A brief history of property management systems

When I was young, I wanted to be a teacher. A philosophy teacher, to be precise. You know the type: dressed in black from head to toe, a non-filter cigarette stuck in my mouth and a unhealthy passion for Greek mythology. But destiny had a different plan for me, and it all started with a PMS. Or, more specifically, the lack of one.

I was 19 and took a job as a night manager. I naïvely thought: “I eventually understood Heidegger’s temporality theory, how hard can it be to bring clean towels to guests? I will have plenty of time to study!”. Boy, I was wrong.

On my very first day behind the desk, in fact, I discovered that all my colleagues were relying on paper for pretty much everything: from police forms to attendants’ sheets, making the simplest tasks, such as reassigning a room or changing a group’s check-out date, an incredibly frustrating and time-consuming struggle. They were taping four A3 sheets together and use them as a PMS ante litteram. No kidding!

After sweating eight hours a night on these paper monsters I decided that, if I wanted to graduate in time (which I eventually didn’t anyway) I had to come up with a solution. So, out of frustration, one day I gave my superior a USB stick with a basic excel spreadsheet I created, and begged him to stop playing a predominant role in the Amazon rainforest deforestation. Result? I was promoted the very next day and my career path was set. And, FYI, I’ve never started smoking non-filter cigarettes, but I do dress in black and have a passion for Greek mythology, hence the title.

But I digress.

hotel pms

Madness

Back in the days, PMS were pretty much just that: fancy versions of excel spreadsheets: you used them to assign rooms, print attendants’ sheets or, best case scenario, manage guest invoicing.

Today, on the other hand, PMS are required to manage a multitude of tasks, and they have to flawlessly integrate with a multitude of third-party apps and software: channel managers, booking engines, CRM, Yield Management tools, MICE planning software, self-check-in apps, reputation management systems… Well, you get the idea.

Some scholars of Ancient Greek culture claims that madness was between the evils flow out of the Pandora’s box (funny fact: in the original Hesiod’s story the box was actually a jar, and it was not until the 16th Century that the word was used, due to a translation error made by a dutch scholar). And who can really remain sane with all these integrations needed to stay relevant in our (over)crowded industry?

Curiosity

In any modern hotel, having a centralized system is critical in order to increase efficiency, avoid time waste and reduce human error, therefore PMS must eventually connect to nearly all the software the hotel is using. But here is where things start to get complicated, because, in order to do that, these software need API access to PMS.

API stands for Application Programming Interface and it would take way more than a 3,500-word article to clarify it in detail, but at its core, API is nothing but a way for applications or programs to connect and communicate fluidly with each other. Simple as that.

A lot of hotel websites, for example, show weather information, but it is unlikely that web agencies develop their own weather widgets from scratch. More likely, they connect to existing monitor apps, so that web users can check the temperature of their chosen destination without even realizing that the information is actually provided by an external source. This communication is made possible by the use of an API.

hotel pms

Strain

So, on paper, this sounds amazing: you wake up one morning with a great disruptive idea that could reshape the travel industry forever, and all you need is hotel data. PMS are goldmines of precious information and these are just an API away but, guess what? You cannot have them. Well, let me rephrase it: you can, by paying big money to PMS and waiting patiently for your turn.

Most PMS, in fact, use closed interfaces. Unlike public APIs (that are openly available to developers with relatively few, if any, restrictions, granting almost-instant access to data without the burden of internal development or complicated integrations), private ones are only available to developers who created them and to selected partners.

While working on this article, I had the strong impression that PMS integration is one of the biggest taboos in travel, a subject you cannot openly talk about it without raising flaming controversies: on one side, in fact, you have frustrated tech companies fighting for a more transparent market, while on the other you have PMS evil super-villains unwilling to open their walled gardens. Muahaha! It seems like our industry is doomed by this huge dichotomy, and the underestimation of the problem is between the main reasons why so many travel tech startups struggle to get into our industry, or fail just after a few years.

Jealously

The bottom line is that if you are thinking about building a company that relies on hotel data, you should be ready to put up to €25,000 and several months of waiting on the table just to get a single integration done.

An example? Just until a few years ago, Oracle was the second-largest software maker by revenue, so saying that it is one of the biggest names when it comes to PMS is probably an understatement. Accessing  Oracle’s database is, therefore, extremely important for any travel tech company, but it is extremely expensive as well. On top of that, Oracle grants API access only to a bunch of selected providers, it is less willing to share its data with companies selling similar products and it certainly does not want to lose the hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue stream coming from third-party integrations.

Last, but not least, even if your company can get the integration, waiting times are epic and, by the time you will get API access, your disruptive idea will probably be already obsolete.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg: there are more than 300 PMS in the market and only a minority of them provide easy access to their data. Therefore, without heavy funding, right connections and patience, a lot of potentially great and innovative ideas will never exit the cocoon stage, with the risk of innovation stagnation and travel company oligarchies. While writing this article, I tried to get in touch with Oracle’s CEO, Mark Hurd, and to its PR department to get its point of view on the matter, but never received a response to requests.

Selfishness

With more than 14,000 customers in almost 100 countries, Protel is another travel tech Goliath. It accepted the opportunity to provide its point of view on the subject. Jeremy Armes is VP marketing for the Germany-based company, we had a chat in Berlin during ITB and he was pretty candid about the current state of the industry.

“Charging customers and innovators to connect to third-parties has been working well for years and nobody wants to give up on the cash-cow, of course, but this did not work well for the hotels nor for the innovation of the marketplace.

“Protel has always tried to stay ahead of the market. And what the market is telling us today is that hotels have had enough of the technology vendor stranglehold model, where the one vendor dictates all terms.

“Several thousand industry workarounds later we are getting the message: hotel tech is supposed to be empowering hotels towards consistent growth, by harnessing all available technological advantages of the moment, regardless of the specific manufacturer tool-set.”

This kind of comment can sound odd coming from one of the biggest travel tech companies out there, but I have personally never bought this over-simplistic portrait of the industry, made of Rebel Alliance’s ewoks (small startups) fighting evil stormtroopers (established companies) with bare hands and rocks. And even though it is true that there are plenty of PMS reluctant to new integrations (often forcing vendors to create less-than-reliable and buggy workarounds), others are actively trying to fix the API’s dilemma.

Armes agrees:

“The age of real vendor neutrality is upon us. And it is happening now. The race is now on for a credible technological platform that enables collaboration between the hotel tech vendors themselves, and the company that can square this circle will undoubtedly wear the crown”.

He is clearly referring to Protel i/o, the freshly-launched vendor-neutral marketplace which aims to provide all the developer tools needed to get started quickly: from a sandboxed environment to get the app right to a short QA phase to get it certified. So it looks like, just like the Wildean fairy tale, even this selfish giant eventually opened his garden to all the little kids.

Disillusion

That being said, travel tech companies have another challenging obstacle to overcome: connecting to all those obsolete on-premises PMS sitting on a computer and connected to nothing other than the hotel front desk. Unlike cloud-based PMS (hosted by third-party vendors and accessible via the internet), on-premises software are locally installed, making the integration with any external app or software virtually impossible.

In order to keep up with new market requests, some of these PMS tried to build hybrid systems, whereby the on-premises software connects to a cloud database, which is (finally) accessible through an API. Wow! Ironically, the PMS that decide not to settle for this hacked solution and eventually preferred to invest in development and move their technology to the cloud, often have to face all those hoteliers who do not want to upgrade to a newer system and are quite happy with their prehistoric PMS.

hotel pms

Struggle

HotelTime is a PMS “born and raised” in the cloud. Since its foundation, its technology was created without even thinking about on-premises. When I asked CEO Jan Hejny about the future of locally-installed PMS, he replied that “these systems will eventually fade away.

In the future, integrations will be an essential part of any PMS and will be required by any hotelier. It is way more effective to support and update a cloud-based PMS rather than an on-premises system, not to mention the costs associated with running your own servers in the hotel. Moving to a new PMS is not an easy decision, but once the first bigger chains recognize enough benefits of going through that painful experience, that’s when things will start to change”.

Hejny is similarly adamant about the main problems for travel startups: “Funding, marketing and”, above all, “PMS connectivity”.

“It just doesn’t make any sense that a new travel tech startup have to connect to 300 different APIs, but big PMS companies refuse third-parties to connect (or connect them for huge fees), while smaller PMS companies with merely tens or hundreds of customers create no need to develop open interfaces.

Jonathan Weizman, CEO and co-founder of hotel maintenance and housekeeping software RoomChecking agrees, and adds:

“The truth is, building a startup in any vertical market isn’t easy. The most difficult challenge is certainly PMS connectivity. For most of us, our solutions are useless without PMS data and B2B hospitality market is not just hard to penetrate, it’s a Hell on Earth…”.

Joonas Ahola, Forbes 30 Under 30 and CEO of meetings booking platform MeetingPackage, says:

“It took us well over a year to integrate with Opera Sales & Catering. And sometimes it is not even the lack of API that is the main problem: as a startup, you need to move fast and be on top of the up-to-date technologies used. But, in some cases, you have to travel back in time and adapt to the technology that has been used in developing the PMS.

Effort

Trying to fix this dysfunctional system is Hospitality Technology Next Generation (HTNG), whose mission is to create a healthier technology ecosystem by defining API standards for the industry.  tnooz spoke to long-time member, Stephen Burke, practice principal for Travel & Hospitality at Sciant, who  has a similar view:

“The main problem that travel-tech startups encounter when trying to enter the market is accessing the source of the data.

“For example: if I am trying to work with a record (such as a reservation), am I just showing it to the user or do I need to interact with it and update it?  If I am just showing something like a name, an email or a confirmation ID, then I can probably access the data via a third-party gateway provider. But if I need to update that record, then I must go the root source  of it: the PMS.

“The lack of standard business objects and processes has a negative impact on our industry by giving software vendors freedom to create fundamentally incompatible systems which result in many customized integrations.

The problem is that PMS have seen so many startups go out of business, that it does not matter how well you tell them that yours will certainly succeed, they have heard it all before, and that is why many integration efforts fail before even starting. They have limited bandwidth for integrations, so they need their time to count, and they will switch to a more open business model only if they will be forced by competitive pressure”.

Passion

In order to fill this gap in the industry, a bunch of companies started creating hubs between PMS and third-party software, bypassing the need for multiple API integrations. Impala is one of them. CEO Ben Stephenson says:

“It will make hospitality more efficient, more personalized and it has the potential to make thousands of travel tech businesses more profitable.

The UK startup, in fact, connects in advance to the chosen property management system, allowing apps and software to easily access PMS data without directly connecting to it. On paper, this could finally give travel tech innovators access to an almost limitless resource of previously inaccessible data.

“The growth of software and hardware in hotels is helping increase revenues and decrease costs”, Stephenson continues, “however, this innovation is stifled because integration with core hotel data is extremely hard. We are trying to remove this friction because, in our opinion, startups should not have hundreds of customers just to get on a PMS’ radar”.

Tnooz asked Stephenson if he thought that established software will just passively sit down and watch companies like his taking away a big source of their revenue without fighting back, he said that Impala does “a revenue share with the PMS.

“We will actually be a net revenue creator for the systems that we work with. Products like Oracle have been respected industry stalwarts for decades, and we want to work alongside them, to provide their hotel customers with the technology they want more quickly”.

Another company trying to fix the PMS integration issue is SnapShot. The Austro-German startup aggregates more than 6,000 hotels and 60 data partners in one platform, acting as a hub for developers needing to access and work with hotel data.

David Turnbull, CCO and co-founder, confesses he is biased when it comes to the need for a more open-API market:

“SnapShot has the unique positioning of being the first and only independent API marketplace currently available to hotels, PMS and developers, so my opinion on the subject is pretty predictable.”

The solution to the integration problem, according to Turnbull lies in:

“the industry’s ability to create a transparent and fair data economy, where all stakeholders can create value by having access to and monetization of the data, that should be hosted by a super partes company, capable of operating as a neutral middleware and without conflicting obligations.”

Turnbull takes the discussion even further by saying that, even though challenging, PMS integration is only a fraction of the integration issue, and a good hub should be able to “collect, store and provide access to data from multiple sources: from the wide range of financial, operational and market intelligence available worldwide”.

When we switched subject to the status quo of big players, Turnbull seemed extremely reasonable towards them:

“The majority of established PMS operators are all actively evolving their business models, even though these PMS carry the burden of balancing the needs of their customers who, as the models shift to the cloud, demand confidence on data security, as well as the time and support needed to shift technology investment ownership from capex to opex.

“It is clear that the legacy integrations model is broken, and there is no turning back, even for the established players.”

To sum up: building a data hub is an idea that has crossed many entrepreneurs and technology enthusiasts’ minds, and many other industries have already developed the concept. The reason why it has been so hard to replicate in the hotel industry is not due to a lack of a great ideas but more likely due a lack of resources, technical and political know-how to navigate through the various companies. The mere architecture of such a platform would probably need to be as big and as complex as all the PMS combined, so the costs involved are likely massive. This is mainly a game that can be won by resources, more than by agility.

hotel pms

Hope

Writing this article was a long and interesting ride: while data collecting, I got in touch with several industry experts, CEOs and investors and they all had extremely strong opinions on the subject. A couple of them initially agreed to be interviewed and pulled back at the very last moment, saying that (and I am literally quoting) it was “too risky” for them to take sides on this diatribe.

All this hush-hush reinforced in me the impression that data-integration is an almost-dogmatic matter in our industry. But not unlike the mythological Pandora, my curiosity was piqued when I came across this secret box that everyone told me not to open. I doubt I unleashed all the World’s evils, but I certainly uncovered a submerged world of controversy, personal jealousies and frustration (Oh Zeus! Maybe I did indeed unleashed all the World’s evils!).

Opinion differences aside, in fact, pretty much everyone agreed that the system how it is today is clearly broken: some players are trying to fix it, while others are building rigid limitations in order to maintain their market position.

According to scholars, today we use the Pandora’s box myth as “a metaphor to mean that we may not know what we are getting ourselves into, and that we do not always know how something we have started may end”. It fits perfectly, because I really have no idea how this integration issue story may end. Truth is that technology in the hotel space has come a long way from that A3 paper monsters I wrote about in the introduction, but there is still a long way to go.

Is there a solution on the horizon? And, if so, what will it be? Time will tell, but the harsh truth is that, to this day,  “opening” a PMS looks a lot like opening that mythological box (or jar, if you’re a picky scholar): not a pleasant experience. Even though we should always remember that the last bug to escape from Pandora’s box was not as evil as its predecessors.

It was, in fact, what the ancient Greeks called ἐλπίς.

And we, lazy business people with the attention span of a goldfish, simply translate as Hope.

* Main image Ard na Sidhe Country House.

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Simone Puorto

About the Writer :: Simone Puorto

Simone Puorto is a passionate marketing geek. After managing two hotels and running a team of consultants, he eventually focused on his biggest passion: writing. Over the last decade, he has worked with hundreds of hotels, web agencies, startups, and travel-tech providers worldwide. All these experiences ended up in two best-selling books and hundreds of articles. He's an MBA Lecturer Professor, Advisory Board Member for BWG Strategy, panel moderator, public speaker and regular contributor for blogs and magazines such as tnooz, HOTELSMag, HotelTechReport, and Booking Blog. In 2017 he launched his own company (Simone Puorto Consulting) and in 2018 he co-founded the hospitality chatbot startup Tell the Hotel.

 

Comments

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  1. Jos Schaap

    This is a great article. As a CEO of a new cloud PMS with fully integrated mobile and self service capabilities, and as the previous SVP of Product for MICROS, I wanted to add a few comments. For a new PMS to make it big, 2 things are essential: being able to connect to ALL legacy software out in the world, using these vendors proprietary integrations, and once done the customer can simply order the connection, and 2nd at the same time provide open APIs for the newer hotel software startups to connect too. Those are big tasks for a new PMS vendor. To me the core of it all, and as Simone explained, it should not matter how the connection is established (thats just technology), what matters is can it be established without excessive costs and pain for the hoteliers. At StayNTouch, we offer both 100s of legacy connections and APIs, for both we do not ask a fee, it can be changed when needed, and our service staff handles both for the hotels. That’s to me how we can move the PMS world forward the right way. Check us out at http://www.stayntouch.com.

     
  2. Richard Oram

    Hi Simone, whilst this is a good read, I do have to say that you may want to validate some info first. Yes I do work for Oracle and formally Micros, and whilst I accept some of your comments – there are several inaccuracies which need to be addressed. Oracle Hospitality does in-fact publish all its API’s publicly https://docs.oracle.com/cd/E90572_01/index.html for Web Services and https://docs.oracle.com/cd/E91116_01/index.html. This has been the case for nearly a year as can be seen by the number of vendors who have taken advantage of the publicly accessible API’s.

    Whilst maybe in the past as Micros we may have been a little closed, today we listen to feedback and the way the industry is moving and we react and listen – making such tools available to anyone including our competitors – whom we already have integrations too despite your comments.

    So please double check before joining the “lets bash Oracle” train, things are moving fast and Oracle is keeping up and getting ahead!

     
    • Simone Puorto

      Simone Puorto

      Hi @Richard Oram and thank you for taking the time to comment.
      Your clarification is indeed very useful.

      As I wrote in the article, I tried to get in touch with both Mark V. Hurd and your PR department to get Oracle’s side of the story but, unfortunately, with no success.

      So, in order to determine your connection costs and challenges, I had to rely solely on the feedbacks I got from the startups I interviewed.

      I will be more than happy to review the article by adding your side of the story, so do not hesitate to get in touch with me and, if needed, I will make the appropriate modifications.

       
  3. Ture

    Great stuff, right on the mark.
    The one thing missing though, is that the data that can/cannot be exported from the PMSs is usually quite rubbish – all the way from excel to Oracle.
    Impossible interfaces, the ability to do as one pleases without any rules concerning commissions, cancellation policies or booking conditions, as well as a completely outdated way of structuring perishable inventory, result in corrupted data output and fawlty forecasting. No system out there, to my knowledge, take full advantage of modern technology capabilities.
    I myself did a short history on the evolution of the PMS. It is not as lengthy as this one, but I believe it says it all 🙂

     
  4. Charles Ehredt

    Simone, Thanks for elevating the debate about data sharing. I´ve increasingly become aware of this as hoteliers contact us asking how they can use our loyalty ecosystem – but we never seem to get anywhere because the majority of them can´t get their data out of their PMS.

    The loyalty sector is also fairly closed with plenty of walled gardens. That creates a marketplace liquidity problem for everyone. Historically, that created advantage for the 3 large loyalty program operators because they could extract considerable value from the ecosystem ´because´ of their walled gardens. Now, most of those business models are in ruins and programs are beginning to ´open´ up – which directly drives customer engagement.

    What is interesting if we look beyond travel, is that industries have been adding liquidity to their marketplaces for decades. And guess what? The market has grown (dramatically) for everyone who was able to adapt to a more open marketplace with less friction. And, I mean every industry from financial services to automotive have benefited by enabling greater freedoms and less friction (i.e., liquidity) for everyone in the supply chain.

    That will come to hospitality (because market forces will eventually win), but many hoteliers continue to be held for ransom because they don´t exert their influence or power. Wow! Now that I´ve said that, I realize they don´t have much influence or power because they can´t threaten to just switch to another PMS (knowing this is a 2-5 year project). They really are held for ransom. That is a shame and the vendors doing this to them should be ashamed.

     
    • Simone Puorto

      Simone Puorto

      Dear @Charles Ehredt, thank you very much for your comment.
      I agree with you when you say that “if we look beyond travel, is that industries have been adding liquidity to their marketplaces for decades. And guess what? The market has grown (dramatically) for everyone who was able to adapt to a more open marketplace with less friction”.
      Let’s see what happens!

       
  5. yannis moati

    Wow. This article sums up our challenge to scale. Thank you Simone for painting such a wonderful picture of what’s current hospitality tech. Book-marked it and asked the entire team to read it.
    Also, curious about Mr. El-Manawy’s BC work: is he going to crack the nut of creating a universal smart contract without a proprietary coin?

     
  6. Melike Karaman

    Very well summarized article Simone. Thank you.
    Our sector is in the phase of big changes and integration issue is one should change radically very soon.

    Can we expect any PMS provider (cloud or on-prem) be open to outher space without any limitations? I dont think that this will (and should be) be the case. It is correct that they make money on these integrations but on the other hand there are technical concerns on the table. I worked for an oracle hospitality partner for a very long time, offering huge amount of hotel properties 7×24 maintanance service. I can say without a doubt that the problems in this matter are big headache. And the issues are not caused by the PMS vendor all the time; in most cases it is the 3rd party ifc quality (ofcourse sometimes vice versa)

    Since I suffered these problems long enough; I should say that certification is a must in any case and a cost of this will be inevitable. I completely agree that this process should be faster and cheaper for the 3rd parties and “the properties”! Key issue is having a well structured, reliable, accesible integration standart (it is HTNG of what so ever)
    When everyone sees the problem and accepts it, the solution will be very easy. Lets check the standarts, make them reliable, give-up part of the income; foreseeing that there’ll be new substitues in the new era … for me thats it!

    In this context, thanks again for drawing attention to this issue

     
    • Simone Puorto

      Simone Puorto

      Thank you so much @Melike Karaman; your point of view is very appreciated.
      I tried very hard to get in touch with someone at Oracle to get their side of the story (unfortunately with no success) so it’s great to finally have some kind of feedback.
      The truth is never black or white, and that’s what I tried to highlight in my article. There are headaches on both sides, so I agree with you that the only reasonable and realistic solution (at least for the near future) is making integrations faster and cheaper and filtering out the providers that do not match integration quality standards.

       
  7. Ankit Rastogi

    Awesome in depth written article Simone. With now a dozen year of observation in Indian digital accommodation space, this problem persists despite being a country without much of tech in travel history. Channel Manager are trying to become that data hubs but again struggling with limited PMS provider set.

     
  8. Nadim El Manawy

    Very nice article Simone.
    It should indeed be easier for hotels to work with whoever they want while having much more control over their distribution cost.
    It also should be easier for companies to have direct access to hotel data and be able to quickly start transacting with hotels in a trustless way.
    I believe that will all be possible with a “universal” distributed network for hotels and the ecosystem of products and services around them. That’s what we’re currently building using blockchain technology.

     
    • Simone Puorto

      Simone Puorto

      Thank you @Nadim El Manawy. Using blockchain technology could theoretically be the right direction. I think we will see some interesting development over the next 2-3 years.

       
  9. Dumitru Brinzan

    Fantastic summary!
    And then people go and ask why commercial hotel WordPress themes don’t include booking capabilities that would work for everybody. How would a WordPress theme developer fix a problem of the whole industry? 🙁

    Bookmarking this article.

     
    • Simone Puorto

      Simone Puorto

      Thank you @Dumitru Brinzan.
      I am trying hard to picture in my mind a WP theme developer trying to figure a solution out.
      Jedi mind tricks applied, but I just can’t!

       
  10. Jeremy Armes

    Simone, this is an excellent read – even although I don’t really feel like a selfish giant! The hotel tech industry really has reached a critical phase, and it’s such an exciting time to be part of the change. I’m with you all the way here: HOPE is a beautiful thing – and you know what? That’s exactly what sets us humans apart from the machines (and code) we rely upon – and it’s the human element that really shapes the hotel space. So let’s all of us technologists step up to the top table together, and play in the Giant’s Garden as a team!

     
    • Simone Puorto

      Simone Puorto

      Thank you @Jeremy Armes!
      I really loved using the Oscar Wilde’s reference, I think it really fits 😉
      Remember that, in the original tale, the giant eventually discovers that spring has returned to its garden and destroys the wall.
      And this is exactly what you guys are doing, isn’t it?
      😉

       
 
 

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