The SkyTouch Hotel OS started in 2003 as a web-based PMS platform that Choice Hotels developed for franchisees of its economy brands. By going the web-based route the development team, headed by Senior Director Larry Gorman, knew that property owners and operators wouldn’t have to purchase all the hardware and software licenses that so many other property management systems required. As the PMS platform took off and was adopted across the company, many franchisees wanted to use it for their non-Choice affiliated hotels. This led the company to launch a new division that develops and markets cloud-based software solutions to hotels inside and outside the Choice system.
Since launching two years ago, Phoenix-based SkyTouch Technology, a Choice Hotels investment that operates as a separate division, has signed more than 5,900 properties worldwide. In January, G6 Hospitality became the third major hotel chain that has signed on with Skytouch—Vantage Hospitality and Cobblestone Hotels are the other two. In G6’s case, the economy player is looking to use the cloud-based platform to rapidly scale up development of the Motel 6 and Estudio 6 brands in Mexico and Latin America. Larry Gorman took some time from his software architecture duties to fill us in on how SkyTouch has grown and what the future holds.
Did you know what this technology platform would become when you initially developed it in 2003? In the early 2000s, we were pretty forward thinking in making this bet that the Internet was going to be solid, high speed internet connections were going to be reliable, browser performance was going to be stable and that the market would accept this. Part of our initial roll-out involved educating people on the benefits the cloud had over traditional client/server property management systems with all the hardware at the hotel. That’s what everybody else was doing. Nobody was going this route, so we made that bet internally, and we came up with pretty innovative solution. Now, while property management certainly is the core of our technology, we are so much more that.
As SkyTouch grew its capabilities and feature set over the years, has it been tricky to connect with the lodging industries many technology platforms and systems? The industry as a whole is very fragmented when it comes to technology solution providers. Hotels get a property management system from one vendor, they get a central reservation system from another vendor and now those two systems have to talk to each other so there’s an interface project. Both systems yield reservations. Both systems allow you to manage and update rates and inventory. Both systems allow you to do a lot of functions that are the same but they are implemented by different vendors using different business rules, different data structures and so trying to map that capability between systems has always been a hassle.
It gets even more complicated as you throw in revenue management systems, guest profile and loyalty systems, customer relationship management systems, travel agent commission, union systems and hotel sales and catering systems. Hotel staff have to worry about managing multiple log-in accounts, multiple user interfaces; they have to go through separate training programs so it’s really just an alphabet soup of all the different systems that hotels have to deal with.
Our approach is to simplify the whole equation by putting it all into a web browser so all you have to do is access the Internet with any device and you’re on our system. We do all the heavy lifting for you. All of the complexity is behind the scene and the functionality that you need is natively built into the SkyTouch Hotel OS. You don’t have to worry about managing multiple relationships across multiple vendors. A hotel can just let us worry about all that in the background so it just seems like one unified, seamless experience.
How has the platform grown since it was initially launched? We’ve been in business now for just under two years and we have been very focused on listening to the customers that we have and the customers that we are working with to find out what it is that they’re looking for as well as continue to map out our broader vision for the Hotel OS. This has led us to do a lot of work with mobility, for instance, coming out with optimized workloads specifically targeted for common mobile use cases. An example of that would be what we developed for hotel housekeeping staffs. Since housekeepers are all over the place and rarely in front of a computer, they have a hard time running reports to find out what’s going on for specific rooms. So we can take advantage of the mobile capabilities of the platform to provide access to those same reports on virtually any device with a browser so housekeepers can easily view a list of the rooms at the hotel, find out which ones are clean or dirty, and update that room condition. And it all happens in real-time so front desk staff know when a room is available for check-in.
Another new feature is our enhanced guest profiles. Companies like Cobblestone like to have a holistic view of their guest profiles, with preferences and experiences carrying over from one property to the next, so we added that to the Hotel OS. The more hoteliers understand about their guests and worry less about the technology, the more they can focus on personalizing the experience and satisfying their guests’ needs.
And analytics continue to be a significant area of growth for us. We’re striving to help hoteliers make sense of all the mountains of data that’s being collected so they can make more informed and better, more insightful decisions. We’ve added some automated rules within our rates management capability so that the system can recognize the events when they occur and make some automated changes to allow the system to react better to changes in the market.
How about data-mining features that help hoteliers make sense of the mountains of information they’ve collected over time? That’s actually an area we’re exploring right now. Just look at the professional services a hotel company like Choice Hotels offers to help franchisees generate greater insights from the data that’s in the system. The company has some proprietary data mining capabilities that helps it to facilitate those kinds of conversations. We’re looking to build out our ability to offer that same level of professional revenue management support to our SkyTouch customers that our largest customer is currently enjoying.
Today we have a lot of static reporting that’s available to our customers and we’re taking the information that might have been available through two or three reports and consolidating it into a unified report, adding in some additional summary information and comparison information all in one page so at a glance they can make better decisions. That is certainly a growth area for us so just consolidating and refining that data is a step toward what our vision is when it comes to doing that data mining and predictive analytics and things of that nature.
So what are your next steps at SkyTouch? As we move forward we’re definitely going to be exploring continued innovation in the mobile space. We’re just scratching the surface there. That’s a big passion of ours. Part of our value proposition is to make sure that the Hotel OS is available to our customers when they need it, wherever they happen to be, from whatever device and then mobility is certainly a key aspect of what we offer today to help our customers achieve that. That enables them to provide more personalized guest experience and they can focus more on the hospitality side of the business and less on the technology side of the business.
With Skytouch’s [software as a service] model we’ve been able to push out incremental feature updates on a frequent basis. We can roll things out on a monthly basis and get feedback from customers a lot faster than the more traditional vendors can. The updates we offer are real time with no outages, and they allow us to continue to evolve the platform based on real feedback.
Any interest in creating dedicated mobile apps for certain features? As a technology strategist, I see more opportunities where it makes sense to have a responsive web design type of application that runs in a mobile browser. Though there are cases where you might need a native application in order to most effectively support a specific actions. An example may be if for whatever reason a housekeeper needed to take a picture of some damage in the room and then upload that to the hotel OS for maintenance to follow up or to create an audit trail for potential charges that a guest might incur. A browser-based interaction may not support the camera capabilities of a smart phone, in which case we might go with an application. It comes down to whatever makes the most sense. There are pros and cons to any option that we choose but we want to apply some rigor to it.
Do you think cloud-based platforms like Skytouch’s Hotel OS be adapted to allow hotel developers and investors to create sophisticated models that help them figure out whether or not a new hotel project made sense? Yes, where the Hotel OS fits in nicely, even today is helping that developer or investor get a good sense of the market potential. If you’re looking at converting a hotel from one flag to another, one brand to another, and that hotel is currently a Hotel OS customer, then that investor has access to all the financial information about that hotel, where that business is coming from, what their forecasted revenue is looking like over the next year. They can even see historical booking patterns and how the seasonal fluctuation in demand and revenue and occupancy impact the overall success of the business. Those reporting and that data is always at the ready for somebody who’s looking to invest and that’s the most obvious opportunity for the Hotel OS to help that investor.
When you start getting into general market conditions about a particular region, competitive threats, what other flags are doing, what is the impact to the economy in that local region, those are all actually very interesting exploratory options for us, how we can grow the influence of SkyTouch. This is an aspirational feature thing, so by no means is this something we’re looking at but as society becomes more connected, as systems become more connected, the exchange of data becomes a lot more real time, becomes a lot easier and we can gain more insightful points that we can then make decisions on.
You can imagine if a storm is coming, the airport, the hotel may want to know that as far in advance as possible because that may cause a delay in flight so that may cause travelers to get stranded and may cause airline crews to have to adjust their arrival or departure. All that information, if they don’t know about it, it hits them unawares and can cause all sorts of havoc. It could really hurt the guest experience but if they know about it upfront they can plan for it, they can make adjustments in their own staffing at the hotel to prepare for the onslaught. They can do adjustments to rates and revenue and occupancy and things like that, then when the event does occur then they’re prepared to deal with it and everybody’s actually better off because of it. That’s a real time kind of an example based on the benefit of having these systems today that are not connected. If they were more connected, then you could gain greater insight.