Richard Wagner, technical consultant of emerging technologies for Marriott International, shared a look into how his company prepares for the next wave of infrastructure needs in technology during the HTNG Insight Summit.
SUNNYVALE, California—Planning for the future is a notoriously tricky prospect when it comes to technology, and this is complicated within the hotel industry by the need to invest in sometimes expensive infrastructure to support evolving guest and back-of-house needs.
Speaking during the 2018 HTNG Insight Summit Tuesday, Richard Wagner, technical consultant of emerging technologies for Marriott International, said he’s learned plenty of lessons over the last eight years on “deploying architecture that will allow us to go to that future network,” and some of the growing pains remain as the company integrates legacy Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide properties.
He said one of the top objectives is building an environment where various solutions work and are not reliant on one particular supplier or vendor and that work well with guest’s various devices.
“The fact is, you should be able to plug in anything,” he said.
Dealing with infrastructure is particularly difficult in the hotel industry because of how fragmented it is, even for a large company like Marriott. While the company has a high room count among the big brands, it also has to deal with the varying needs and opinions of franchisees and operators, differing expectations between brands and even variability within brands, Wagner said.
“We have some hotels that are very large environments, like resorts or conference center hotels, while others can be as small as 30 rooms,” he said, noting that there are outliers even within single brands, like a 1,000-room Courtyard by Marriott, that have unique tech needs.
He also noted that it can sometimes be difficult to communicate the value of infrastructure investments to owners, but it sometimes becomes absolutely necessary like when brand standards dictate a higher level of bandwidth, requiring some properties to invest in new wiring that supports higher speeds.
“It’d be nice if we had control over all these properties, and it would make life simpler, but we don’t,” he said.
Building in flexibility
Wagner said his company has spent most of the past decade working on “a convergence of architecture,” which is a goal he believes has been largely achieved with the exception of the continued integration efforts of former Starwood properties.
He said one of the key achievements in this is standardizing what a network at a Marriott hotel looks like across the board. He said having standardized networking helps to streamline rolling out different technologies more seamlessly.
“Look at VLAN, for example,” he said. “For simplicity, we wanted to make sure we assigned VLANs for particular applications, so in the event we brought in digital signage, we’d know it’s on this VLAN with this IP address.”
Wagner said Marriott has built-in processes of testing out those types of changes at corporate-level “labs,” then a few pilot properties before pushing them out across brands.
“We really need to test this stuff,” he said.
He said lots of things have been simplified across large companies like Marriott by moving to the cloud, because it yields immediate results much faster. But the speed and simplicity also require more work on the front end, because making the wrong changes in the cloud will negatively impact more people more quickly.
Wagner said when it comes to physical components like switches or other on-property technology, his company works to not become too reliant on a single supplier, because it’s never clear in the tech space when someone will move away from manufacturing a certain component, leaving the company with a sudden hole to fill.
“Basically you’ve got to pick products from various vendors and certify and make sure they comply with the architecture you design,” he said.
He said this is also a useful approach when considering owners because “franchisees really like choice.”
Wagner said IT people in companies in the hotel industry have to realize that their needs are often not the priorities of owners and operators.
“Our owners would rather put flowers in the lobby than a firewall in the back office,” he said.
But over time, he believes the ownership community has come around more to the value of technology investments in part by making them a bigger part of the conversation on the front end.
“We’ve spent a lot of time with the franchisee community and explained why (they need to invest) and got them engaged, asking for their input,” he said, noting the big changing point was the incorporation of more tech infrastructure spending in brand standards roughly four years ago.
Wagner said that security is an ongoing concern for technology in the hotel industry, but it’s important for hoteliers to focus on the tech issues that actually impact them to avoid unneeded work and costs.
“We get security requests almost daily, but sometimes we bypass them because they’re not important as far as our networks are concerned,” he said. “They might be issues that come in but for a feature that is never used on a switch.”