten years ago to what it is now," he explained. "The industry is trying to keep pace with the advent of smartphones and the swipe generation, and we therefore need to look to the future and embrace technology as much as we can. IHTF is always a good opportunity to catch up, see the latest trends and become more familiar with what’s out there."

Building for the future

Forum director Natasha Raynor, who was in charge of the event, was clearly happy with how things had gone, but was already looking forward to next year.

"It’s great to mark ten years of IHTF, a decade that has witnessed phenomenal change within the hotel technology sector," she said. "The one-to-one meetings are always a great draw for delegates, but I’m particularly pleased with how the conference programme has proceeded this year, and the quality of the conversations and debates it has created.

"One thing we have certainly seen during the course of this event is that those with responsibility for technology spend are particularly keen to share experiences and ideas. It is still a difficult operating environment for a lot of our delegates, and I see them helping each other create and consolidate extremely strange business cases for not scrimping on technology investment. That is something I’m committed to building on in 2014."

Details for next year’s event are already starting to emerge, with hospitality veteran Ted Horner, managing director of E Horner and Associates, confirmed as chair of the advisory board. IHTF 2014 will take place in Spain at an as yet unconfirmed location from 1-3 April. For further details, visit