Jon Inge has seen a lot of change in the industry during his 40-plus years as a hotel technologist. Improved interconnectivity between computer systems, the advent of cloud technology and the specter of data security are some of the issues he’s wrestled with during this long career.
Like many people in the business, Jon was an accidental hotelier. In the early 1970s, he started as an engineer with British Aircraft Corp., then to a subsidiary of British Airways that built and managed airports in remote locations. His next assignment was to help hotels in those locations create their technology infrastructures. From there, he worked with several hotel technology vendor companies, including Micor and NCR, before joining Westin Hotels in Seattle to manage systems planning and installation.
When Westin moved its IT operations out of Seattle, Inge decided to stay and hung up a shingle as a hotel technology consultant, a gig he had for 19 years before retiring last year.
We had a chance to catch up with Jon by phone to get his perspectives on the changing landscape of hotel technology over the years:
What have been the biggest changes and advancements in hotel technologies during your time in the industry?
Inge: It’s greater interconnectivity between systems. I’ve often joked that the most strategic computer system in most hotels is Excel. It’s used as the universal medium for transferring data from one system to another and reporting on it. That’s probably still true to a large extent.
There has been much work done on improving the way systems talk to each other and exchange data, given the growing realization that you need good data in great detail in order to operate efficiently and give guests the best kind of customer service you can.
What has been the major contribution of hotel technology: Enhancing guest experience or improving operational efficiencies?
Inge: They go together. If you improve efficiency, you have fewer distractions for the staff so they can automatically start giving better guest service.
The most profitable use has been in the advertising and reservations side to generate more business, in terms of channel management and revenue management, getting the right offers in front of the right people. In a sense it is improving the efficiency of the sales and marketing process rather than the operating process.
For the most part, do hotel company CEOs fully appreciate the value of technology?
Inge: They understand the value of it in generating more business and maintaining their market share, but they don’t necessarily appreciate how much it can improve the efficiencies of their internal operations and what that does for overall cost savings, efficiencies and staff morale, which reflects back into guest service.
For a lot of people technology is still a necessary evil. We tend to focus on the things that give us immediate satisfaction and struggle to get by using a fraction of the capabilities of the software and equipment we have.
What has been the significance of cloud technology in the hotel industry?
Inge: Potentially it can make systems more reliable and better supported. There are drawbacks to it, obviously. If you have a complicated environment, interfaces become at least as complicated as they are on property because you have to deal with communications from each individual system to the cloud as well as between many different clouds.
Overall, it’s been beneficial in reducing the load on hotels to keep their technology running. They shouldn’t be thinking about how to keep the technology running; that’s not their focus. They should be focusing on operating efficiency and guest service. The cloud really helps them do that, particularly in smaller properties and the more limited-service sections of the hotel world.
As always, you must keep in mind that while offloading systems to the cloud may make your life easier, it doesn’t absolve you from responsibility. Ultimately, it is still the hotel’s responsibility to make sure systems work and the data is secure.
What should the industry be doing to better protect itself from data security breaches?
Inge: There is no easy answer. Any retail operation is vulnerable. It’s a physical situation in that it is the hospitality industry and we want people to feel comfortable and relaxed in our environment. That’s the antithesis of a tight security environment, whether it is physical or data-oriented. You want people to be able check in with a minimum disruption and sign things to their rooms with minimal disruption. You want them to come and go through the hotels without going through security barriers. There is a risk associated that some other industries don’t share.
That heightens the need to make sure your systems are as secure as possible. [You also must] enforce password and access security as rigorously as you can amongst the staff and heighten their awareness of the types of phishing attacks that can lead to social engineering your way inside the barriers.
That’s not unique to the hotel industry, but the hospitality industry needs to be as tight as it possibly can behind the scenes in terms of operational security and staff training so they don’t have to impose such rigid restrictions on guest access that proper data security requires.
Where will hotel technology be in the next 10 years?
Inge: I know where I would like it to be. It would be in better control over personal data. It’s more a consumer issue than a just a hotel one. Ideally, I would like to be able to share personal data that would improve my experience under circumstances that I control.
I’d like a lot more flexibility and control over personal information, probably centered around the phone, but able to detect what kind of environment I’m in and only share the kind of information I choose to share with specific retail entities, whether they are hotels, stores, travel agencies, airlines, hotels, whatever.
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