How system architecture is affecting hotel communications

GAITHERSBURG, MD—The hotel phone has repeatedly been a topic of discussion: Is it necessary? Is it obsolete? Will it become obsolete? But perhaps the discussion would serve hoteliers better to think of the guestroom phone as part of the larger communications strategy.

Ron Tarro

Ron Tarro, VP of hospitality and travel industry solutions, BroadSoft—which deals in cloud communications, collaboration and contact center solutions for businesses and service providers—told Hotel Business that it’s important to understand the changes in overall infrastructure in hotels. “First and foremost, hotels are now able to really have a high availability network,” he said. “What I mean by that is hotels today are putting in networks that have wire coming in the backdoor of the hotel, but if the network fails, it goes over to 4G. The actual network can toggle between wire and wireless in the building. Then, if you merge that with the idea that one wire—be it fiber or copper—can carry everything, this whole idea that it’s always on, always available and has high bandwidth, you stop everything right there and say: that’s an entrée to reconsidering your system architecture. If you can now make an assumption that the network—the internet and otherwise—is functionally always on, you can start making different system decisions.”

By that, Tarro means considering a premise-based PBX vs. a cloud-based PBX. “One of the reasons why a PBX existed on premise was in case the network goes down,” he said, noting that it gives local control of both data and service. “You don’t actually have to make that distributed technology assumption anymore. I’m going to run an internet connection into the building and I can run my cloud PMS off of it, I can run my cloud PBX services off of it, I can run my guest WiFi off of it, I can do video streaming into the room—it’s all one pipe. Always-on networks and the ability to run services over the top of a generic wire is changing the architecture.”

Tarro likened it to solutions like Dropbox or Evernote. “They represent a smart client, usually held in your hand, or it could be on your desktop, talking to a robust cloud,” he said. “If you download the Evernote app and you want to start sharing data across all of your devices, you don’t have to put a server in your house. It’s the app talking to the Evernote cloud. There’s no intermediary. It doesn’t matter on the app if you’re connected to WiFi or cellular. Suddenly, ideas like a premise PBX or premise PMS—you wonder what that’s really for? Do you really need to do that anymore? The answer is increasingly no, you don’t.”

Security is also a factor. “When you have 100 hotels and 100 PBXs, you start to realize other things: Security is more difficult. There have been some pretty high-profile hackings of premise PBXs. It turns out that security is more difficult when you have distributed platforms than when you have centralized. Centrally, you can have active defense,” he said, adding that support systems are also important to think about. “Obviously, hotels are really not staffed for deep technical skills anymore. All of those things begin to add up, so before you even talk about all of the other reasons you might want hosted stuff, the architecture is shifting toward a two-tier client-to-cloud, endpoint-to-cloud type of architecture.”

The way guests and employees are communicating is also evolving. “The guestroom phone is just another guest-service touchpoint,” said Tarro. “I want to be able to interact with the guest in as many touchpoints as possible. It could be their smartphones, the room phone, a meeting room phone, an app. I want touchpoints for interacting with the guest. Your problem with a PBX is that if you have a mobile phone and you walk into a hotel, in order for the PBX to talk to your phone, does it have to connect to it? Then if you change hotels, there’s another integration question of whether that PBX is set up to talk to your phone. If you want to hit both the cell and the guestroom phone to do a message to both, it’s very hard. It’s very straightforward if you’re a cloud platform.

“What it also does, when you get into the fix in mobile, it allows the hotelier in the cloud to say the guest experience is not just about when they’re in the building,” he continued. “It’s when they make the reservation and after they’ve gotten home again. I want to be able to advance my guest interactions, and I want to do it in a more complete way. You’d rather have [the PBX]as part of a larger context, which is the guest experience from the start of the trip to the end of the trip.”

Tarro noted that a similar evolution is happening with the hotel PMS. “If you’re looking at the PMS business and the loyalty system business, in parallel with the movement of premise PBX to the cloud, you’ve also got the shift in importance of the PMS up to the loyalty systems. For a lot of years, the PMS was always the earth, moon, sun and stars. But now, if you look from a guest experience and establishing a unique brand experience, the PMS is just a local deployment of a service that you want to have in a bigger way. It’s the same argument: Guest experience needs to be up in the loyalty system app in much more real time. You can see the arguments why if you have a premise PBX talk to a PMS, that provides in-building experience, but if you move it all up, you can provide a total brand experience across multiple stays with loyalty and communications platforms integrated.”

Employee-to-employee communications can also become more uniform. “Hotel staff has a radio, a phone, a tablet, multiple communication devices,” Tarro said, noting that by moving to the cloud, hotels can become device agnostic. “You’ve basically gotten rid of all the device requirements and the app can run over WiFi or cellular—it doesn’t matter.”

Noting that Marriott and Hilton have led the way on cloud-based PBXs, Tarro noted that it’s easy for brands to see the value. “If you were to talk with most CIOs, there’s no major brand CIO who doesn’t have in their back pocket a strategy that looks like this: When I open a hotel in my perfect world in the future, I would bring in a highly redundant, high availability network. I put a bunch of PCs or mobile devices—whatever is going to be running this stuff—I give them all a url, user ID and password and I’m done,” said Tarro. “The only thing in the basement is the router that connected this place to the internet. Cloud PBX makes a ton of sense for the brand but you have to get the guy in Peoria on board—and it can’t cost him any more.”

Speaking to the total cost of ownership (TCO), Tarro said, “What’s happened with premise PBXs, is it’s just been an elevator to the basement: cost cutting, cost cutting, cost cutting. So if you’re going to look at PBXs strategically, what that really means is they’re end of life and they’re not getting a lot of R&D, at least on all the core commoditized features of voice services… There’s an opportunity cost of staying local with these features, but there’s also an innovation cycle problem. If you’re selling a PBX today, you’re going to say you can buy my new PBX and you can keep it for 15 years just like the last one. The last five or eight years, you’re going to buy all the parts off of eBay. In reality, if you look at telecom today, with mobility changing so fast, nobody believes you’re going to be keeping PBX technology for those periods. The folks selling an asset will say you can keep it forever. The folks selling a software service will say you can’t keep it very long at all because there’s too much change going on, and what you’re not factoring into the TCO is all of the upgrades of innovation that will be required over the next five years in unified communications. You can write both sides of that story.

“But the industry is shifting to mobile first. Why is there going to be no more PBXs? It’s mobile first and connecting mobile to premise PBXs makes no sense. Long term, you’re going to have to interact with guests where they live, not with how you want to buy stuff for a building,” he said. “Communications are no longer building centric.” HB

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