I am often credited with creating a “Customer-First” organization at Infor Hospitality, and I am incredibly proud of this achievement. However, building a customer-focused organization is like walking on a tightrope made of razor wire. Every day, my executive team had to make difficult decisions in order to balance bringing new hospitality technology innovations to market while also ensuring that our existing customers were satisfied with their purchased solutions. When we made mistakes, which we inevitably did, it was painful. We found that avoiding the temptation to make decisions in isolation was the key to our success as we strove to achieve this balance. Our leadership team was one of the best in the hospitality technology industry, and we encouraged them to challenge ideas while still supporting me as the final decision-maker. As a team, we surpassed our goal of achieving both innovation and customer satisfaction excellence. I look back on this experience with pride as one of the greatest accomplishments of my career.
Since leaving Infor Hospitality nearly a year ago, I have had time to talk to many influencers, company officers, and consumers of different hospitality technology solutions. My only goal was to continue to educate myself as an avid learner of what other companies in the industry I had dedicated most of my career were doing. While confident that many reading this will share a different opinion, I felt compelled to share this lobby lifer’s current view of many, but far from all, leading hospitality technology companies and where I believe they are in their journey of being customer-first, innovation-first, or a balanced company.
The company where I spent most of my career has come a long way since my departure in 2012. As with most things, one must understand history to understand present and future direction. When Agilysys acquired Visual One Systems (and me) in 2006, they were what I would consider a customer-first company. Their singular mission at the time was to keep their casino gaming customers happy with very stable yet ancient solutions. Visual One had achieved that fantastic balance of being innovative and customer-first, and we did it by working with customers by taking an innovative idea and getting their input on how to make it a practical idea in actual hospitality operations. During my tenure at Agilysys, we progressed the journey to being balanced between customer-first and innovation-first by acquiring InfoGenesis, one of the most brilliant acquisitions in hospitality technology at the time.
CEO leadership changed multiple times during my tenure at Agilysys, and with each change, the company began to lose its identity. The company had lost focus, and poor decisions were being made on where to innovate and where to satisfy customer requests; this ultimately made me decide to exit the company. During the past ten years, the pendulum swung from the balanced center to the customer-first left to the innovative-first right. The current leadership team has done a phenomenal job of revamping and investing in Agilysys solutions and, in doing so, has scored significant accounts such as the Marriott property management system contract.
A trap has now been set, one that Oracle customers have witnessed for years. Will Agilysys be able to find that coveted balance between customer-first and innovation-first? Will the pendulum now swing in the opposite direction to where Marriott’s requests take priority over all other customers and innovations? Time will tell.
Most likely, the largest technology company in the greater travel and hospitality industry today has long struggled with many acquisitions it made years ago. Analysts and customers worldwide have yet to understand what Amadeus is doing with their collection of property management systems. Still, if you exclude those systems, you will find a balanced company in the customer-first to innovative-first spectrum.
It took Amadeus years to achieve the balance they have, but if you focus on their guest interaction solutions, hotel, and airline distribution solutions, and, of course, their well-known sales & catering solutions, you will find a very balanced company. Amadeus is subject to the same trap as Agilysys and Oracle. They have major global hotel chains and almost every major international airline at the other end of the phone, so maintaining balance will take a lot of work. The company has organized itself well, keeping the airline and hotel divisions separate, yet I am sure, sharing best practices for innovation strategies that have synergies. Long-tenured leadership at Amadeus has also contributed to the balance of listening to and reacting to customer requests while driving innovation.
It’s not hard to see why customers of the Amadeus, sales and catering, service optimization, guest CRM, and global inventory distribution platforms are so satisfied. However, as someone who has worked with two property management system companies, I can’t help but wonder if Amadeus will surprise everyone with an innovative PMS offering in the future. This all-in-one hospitality solution might bundle inventory, distribution, reservations, guest profiles, service optimization, and sales & catering with a next-generation front-office property management system platform. It would be a true test between balancing customer satisfaction over innovation, but if successful, it could make Amadeus the most successful company in hospitality technology history.
I opened this article by stating that finding the balance between customer-first and innovation-first is like walking a tightrope made of razor wire. My wounds are still healing from walking that line. Being the head of Infor Hospitality will remain one of the highlights of my career. Several of the solutions that Infor Hospitality offers are industry leading. Still, like many companies, Infor struggles to retain the desired balance.
Several years ago, Infor acquired an innovative cloud-based sales and catering company while I was in the big boy chair at Infor Hospitality. A good acquisition is as much about the human talent acquired as it is about the innovative products they built; this was no exception. The talent was exceptional, and it quickly taught me that we were not challenging and asking enough questions of our existing development team. Sales were terrific, customers were happy, and Infor was pleased with my team’s performance, so we never looked under the hood of the platform we had built to realize there might be challenges with the engine. We had always just taken what the head of the software engineering team told us as gospel.
Before I left Infor Hospitality, we hired a new Vice President of Development to take our cloud offerings to the next level. I had previously worked with this talented individual at Agilysys and knew he would be the perfect fit for us, balancing customer needs with innovation. Our new leader quickly identified that our previous development leader had not been challenged enough, and many of our solutions were outdated. To address this, Infor Hospitality has placed many customer requests and new features on hold, allowing the engineering team to adopt improved agile practices and focus on transitioning from monolithic cloud solutions to genuine serverless cloud products. Once finished, this shift will result in a more scalable cloud solution stack for Infor Hospitality.
One of the oldest and most stable companies in hospitality technology is heavily in the customer-first camp. Examining the type of customer Maestro targets – the independent and boutique hotel and hospitality groups, it makes sense why they lean heavily towards customer-first. Relationships propel both people and companies forward in the hospitality industry. The fine people at Maestro are experts in maintaining happy customer relationships and using those satisfied customers to gain new ones.
Maestro has been a prominent player in the North American hospitality industry for a long time, offering many good solutions to its customers. However, it is rarely mentioned when people discuss innovative companies in the industry. While Maestro has many great solutions that their customers love, they seem to be doing only the minimum to keep their well-established customer base happy. This has worked for them for decades, but with the advent of cloud solutions, the world is starting to realize that everything has changed. Although switching to cloud-based hospitality platforms can still be somewhat difficult, it is not as painful as it used to be, and this could mean that some loyal Maestro customers may start to explore other options. This could force Maestro to become more innovative, either by building new solutions or acquiring them from other providers.
In the grand scheme of our lives in hospitality technology, Mews is the infant. However, they continue to wow the world. The Mews marketing engine might be the best in hospitality technology, but all marketing hype aside, they have introduced some very innovative solutions. Mews is on the journey from moving from that very left innovation-first side of the continuum to finding balance in the center. It will still take them some time and maturity to get there.
Mews has an impressive solution stack and is making significant decisions regarding their merger and acquisition strategies. They have surpassed several major hospitality tech companies in customer counts for their property management system. Many users in their customer base have a cult-like appreciation for Mews. However, there are still many critics and skeptics of their commercial models. Some compare Mews to Toast, a popular POS solution, as many of their commercial models require the use of the Mews payment platform. In the United States, where customers demand the freedom to choose almost everything, forcing a payment platform could be a hurdle that Mews may not overcome. Several CFOs and CIOs have expressed their love for many of the features of the Mews suite, and they consider the user experience to be the best in hospitality technology. However, when they did the math, the long-term investment in the Mews payment platform did not make sense for their organization. If Mews can tackle this challenge, they could one day potentially displace Oracle as the leader of hotel property management systems.
Mews needs to address some other areas to effectively cater to large resort complexes and gaming hotels in North America. These customers are also likely to reject the Mews payment platform. Therefore, the company must work towards finding a balanced center. However, Mews is making faster progress compared to any other hotel property management system vendor.
Throughout my career, I and everyone around me have always heard the phrase, “Nobody gets fired for selecting Opera.” Oracle’s Opera has long reigned supreme as the global property management system for chains, hotel groups, and independents. Does that make them heavily customer-first? Absolutely not. In fact, for the longest time, the biggest joke about what customers loved about Oracle was that they loved to hate them. Leadership change in 2019 did wonders for improving customer service and industry perception and helping Oracle get innovations they have been working on for years to market. However, many Oracle customers I have spoken to, while hopeful, are skeptical that the positive change will be long-lasting. So, they are not ready to say anything celebrated about Oracle Hospitality, fearing karma will strike them down and their service will become unsatisfactory again.
So where do they belong in the scale of customer-first to innovative-first? Somewhere right of center. As far as Oracle has come at improving relationships with their customers, I am told they still have a long way to go. This shows how fickle customers in hospitality can genuinely be because as much as a customer will complain about Oracle, if they open a new hotel or restaurant, you can bet that Oracle will be at the top of their list as a prospective technology vendor. Why? Primarily because of user familiarity, which is not to be discounted in an industry with some of the highest employee turnover. Familiarity is not the only reason; it took a while for Opera Cloud to become stable, but it is now a truly innovative solution that, combined with the cutting-edge Simphony restaurant solutions, gives a full-service hotel a robust technology stack.
Sabre has long been a leader in hotel inventory distribution and reservation services. Still, the industry has been waiting for them to reinvent themselves. I am confident that, like Amadeus, the world is waiting anxiously to see what Sabre Hospitality does with its property management solutions.
Sabre has been successful in innovating the global distribution and guest interaction space for regional chains and middle-market hotel companies. However, it could be argued that all the other solutions they offer are mere distractions that prevent them from achieving greatness and finding the balance that has been preached throughout this report. If Sabre were to combine all of their solutions, along with the right amount of customer input and innovative prowess, they could potentially introduce a hospitality technology stack that delivers a complete guest journey for a hotel guest – from inventory distribution to reservation inception, all the way to final guest check out. Although Sabre may argue that they already do this, most people would say that they do not, at least not to the level that luxury chain and resort operators would require. All things considered; Sabre is in a similar position to Amadeus.
I finish with a personal favorite, yet what I genuinely consider a tragedy. Shiji Hospitality has one of the most innovative suites available today for modern hospitality companies. This is a recent revelation, as I previously thought them a “me too” of hospitality technology companies. Kevin King is an inspirational leader who has helped Shiji become a world leader in hospitality technology. Wolfgang Emperger, who worked with me for years and whom I consider family, has done an incredible job of making customers heard and helping Shiji be a customer-first organization. Between Kevin and Wolfgang, Shiji might be one of the most balanced hospitality technology companies today.
I spent a lot of time this year talking to industry consultants, researching Shiji, and learning about their suite of solutions from Wolfgang and Kevin. I was thoroughly impressed. Shiji offers an excellent user experience across all its products, which is on par with Mews, Infor, and Oracle. They have also successfully deployed their solutions across multiple countries. However, despite all these impressive feats, there is a major problem. I believe that Shiji will never receive the adoption they deserve in North America because of the misplaced trust in anything related to China. Although their Point-of-Sale solution might gain some traction in North America (as it should; it is excellent), their hospitality platform as a whole is unlikely to be widely adopted, especially given the current geopolitical and economic climate. Even though Shiji can prove that their development is primarily based in Europe and their customers’ data is safe and inaccessible to China, most companies in the United States and Canada still view them as a non-starter. This is truly tragic.
Although I have strong opinions on the various products offered by each reviewed company, my objective was to express my views on where each company stands on the spectrum between prioritizing customer needs and prioritizing innovation. If you have read this far, I hope you have found my experiences and opinions helpful, even if you do not agree with all of my statements. The hospitality technology industry is a unique and wonderful community. Despite a company’s shortcomings or advancements, the people involved make each company stand out in a positive way. Every company has something positive to offer, even if they may be leaning more toward one side of the spectrum. I say this not just as a fellow hospitality technologist, but as someone who has been delivering customer-oriented and innovative solutions for over two decades.