The “Hands-On Approach” – Our Key to Success
Abi Frem Samir
Corporate Vice President Information Technology Rotana Hotel Management Corporation Ltd
Thursday 29th July 2010
The “Hands-On Approach” – Our Key to Success
Rotana Group Ensures Close Contact Between Group and Local Management to Ensure Efficiency and... Results!
With around 70 hotels under management or in the pipeline, the Rotana Group, based in the UAE, is currently the biggest in the region, and is expanding rapidly. Cleverdis Editor in Chief Richard Barnes met with Samir Abi Frem, Corporate Vice-President of Information Technology for the group.
Who are your clients? And what about the business travellers? What brings them back to your hotels? Can we talk about “wow-factor”?
Rotana caters to both business and leisure travellers and the percentage varies depending on the property, location and destination. In today’s busy, pressured world, time is our most precious commodity. At Rotana, we have chosen to acknowledge this fact by embracing the challenge of making all time spent with us, Treasured Time. This means that we pledge to understand and meet the individual needs of all who we deal with, specifically the business traveller. Apart from offering state-of-the-art rooms with sophisticated meeting facilities and a personalised service that focus on the needs and requirements of business travellers, we offer a specialist travel service which includes flights, car hire, accommodation, passport and visa arrangements. These can be tailor made to include transfers, conference facilities and incentive programmes. Our “Club Rotana” Executive floors offer a private and express check-in and check-out, private lounge offering breakfast and afternoon cocktails, a library, meeting facilities and a state-of-the-art business centre complete with secretarial services with multi lingual employees, laptops, high-speed Internet connectivity and Wi-Fi, IT butler, express newspaper delivered to the room with the hot business news. Finally, our guest comment is online survey, which we send to our business travellers after leaving the properties.
How are Rotana conforming to the new hotel classification standards imposed by Abu Dhabi and Dubai? (And other Middle East countries?)
With the Emirate's growing hospitality sector, this initiative was essential and will certainly elevate the standards within the Emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The system has been benchmarked against well-known global destinations and we strongly believe that this will provide much- needed consistency to tour operators selling the destination, successfully manage the expectations of our respected visitors and ultimately ensure a level of quality performance from all the emirate's accommodation providers in line with the development of a world-class destination. All in all, this project has only affected Rotana positively. As rightly mentioned by His Excellency Mubarak Al Muhairi, Director General ADTA "This is a major step forward in the delivery of destination integrity”, and we strongly believe in this.
What are the main innovations you're seeing in the field today? What is important for Rotana in terms of technology in your hotels? What are the real expectations of the hotel guest?
In this day and age the ability to be dynamic and adapt to a changing environment is the only means of survival and an entity that cannot adapt fast enough will become obsolete immediately. We are constantly pushing for innovation and development in all the departments and we strongly believe in meeting the guest’s evolving needs. This requires keeping the hotel owners aware of the continuous need for renovation on all levels in order to ensure the guest’s expectations are exceeded. Technology is an essential part of the industry evolutionand many new trends have emerged based on the customer needs and expectations. However, it is important to note that the purpose of investing in technology is to bring added services to the guest and enhance his experience. This can only be achieved if hotels are responding to guest needs and not to the latest technology available in the market. Just a quick list of emerging trends that we are looking to adopt demonstrates our guests’ expectations: MP3 players, digital cameras, and other devices can connect to in-room A/V devices for listening and viewing experience that creates a home away from home. One accessible, universal adapter enables guests to easily plug in any mobile device. New docking devices accommodate Smartphone and Pocket PC phone devices, offering direct access to the hotel system.
How are you dealing with distribution issues? How do you brand your website? How do you assess the online performance and your campaign’s success?
We place great emphasis on the growing market represented in the IDS (Internet Distribution Systems), Web Offline, GDS (Global Distribution Systems), Voice Call Centres and Rotana Online. The growth of the online bookings is an extremely important trend, which will inevitably replace the more conventional methods of revenue generating communication and interaction with our guests and we are focusing a lot on this matter. We are currently working on the revamp of our branded website in order to integrate each of the sub brands, in line with the company's development, while using the most modern up to date technology and maintaining high ranking as part of the Search Engine Optimisation. The assessment of the online performance is done through the analytical reports that we get and of course through the generated figures from each campaign.
Where is Rotana in terms of hosting and cloud computing? How is Rotana doing their PMS?
For us, there are two different sides. One is to centralise our many applications. Three or four years ago, we centralised all our Dubai hotels’ PMS in one data centre. There was a lot of resistance at the start from the hoteliers. Today, we are building up the service in Abu Dhabi. We have a disaster recovery site in one of hotels in case of system failure or other problems. We manage the data centre ourselves. Today, no third party organisation in the Middle East is capable of providing PMS as an external service. We use Micros Fidelio, and while they do this kind of service in Europe, it doesn’t exist here. We’re looking at adding extra services for the hotels, but this is complex, as we have to look at the agreements we have with each of the owners. We already provide the email system, the intranet, and we are developing an application that we will be providing as a service for our guests. In the hospitality sector, we don’t really find players, especially in this region, that provide these applications as a service. We are starting to see this a little bit in CRM, and we are working with a company in developing this.With the growth of our company, and the change in infrastructure, it’s important that we change and adapt to the times.
In what ways do you innovate when it comes to security? How do you keep your properties safe (data security)?
Security today falls under the responsibility of the IT department, as systems are IP-based, whereas before it was a function of the engineering department. In this region, and especially in Abu Dhabi, the government is enforcing a very high standard on CCTV, and every camera location has to be approved by the ministry. Between last year and this year, they doubled the requirement. Dubai was ahead of Abu Dhabi, so when Abu Dhabi made a spec, they made it very high. HDTV is a minimum requirement, and all the systems are linked to the ministry of the interior. They can look at CCTV in any hotel and access the data at any time. Hotels thus have to invest a lot in CCTV. Also, when it comes to internal security for our data, this is becoming important. We have always protected data from outside attacks, but we didn’t worry so much about internal threats, but this is changing now, and by September, we will have chosen a solution in between Symantec, McAfee and so on. We need to be able to control the access of files, to have various levels of security for different kinds of data. We will want to know who is accessing a file, copying a file, printing a file, emailing a file and so on. It’s important that we protect our data more efficiently. Of course we are PCI compliant in terms of the storage of credit card details, but there are many other threats that have to be considered.
Please tell us about your IP networks and the in-room entertainment in your hotels. How important is technology to guests, and why? What kinds of technologies are important to them?
We do have plenty of in-room technology systems across our properties such as video-on-demand, wireless access, Interactive TV, high-definition television, Express check out, View Bill, Read Messages from TV, Internet on TV, IP Telephone and XML application, Automated wakeup call from phone or TV, iPod player and so on. These are driven by customer needs and expectations and of course market development and we are constantly working towards meeting those requirements. Usually people on business trips benefit more from “in room” technology due to their business requirements and in order to stay connected, while individuals are more interested in quality of service & food and they like to be away from daily hassles.
What about making hotels more efficient? What are the key elements?
The main key elements is to integrate our guests’ devices with existing in-room hotel systems to create a better guest experience and to integrate all the guest room systems with the property management system in order to personalise the room as per the guest preferences.
Do you use energy management technology? What about the green legislation in the Middle East?
Sustainability is the future and is certainly a USP for the hotel once operating. This matter has been adopted by management companies, who are enforcing green standards into their minimum brand specifications. Rotana is on the path of implementing energy management technology across all new developments as a start and then the existing properties.
How is the internal “Internet portal” evolving?
We are installing a much more interactive portal that gives promotions from the hotels, you can see your bills and messages, and you can access this portal even if you are outside at a meeting. A Spanish marketing and advertising company, with offices in Dubai is assisting us with the development of this interactive portal, and they are also developing commercial content for our digital signage systems. Their job is also to find the clients. They are currently developing a digital signage system based on facial recognition, wherein, based on your age -- which is detected from your face -- the system selects a package to suit you and displays the advertisement on the screens. We plan to launch this concept by September. Digital signage is being increasingly used in hotels, and since last year it has become our brand standard that all hotels should have digital signage. In Dubai, in a way, it is forced by the ministry that the hotel should communicate certain messages in the lobby using a system such as this. It helps us provide the right information to the guest very quickly, and is infinitely more efficient than paper systems. Systems are linked to the PMS, so that company names and logos can be placed on meeting rooms at the right times. Once we start the advertising experiment, we will see if it’s possible to generate some revenue in more concrete terms.
Rotana Group has several sub-brands. How does the technology differ between them?
In terms of infrastructure, we ensure that all our hotels are using the latest in future proof technologies. We differentiate between the brands however. If an owner is interested in a Rotana hotel property, he has certain expectations. If he is interested in a Centro property, he will have different expectations and a different budget. This is why we have had to differentiate between the two brands. We cannot put all the technology in a Centro that we have in a Rotana hotel. In Rotana, we invest more in the infrastructure, so that we can guarantee 99.99% uptime for all systems. In Centro, we reduce the redundancy so we can save a bit on the investment. When it comes to guest usage, the Rotana brand has IPTV, IP telephony, the telephone has a big screen. In Centro, we have IP telephony, but on a standard, cordless phone. The rooms are smaller in Centro, so we only have one phone, while in Rotana there are two. For the Arjaan brand, which is more for long- term visitors, we also have in mind the fact that these guests are long stayers. We provide connectivity so that the guest can use his own devices. We have Teleadapt multi-connectors, which keeps the clients happy. We don’t invest in VoD in these properties, as people prefer to use their own devices and content.
Rotana has a strong background in In- Room technologies... Just how far back does it go?
Even six years ago, we were the first hotel chain to use IP telephony on a converged network. We had a vision even back in 2004 that this would be the future, so all new builds had this spec.
More than 20 hotels have been completed with this converged technology now, and we have initiated a Quality Management System with a Malaysian company called FCS based on these networks. For some time now, we have also been providing a TV channel with live updates of airport arrivals and departures, and this is getting excellent feedback. It can be done even without an interactive TV system. What we have found in the past six years, as we had been investing a lot in the telephones with big screens, is that people do not find this as useful as having the same information provided via the TV, so today we are heading more in that direction. In fact, three years ago, we did some studies on the usage of the functionalities of IP phones. In one of our hotels there was an XML application that had email, streaming from different feeds like CNN and so on, and the highest usage was for email. People were sending emails from the phone, because it was easy. The rest was really minor... hardly anything. Providing these functionalities on the TV is a better choice.
Our systems are future-proof as they are “triple-play”, so for us it is easy to shift our strategy. You still need to have a phone, but we will not be having any more strategic development on the phone. Instead we will be developing more quality content and functionality for the TV, including such things as Skype on TV, as by the end of the year, Voice over IP should be allowed here. Also, as bandwidth gets bigger and bigger, we may be able to stream video over Wi-Fi, so everything will change in that respect.
Do you try to calculate ROI on all your systems?
No. Today, we implement technology to bring additional revenue or to support hotel revenue but in the end not all technology we implement can have a clear ROI. If I have a Wi-Fi system, I am charging for the Internet so I can bring revenue and that’s no question. But if I provide the same network at no charge to the guest, the added value is on enhancing the guest experience, and this is not something tangible. This is where there is always a challenge in investing in technology, because it is not possible to build a clear ROI study on each case. By staff using PDA devices linked to system, we can calculate how much more efficient they are, but it is never black and white.
How do you keep managers abreast of the times in terms of technological developments?
At a hotel level, we conduct monthly meetings during which the IT Directors share the new technology that is deployed in the hotel and that is available in the market. This is part of our common practice.
From corporate office, we issue a monthly internal IT newsletter to all team members, which features the latest technological developments within the company and the market. As for the General Managers, I personally communicate the information to them on a regular basis and keep them updated on all developments. Furthermore, I conduct an extensive half a day session during the annual General Managers meeting during which I update them about the technology and our company’s strategy for the future.
We still have a manageable portfolio of properties, which allows me to visit each General Manager and discuss the various projects with them during my bi-annual field visit. It is also important to mention that there is IT Director in each of our hotels, which we strongly believe is a very important role.
In most of the hotel chain, the IT functionalities are outsourced but this is not our case at Rotana. In our group, we believe that a person with IT knowledge brings a lot to the hotel and its operation. This is why we look for people who are more business oriented. For the past 5 or 6 years, we have placed a lot of emphasis on technology and all our IT people have an important input in its development. Our team does not implement corporate office instructions but they have a crucial role to bringing new ideas and practices to our company IT standards. I work very closely with each of my team members and ensure empowering them to take responsibilities, which makes them really excited and proud or their job and gives them a great working spirit.
What is the key argument you use in winning-over new owners to the Rotana Group?
The Rotana brand is driven by passion, personal warmth, and the delivery of consistent quality standards, combined with a keen understanding of regional markets, commitment to research, and significant investment in systems and people. Development of the brand is rigorously planned and meticulously managed across all operations - simultaneously evoking confidence and trust among property owners, and creating satisfying experiences for corporate and leisure travellers alike.
Our product offering is exceptionally strong. Our properties are in the right locations and our level of service, much sought after. Don’t forget we are focused solely on the Middle East and North Africa; we know the region better than anyone.
We have gradually reached the hearts of our customers and the desired market recognition and our repeat guests are a major proof of that. Guests know what to expect when staying at any of our properties and this is very important for us to maintain; international quality standards complemented with traditional Arabic Hospitality. We worked hard to gain the trust of our customers in such a competitive region where most of the International chains were here 2 or 3 decades before we came in.