Hospitality & Technology – Innovation is Being Stifled By Lack Of Leadership

Thomas Mielke | LEADERSHIP

Klaus Kohlmayr, Chief Evangelist, IDeaS Revenue Solutions

Whenever a company is merging with or being taken over by one of its competitors — something increasingly commonplace in 2017 and 2018 (thanks largely to Accor’s busy buying spree) — Aethos™ is keen to point the sector’s attention to the importance of senior leadership “stepping up its game” to proactively manage transition periods. The same, of course, is true for times of major industry shifts which alter the conditions and the environment businesses operate in. Sadly, it seems, ignorance is wide-spread when it comes to all that is happening in the tech space with few leaders taking decisive steps forward to acknowledge and address the need to rectify the situation.

Technology-enabled interaction has become a “must,” not a “nice to have,” and guests expect to be engaged and recognized at an ever more personalized level—it is no longer just a marketing gimmick. However, sitting down for a conversation with Klaus Kohlmayr, chief evangelist at IDeaS Revenue Solutions, he confirmed that the sector is playing catch-up. We agreed, gutsy leadership is needed to bring the technology departments at hotel organizations worldwide into the 21st century. More importantly, we agreed that the root of the problem lies in out-of-date software, systems and infrastructure. Too many hotel operators are running on archaic platforms and trying to compete with a horse-drawn carriage in a Formula 1 race.

Dealing with Legacy Systems: Leadership Is Asked to Take Responsibility

“Technology innovation has never really been the strength, or focus, of the hotel industry,” said Kohlmayr. Most of us have probably never thought about it, but the fact of the matter is the majority of branded properties run on reservation systems with core architecture that is over half a century old. Kohlmayr challenges the industry for only paying lip service to technological innovation and said, “Artificial Intelligence, natural-language processing and blockchain make for good marketing copy, but ultimately, most hotels cannot even properly identify and service their most loyal guests walking into their property.” In fact, a recent study by industry startup hospitalityPulse found that only five percent of guests actually end up in the room type they booked.

Old and out-of-date technology platforms hinder and slow down the progress of an organization and can reduce its competitiveness. “Widespread adoption of true cloud-based platforms is, for example, far from being best practice,” said Kohlmayr. It seems almost inevitable that hotel companies reach sooner rather than later a point of no return where “legacy systems” are crippling organizations with only one way out—to cut one’s losses and rebuild from scratch. To get ahead of the game, it is about time that senior company leadership makes some tough decisions.

Like in many situations, though, it is easy to get bogged down by the day-to-day needs of an operating business. We therefore brainstormed what advice we could give executives who want to drive change and innovation — this boils down to:

  • Avoid complacency at a departmental level, whilst ensuring the right people are put in charge who understand a consumer-centric technology strategy. “I remember a conversation with a senior executive of a global hotel operator,” said Kohlmayr. “The company was about to embark on a refresh of its 40-year-old (!) central-reservation platform, and I questioned the wisdom of spending millions on putting lipstick on a pig.” The answer Kohlmayr received was shocking, albeit indicative of the industry’s lack of appetite to drive innovation. “Uptime is 99.9 percent, and we have a large volume of transactions this platform handles well, so why replace it?” questioned the hotel executive.
  • Increase awareness at an ownership-level. “Even though institutional investment, especially in the US, has accelerated, let’s not forget that most hotels around the world remain owner-operated—and many are either family businesses or small private groups owning a handful of units,” said Kohlmayr. Mostly, when deciding where to spend the hard-earned capital, technology comes last. It is understandable that the perceived need for a sophisticated system, built on the latest technology architecture and with all the bells and whistles, is low when the system bought many years ago does the trick. Yet, a mentality which says it is “good enough” is not going to convince clientele which has become much more demanding and accustomed to technology infiltrating every aspect of their lives.
  • Take advantage of new, modular technology architecture. Technology has evolved to a point where it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to replace a system. Companies like Amazon, Google and Microsoft, with their respective clouds, the advent of APIs, which make it easy for systems to communicate with each other, and modular designs around microservices make it increasingly affordable to replace outdated technology. These new, open-minded, next-generation software-as-a-service providers allow a hotel to pick and choose the right “services” fit for their needs and budget and keep disruption to the business during implementation at a minimum.

Kohlmayr and I concurred that tactical managers focused on short-term fixes are far too often in the driver’s seat, frequently forgetting about, or completely ignoring, the changing needs of tomorrow’s consumers. “Yes, some very old systems and platforms still work to this day and they are good at handling large volumes of transactions,” said Kohlmayr. “But they are inflexible, extremely hard to integrate and there are not many people around anymore who know how to maintain them.”

It is easy for senior leadership to pass the buck for driving technological change to their managers. Yet, by doing so, many are unwillingly stifling innovation. But progress is difficult to stop, and rising customer expectations, fostered by the mobile revolution, together with online travel agencies spending billions on engaging and connecting with consumers, are sure enough exerting extra pressure on the industry to innovate. Those organizations and leaders willing take the plunge, deciding to strip out their old systems to put in something new, will quickly come to recognize that “it does the job” is not the same as “it is fit for purpose”—the former is a statement of a complacent leader, the latter that of a forward-thinking senior executive who understands that technology should be tailored to an organization’s strategies and goals.

On that closing remark, it may be worthwhile to draw the attention to what innovative hotel company Yotel has recently announced. Appreciating that, to stay ahead of the game, external help might sometimes be needed, its CEO Hubert Viriot was quoted commenting on the brand’s collaboration with a technology start-up incubator, “[…] our business is to manage hotels, not to spend the entire time figuring out new technology. We put innovation at the core, but to be effective, we wanted a partnership with someone that does this as a business” (see full article here).  Since new ideas constantly pop-up, across all divisions of a hotel company, Viriot highlighted the benefit of having an external expert telling you what you might not know. Ultimately, though, and in line with what Aethos™ discussed with Kohlmayr, he agreed that success depends upon the senior management team’s involvement – and for the C-suite to acknowledge this responsibly.