Microsoft Aims to Transform Lodging, Dining Experiences with Smarter Hospitality

NEW YORK, Dec. 20, 2004 — Picture this: After a long, stressful journey, a tired traveler checks into his hotel from the back seat of a taxi via telephone, picks up his key from the concierge and checks into his room – all without stopping at the registration desk. When he enters his room, the temperature is set right where he likes it, the drapes are open as he prefers and his favorite hometown radio station is playing softly on the in-room entertainment system. On the table is information about a spa package that includes a hot soak and a massage – two of his favorite indulgences.

Not a typical tale from the road? It soon could be, with the launch of Microsoft Smarter Hospitality, a comprehensive solutions framework Microsoft developed to transform the way hoteliers and foodservice organizations interact with their guests and conduct business. By bringing together proven Microsoft technologies and innovative products from more than two dozen industry partners, Microsoft Smarter Hospitality helps the hospitality industry offer guests an unprecedented variety of customizable features and services — which will enhance the guest experience and in turn maximize revenue per available guest (RevPAG). Among the Microsoft partners supporting Smarter Hospitality are Ameranth Inc., Experticity, InfoGenesis, Intel Corp., Intervoice Inc., KoolConnect Technologies Inc., NCR Corp. and ontap4u Inc.

“From a technology perspective, the hotel industry had created what I call islands of isolation — proprietary, very complex systems that made it nearly impossible for them to exchange information,” says Matt Muta, director and industry manager for Microsoft’s Retail and Hospitality Industry Unit. “Our goal is to help bridge these islands of isolation, interconnect them, simplify the complexities of those environments, and at the same time enable them to take advantage of future technologies.”

Microsoft has teamed up with 26 partners to build this bridge to help redefine the lodging and foodservice experience. For example, NCR’s EasyPoint Xpress Check In provides a hotel lobby touch-screen kiosk guests can use for easy check-in. Ameranth’s E-Menu allows restaurant patrons to make their own selections using a Tablet PC. Diners can view pictures of the menu offerings, read descriptions in multiple languages, choose their favorite side dishes and beverages, indicate how they want their food prepared or even check nutritional information. Orders are transmitted directly to the kitchen, and wait staff is notified through a wireless communications device when orders are ready so that food may be served fresh and hot. If customers want a glass of water or need additional silverware, they simply page their server by pressing a key on the Tablet PC.

While those capabilities and more are available today, they barely scratch the surface of Microsoft Smarter Hospitality’s potential. “Once hoteliers and foodservice operators, as well as their customers, experience all that Smarter Hospitality offers, I think they’ll agree there’s no going back,” says Muta.

For lodging operators, part of the Smarter Hospitality vision is to enable property management systems to alert all the appropriate areas of a hotel to the arrival of individual guests and provide details on their specific preferences and patterns. By using Microsoft’s BizTalk Server 2004 to link the property management system with hotel customer relationship management (CRM) systems, hotel management will have the ability to know what that guest bought in the gift shop during previous stays, how much he or she spent on spa services, and whether the guest is interested in a golf outing or tickets to a show.

“That allows the hotel to use its CRM system to make customized offers that are relevant to a particular guest and enhance their stay,” says Muta. “Using personalized information, instead of giving everyone a complimentary bottle of wine, management is empowered to offer more customized guest service. You might offer a guest a free package of golf balls because he booked a tee time on his last stay. Another guest might be given a discount on a facial because she got a massage in the spa. That’s how hoteliers can maximize RevPAG and strengthen customer loyalty, which leads to repeat visits, greater spending by those guests in response to the customized offers hoteliers can make to them, and a greatly increased lifetime value of each guest.”

The same principles also apply to foodservice businesses, says Tom Litchford, industry manager for Microsoft’s Retail and Hospitality Industry Unit, which focuses on the foodservice industry. “It’s simply using technology at the table to enhance the guest experience, which leads to greater customer loyalty and more repeat business.”

Three Pillars

Microsoft Smarter Hospitality is built on three pillars:

  • Smarter Guest Experience , which uses technology to optimize the consumer experience in both the lodging and food service environments;

  • Smarter Service , which provides hoteliers and foodservice operators access to real-time data and the tools they need to deliver virtually instantaneous, personalized guest services that foster customer loyalty;

  • Smarter Operations , which includes solutions for creating a seamless technology infrastructure that integrates with existing legacy systems while providing the underlying platform for future growth and innovation.

The company developed Microsoft Smarter Hospitality to underscore its commitment to “smarter” initiatives for vertical industries, building on the first such offering, Microsoft Smarter Retailing, which was unveiled in January.

“Like almost everything Microsoft does, Smarter Hospitality is the result of our customers telling us what they want and need,” says Litchford, adding that the company collaborated for about 18 months with industry consortium Hotel Technology – Next Generation (HTNG).

To accomplish that, the Smarter Hospitality technology architecture combines the interoperability and integration advantages of the Microsoft .NET Framework — a set of technologies for connecting data, people, systems and devices through Web services -with standards-based Microsoft software, such as Microsoft Speech Server 2004, BizTalk 2004, Windows Server 2003, Microsoft Office 2003 and Virtual Server 2003.

“The philosophy behind this is to get the infrastructure right,” says Litchford. “It’s not a rip-and-replace model. We’ve developed a solution that helps extend the life of those legacy systems and gets some more use and value out of them. But we’re also trying to move the industry away from complex proprietary-type integration platforms to a more open, simple, seamless integrated network that leaves them well-positioned to capitalize on new technologies that can help drive their business.”

One such technology is speech recognition. Using Microsoft Speech Server in conjunction with products from Microsoft partners Intel Corp. and Intervoice Inc., hotels can implement a reservation system that allows guests to make, confirm and change reservations without speaking to a live attendant. A business traveler en route to a conference or meeting destination could upgrade his or her room, change it from a single to a double and extend the stay from two nights to three — all done from almost any phone, and without requiring the help of a customer service representative.

After guests complete their stays, the voice recognition system can call them and ask if they wish to participate in a customer satisfaction survey in exchange for a free night’s stay on their next visit. The survey is conducted, and the data is then recorded, checked for errors and sent by the speech server to the database, where it is immediately available.

“With Speech Server, we’ve decoupled the traditional services of speech recognition into two different pieces. Speech is streamed in as audio and gets converted to text or it goes the other way as text and gets converted to audio,” says Bill Frizzell, solutions specialist for Microsoft’s Retail & Hospitality Industry Unit. That means any Web application can be speech-enabled, which allows hoteliers to meet guest needs in newer, faster, more innovative ways. Hotel employees equipped with a mobile device, such as a Pocket PC, can provide on-the-spot service and answers for guests, anywhere on the property.

“Let’s say a hotel employee encounters a guest who needs a bigger room on short notice. Rather than send that guest to the front desk, the hotel employee can use his mobile device linked to speech-enabled Web services to help that guest immediately,” says Frizzell.

With a series of simple voice commands, the hotel employee can check the availability of larger rooms that may fit the guest’s requirements. The Pocket PC can display a list of available suites and their amenities. If a guest needs a room with a conference table and a large-screen TV, the hotel employee can show photos of rooms that meet those criteria and even arrange for refreshments to be delivered. Once the room that best meets the guest’s needs is selected, the hotel employee can complete the change through the speech-enabled mobile device. The guest can pick up the room key and receipt at the concierge desk, without having to stop at registration.

“Anything that opens an interface, whether it’s communications or Web services, is capable of being tied together with speech, and we’re the first to enable that,” says Frizzell. The primary advantage, he says, is that it all works on Visual Studio.NET. As a result, hotel IT personnel don’t need to learn new tools or a proprietary platform. Furthermore, hotels can realize significant savings, compared with current integrated voice response (IVR) systems, which are costly because they’re proprietary.

“Calls with our Speech Server come in at about a 20- to 50-percent lower cost than a normal IVR,” says Frizzell. “As other systems come to the end of their useful life and people have to make decisions on their next speech platform, I think you’re going to see a big wave of folks moving to Speech Server.”

The Smarter Hospitality Experience

Helping to create unique guest experiences that foster loyalty and help hospitality industry operators maximize guest revenue are a number of innovative products and solutions offered by Microsoft partners.

In addition to its E-Menu for restaurants, Ameranth also offers an in-room E-Guest Book. Rather than looking through an imitation leather folio that can be outdated or missing pages, hotel guests can access all the latest information and services available via an in-room laptop or TV screen. They’ll be able to order room service, learn about hotel amenities and find local shops, restaurants and taxi services, in multiple languages.

“It’s a way for the hotel to build relationships with the local community and sell space in their guest book that can be dynamically modified,” says Rob Lewis, Ameranth’s director of product management. For example, if there’s a taxi company that isn’t performing up to the needs and expectations of your guests, the hotel operator can take them off their guest book. So hotel operators can protect their guests and encourage sponsorships and advertising profit.”

Instead of traditional postcards showing a picture of the outside of the hotel, guests may now send digital postcards via e-mail. But it’s not simply about having guests’ postcards arrive home before they do, according to Lewis.

“It’s a brand-building interactive postcard system that allows guests to send a digital postcard from a specific site,” says Lewis. “It’s a way for the hotel to build a viral network to encourage guests and digital postcard recipients to learn more about that specific hotel and other properties in that network. Reservation contact information is included in the outbound message, and hoteliers are able to sell advertising space on those digital postcards. Recipients can click on various images and learn more. It’s an excellent way for hoteliers to get the most out of their CRM efforts and electronic mail communication.”

Ameranth’s E-Guest Book is currently being used at two properties of a major hotel chain.

Hotel guests who want in-room libations will find that the traditional mini-fridge stocked with various alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks is being replaced by a digital mini-bar system from Microsoft partner ontap4u Inc. Instead of breaking the seal on the mini-bar door to get a drink, guests simply select their beverage from a touch screen display. Beverages are served via the unit’s fountain dispensers. Guests may choose the size and type of drink, whether they want it mixed, and with or without lemon or lime.

“In today’s lodging environment mini bars are loss leaders. Hoteliers rarely make money on them, primarily because of the labor it takes to inventory and restock them and as a result of customer disputes over charges,” says Microsoft’s Litchford. “This concept really benefits hotel operators. It adds value to the customer experience, provides a greater variety of selections that are fresher, and it tracks customer usage. Because the drinks are all pre-mixed, hotel operator don’t have to restock bottles or cans daily in every room, and that means longer lead times between service, which is a significant cost saving.”

Nextprise, a video concierge and virtual butler service from Microsoft industry partner Experticity, is another service hotels may leverage to create unique guest experiences and optimize RevPAG. Available 24 hours a day, Experticity’s video concierge is able to provide the full spectrum of services and information guests expect from their hotel concierge, with the additional benefit of being able to do so in multiple languages. No matter what time of day, guests are able to interact in their own language via digital video connection with a live concierge who can recommend a restaurant and make dinner reservations, book tickets and excursions and assist with travel reservations, including providing printed brochures and cached video streams of destinations in the hotel’s network. Experticity also offers an in-room virtual butler service. One important difference between the video concierge and virtual butler services, however, is that the virtual butler’s video connection is one-way and the remote butler is not able to see into a guest’s room.

For hotel properties with multiple establishments under one roof — such as a gift shop, restaurant, and bar — or multiple locations in different regions, Microsoft partner InfoGenesis provides a point-of-sale system that allows reporting at the enterprise level in a single environment. The system interfaces with a single Microsoft SQL Server and is set up on a Microsoft Windows XP platform.

“We enable operators to break to break out properties by enterprise, by region and by store level,” said Jeff Geppert, major account executive at InfoGenesis, an important factor for large hotel chains that rely comparative analysis to track guest counts and RevPAG.

In addition, the InfoGenesis POS system also delivers a significant return on the IT investment, according to Geppert.

“Unlike other systems, we don’t require you to have servers on the property,” says Geppert. “We employ one central server, one simple SQL database, and the ROI implication of that is huge because hotel operators don’t have to have a staff managing a bunch of little servers. One server, one location and one IT person. We think that’s very good ROI and very good value.”

Microsoft Smarter Hospitality also enables total in-room digital entertainment, including high-definition television, digital music, digital video recording and video games. Working with its industry partners KoolConnect and Unisys, KoolConnect Interactive System is another service the lodging industry can provide to their guests, offering an interactive guest service system that integrates in-room Internet connectivity with an extensive entertainment and information package including pay per view, video on demand, customized digital features, virtual concierge services as well as local activity and restaurant information. Guests are able to create a profile that establishes their preferred room temperature, whether they want the evening turn-down service and their preferred entertainment options.

“Guests are able to create an environment that’s more like home and that will help them be more comfortable and productive,” says Tom Cooley, a Microsoft platform strategy advisor. “Using Windows Media Center, guests are even able to display family photos that have been e-mailed to create an in-room slide show. It’s a totally integrated environment. They can log on, download pictures onto the TV, listen to music, watch on-demand video and check e-mail.”

Because the content is personalized, when guests leave the cache is cleared by the hotel. For hotel operators, it provides a point of competitive differentiation that allows them to attract and re-attract those customers, according to Cooley.

“Beyond all the fun and innovative features and benefits hospitality industry guests will enjoy, the purpose behind Microsoft Smarter Hospitality is to help hoteliers and foodservice operators improve their business,” says Litchford. “We’ve taken into account the customer experience, the branding perspective and the need to make better use of customer relationship information. We’re also trying to drive standards and help put in place systems that will allow the hospitality industry to grow with and benefit from new technologies in the future.

“Historically, the hospitality industry has implemented solutions for certain areas of their business without realizing the integration implications and impact to their responsiveness to the business. We believe Microsoft Smarter Hospitality is going to change that by removing the integration and implementation complexity. The end result is more seamless solution integration that drives value in the way a hotel property or restaurant operates, in the way a hospitality enterprise sells to its guests and in the way the property or restaurant delivers a compelling guest experience.”

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