How the UAE's Fairmont hotels provide the best digital services

The IT team behind the Fairmont properties in Dubai, Ajman, and Fujairah are working hand in hand with the business to deliver value for hotel operations, owners and customers alike

Keith LEsteve has been with the Fairmont for the last 16 years.
Keith LEsteve has been with the Fairmont for the last 16 years.

The Gold Lounge on the 33rd floor of the Fairmont Dubai offers guests a fine view of old Dubai. From October the staff will add to its scenic charm with a guest recognition system. The proof of concept will enable staff to recognise guests as they arrive and welcome them by name.

“The GM and I were discussing things and saying, ‘how do we enhance guest experience?,’” says Keith L’Esteve, 16-year veteran of the Fairmont, and group IT director for the hotel operator’s properties in Dubai, Ajman and Fujairah. “We have been playing with technology from day one. We were the first hotel in this region to introduce wireless in 2002,” he adds.

Currently, the IT team is assessing different technologies for the guest recognition application. The premise is straightforward; when a guest gets within eight foot of the reception desk, either their room key, or any device registered on the hotel’s network will ‘ping’ the lounge’s front desk with their ID, alerting the receptionist. Over time, as the property moves to mobile-based room keys, it is hoped that the Accor mobile app will enable a similar functionality.

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“When you to walk into our lounge, hopefully in a month’s time, as soon you open the door, [my] colleague will be able to greet you and say, ‘good morning, Mr. Smith, how are you today?’ without you introducing yourself,” explains L’Esteve. 

Although the technology behind the system is pretty simple, how it integrates with guest facing services is vital. An early trial highlighted potential problems. For instance, when multiple guests arrived, it created a confusing chorus of ‘pings’ to the receptionist. “We’re working to streamline this,” comments the cluster IT director. After the pilot has ironed out the kinks in the system, it is hoped it can be rolled out across the property.

The fact the GM of the Fairmont Dubai and the IT director are sitting down and trying to identify creative ways to use information technology to improve guest experience is increasingly endemic of the local hospitality industry. 

IT professionals in hospitality are stepping away from the support role and embracing business responsibility. “The change in our role is massive,” says L’Esteve. “We have become more than IT managers – we have become business managers.”

Accepting greater business responsibility means examining ways to streamline day to day operations, while finding creative ways to improve guest experience. Critically, there is a greater focus on creative thinking.

“The team is empowered to do cool things and learn from its mistakes… With most systems automated the focus is less on maintenance and more on creativity,” says the IT director. 

“In today’s technology driven economy, understanding and coming up with innovative ideas has become a priority,” he adds.

The clear focus on business value, means that most IT projects must show a ‘return on investment’ business case. The team finds itself doing costing analysis on projects “a lot more”, comments L’Esteve. “We have direct contact with the owners and we know what drives them financially,” he adds.

The acquisition two years ago of the Fairmont by French operator AccorHotels, kicked off an overhaul of the IT infrastructure. Following the Accor corporate IT blueprint, the entire infrastructure – applications, data and servers for all properties — has been moved to the cloud.

“Over the last two years, we have [shifted] to cloud services because that is the way forward,” says L’Esteve. “There is no huge investment from the owner’s side, and it is more viable for us. We have 24-hour support for cloud services,” he adds.

The shift away from older legacy systems to standardised applications, held in the cloud has allowed the hotel operator to reduce its overall IT headcount over the last four years. “Four years back my team size was about 25... But with automation of our systems and removing our legacy [applications] we’ve reduced our staff by 25-30%,” explains L’Esteve. 

The standardisation of the infrastructure has also enabled the Fairmont to rapidly scale its local operation when required. For instance, it look L’Esteve and one other colleague 45 days to setup for the infrastructure for the Fairmont Fujairah in 2016. If the servers, applications and storage where on-site it would have required additional manpower and taken nearly twice as long.

With the core applications in the cloud, the IT team has sort to address customer pain points. Near the top of the list was replacing the aging TV system in the 394-room Fairmont Dubai. The previous system, which had been in use for the past 15 years had become a major source of customer complaints. Working with Locatel Solutions, the team pulled the coax cables from the hotel and installed 608 IPTVs throughout the property. The Fusion IPTV system, which took six months to install, costs 50% less than the previous system. 

Arguably more importantly, the new system has massively reduced the support requirements. “In 2016 we had about 1,800 guest calls for TV connection; USBs not working, everyone wanted to stream their data on the screen. Stuff like that,” comments L’Esteve.

“After moving to Fusion, we reduced our calls by 80%,” he adds.

Aside from reducing the number of complaints, Fusion offers the hotel another platform to talk to its guests. As well as personalised messages to guests on the TV-screen, the Fairmont Dubai can post promotions.   

The IPTV units allow guests to send requests for additional services through its integration with Royal Service Manager’s (RSM) Guest Ticketing module. The ticketing system integrates tightly with Oracle’s Opera property management system (PMS), so when a guest makes a request, such as an extra bottle of water, or a shoe shine, it is automatically sent to the appropriate department. 

RSM “generates and automatic ticket and it is dispatched to the butler, or [the relevant] department and it’s actioned in 15 minutes”, says L’Esteve. 

Guests can also make requests directly to RSM via the hotel mobile app.

Fairmont Fujairah has implemented a second RSM’s module to streamline the property’s housekeeping tasks. The housekeeping module has generated significant savings and accelerated the speed with which it can prepare rooms for guests. 

Due to be deployed in both Dubai and Ajman, the housekeeping application has streamlined communications between front desk and housekeeping. Housekeepers with iPhones are able to update the PMS in real time, as and when rooms are made available.

“The whole PMS fits onto the mobile application,” says L’Esteve. Previously there was a lot of ‘back and forth’ between the front desk and housekeeping before rooms where released, but this “is completely automated now”, he adds.

The housekeeping system enables the front desk to prioritise, which rooms become available. “It shows [the guest’s] tier, so [if] Mr. Smith is VIP one, we can escalate [his] room to be ready first. It’s released in the real time. It gives a pop-up [on the PMS] saying the room is ready and the front office can check [them] in,” he explains.

RSM has given a huge boost in productivity to the housekeeping staff. The 181 room Fujairah property operates with just 22 housekeeping staff. Typically, a hotel of that size would have a housekeeping team double that size. “We’re able to schedule staff effectively; there is no human intervention required,” says L’Esteve. 

The Fairmont intends to rollout RSM Housekeeping in Ajman and Dubai properties before the end of the year. When completed it is expected to save AED518,000 per year across all three hotels, through a combination of manpower savings and productivity gains.

The introduction of RSM, Fusion, cloud-based PMS and the insatiable customer demand for bandwidth means that network upgrades are rarely far away. But bandwidth is expensive and increasingly the IT team has had to find creative solutions to boost connectivity. Starting with the Fairmont Dubai, the team increased guest bandwidth to 300MB by deploying five ADSL lines. “We put them together, created a pipe, gave higher bandwidth to our guests, with a quarter of the costs,” says L’Esteve. 

A similar approach to boosting guest connectivity has been taken in Fairmont’s other hotels in the Middle East, saving over half a million dirhams per year, over the three properties in Dubai, Ajman and Fujairah. 

The hotel operator is also expecting information technology to play a key role in delivering personalised guest services. AccorHotels operates a global platform called ACDC that compiles customer profiles based on a guest’s use of Accor websites, supplemented with data from social media and other tools. 

When guests stay in a Accor hotel in the local region relevant information is updated to ACDC when they leave.

The platform also monitors social media in an effort to track guest satisfaction during and immediately after their stay at the hotel. For example, if a guest posts about a negative experience on TripAdvisor at an Accor property, it will be flagged up. 

“The next time they stay at any Accor hotel whether it is in Germany, or France, or wherever, there will be a note saying there was a problem last time… so we need to recover,” says L’Esteve.

However, guest preferences on food and beverage, and other hotel services are not integrated into ACDC. “We’re working on it,” adds the Fairmont IT director.

But “the amount of data we get on guests is massive, compared with a few years ago. We know what a guest wants when he [or she] walks in through the doors of the hotel,” he adds.

The growing repository of guest data is vital as the Fairmont chain considers the best way to integrate its five-star service with information technology. In the meantime aligning business needs and technology is already delivering business value.

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