A brief history of property management systems

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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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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”.

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.

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.