Hidden Power

30th November 2006 (Last Updated November 30th, 2006 18:30)

CIOs are often quietly working behind the scenes to keep their hotels at the forefront of technological development. Rebecca Burgess asks Kimpton's Andrew Furrer about where CIOs should be directing their strategies and why anonymity is a mark of success.

Hidden Power

Andrew Furrer, vice president of technology at Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants, has one aim in life: to be the invisible man. He believes that if his team is doing its job properly, no one should notice it.

This is a double-edged sword because while the team would like recognition for the vital role it plays, anonymity means that the systems they have put in place to create a smooth guest experience are doing their job.

Furrer joined Kimpton in 2000 after working for the San Francisco-based chain for several years as a sub-contractor through his own business.

Founded in 1981, Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants is a unique collection of 40 boutique hotels located throughout the US and Canada, coupled with chef-driven destination restaurants.

SEAMLESS PROCESSING

Furrer is not aiming to put Kimpton at the leading edge of hotels experimenting with technology. “We want a seamless system to process and manage guests. The systems have to work 99% of the time, otherwise it’s no use to the end users.”

According to Furrer, modern hotels cannot compete without robust technology behind them. “You can’t be successful without technology to manage check-in, a guest’s portfolio and their stay. Having automation in any business puts you in control of ensuring clients have a good experience.

“However, it’s not technology itself which is going to make you successful, but the application of it.”

“We have to start responding to new generations who are emerging into the market.”

For Furrer, the strategic role of a CIO in a hotel chain is to provide a smooth, seamless support system. He says: “I want to be invisible and I want it to work.”

In his view, success lies in the ability of humans and technology to work hand in hand. “When technology first came in during the ’60s and ’70s it made processes more efficient, which did cause some roles to become redundant.

“However, there are some services which just need human hands and human thinking and you are never going to be able to provide excellent guest service without this human input.”

CENTRALISED PLANNING

Furrer has overseen the implementation several systems that he believes are the way forward for the hospitality industry. These cover the systems used by staff to support hotel operations and those used by guests.

His first move was to centralise the internal technology systems. “The hotels used to be managed in isolation, but now we can manage everything from a central location. It allows us to provide a standard level of service across the brand.”

The next step is to work with disciplines across the group, including finance, sales, development and marketing and acquisition.

A significant new development within the group, which Furrer sees as an industry first and the way forward for guest satisfaction, is the introduction of free Wi-Fi and a business centre. “Kimpton’s guest Wi-Fi system is renowned in the hospitality industry, with guests taking advantage of the service, working on their laptops in the hotel living room or lobby.”

This was achieved in partnership with Eleven Wireless, a Portland-based group. Together they also installed dual-OS business centre computers, running both Mac OS X and Windows XP simultaneously on a single Apple iMac.

Furrer explains: “Some of our guests favour Windows and others prefer Mac.” ElevenBC delivers a seamless experience for business travellers, regardless of their preferred environment. The two companies worked with Apple to deliver the all-in-one business centre computer.

Josh Friedman, Eleven’s vice president of marketing, adds: “Hotels need to deliver the same or better technology than business travellers have at their home or office. ElevenOS has made using Kimpton’s internet access a breeze.”

Furrer thinks it’s important to weigh up how much is invested in technology against the return: “We have to put in technology such as high-definition television and internet access because it’s what people expect. However, some hotels spend thousands on technology, but if you can’t get the return on the investment then it’s wasted money.”

GETTING YOUR MESSAGE ACROSS

There is no limit, however, when it comes to sales and marketing. No self-respecting hotel brand can exist nowadays without a website offering extensive, illustrative material and a high degree of interaction.

Kimpton’s marketing department has recently introduced podcasts – which are being hailed for their flexibility. Furrer says: “We have to start responding to new generations who are emerging into the market. We will use a wide range of media, such as websites, word of mouth and podcasts, to ensure a ‘good’ story reaches our guests.”

Another new development, promoted by Furrer, is a desktop reservations system for guests. Clients can download and install a Kimpton reservation tool, which provides the latest special promotions, announcement and exclusive deals for the InTouch system.

In one marketing swoop, the system means guests have access to personalised offers and the Kimpton group has a marketing tool in the heart of guests’ businesses or homes. Furrer explains: “This sort of technology has been available for a while, but hotels have been slow to move towards it. There is now a pull in this direction and hotels are growing to fit the technology available.”

THE BEST PACKAGE

Like all hotel chains, Kimpton uses a series of systems for its finance, stock control, reservations and marketing. Partnership between the head of technology and the heads of departments is crucial to ensuring the right packages are in place.

Furrer says: “The packages are not the choice of the technology department. It’s a business decision made by the particular discipline and we have to say whether it will work and fit in with the overall experience Kimpton wants to ensure for its guests.”

“You can’t be successful without technology to manage check-in, a guest’s portfolio and their stay.”

Systems used by Kimpton include established brands such as Softbrand, a supplier of property management systems to more than 5,000 customers in 100 countries.

Another system used at the electronic point of sale is Aloha, which is used for controlling food, beverage and paper costs. The package can cut food costs by at least 1–2% as well as reducing administrative labour, manager time and errors.

And here lies the crux of the technological influence in the industry and its smooth implementation by the CIO – increasing efficiency and revenue through savings and generating a customer base.

However, it’s not an easy calculation, according to Furrer: “It’s hard to equate the ROI in terms of the technology aspect of the hotels, but it’s all about increasing efficiency and getting the best value.

“It’s something we are trying to work out at the moment, but it’s difficult to make a direct assessment. Every day I am striving to ensure that we are looking at the business side of technology. I don’t have a hands-on role in the technology because I need to focus on the strategy for the business.”

HIDDEN TALENTS

Perhaps because of the nature of the department and its spread across the disciplines, heads of technology do not often hear thanks for their work, according to Furrer: “Technology doesn’t get the recognition it deserves and people do suffer for it because there’s not a lot of gratitude. We are seen simply as the people who make their computers work, when really it’s a much stronger partnership.

“What’s important is how we present our systems and technology to our hotel operators so they are able to move the guests through their entire experience and have a good story to tell at the end of it. When they have a good experience it helps promote our occupancy and the business.”

The business of leading his 26-strong team of well-qualified technology staff to keep Kimpton’s IT systems up and running is very different to his secondary role from which he has just retired – a full-time firefighter. As a fire officer, his heroic deeds were recognised and praised, while as a technology officer his greatest successes, by their very nature, go unnoticed – and he wouldn’t have it any other way.