It's good to see you've made it all the way to this third and final entry of our blog series about the Extranet. This time, we'll forget about the past and we'll ignore what's happening in the present. Instead, we'll put up or thinking caps, look into our magical orb, and take a trip into the world of dreams to find out what the future may hold. Note that everything mentioned here is just speculation, based on ideas and wishes from previous feedback sessions and internal discussions. Please don't pin us down if something doesn't make it to the final cut (if there's ever going to be such a thing).
Let's start with something silly. "Can we get a weather forecast on the dashboard and the R&A screen?", was one of the questions asked. Sure, and in a dull moment after working hours, we quickly included this feature. "Can we add Spotify to the Extranet as well?", asked another. Because we couldn't agree on a common playlist (we certainly didn't want 'elevator music'), we pushed this request to the far far future, hoping Spotify would be gone by the time we would be able to pick it up.
Many items on the list revolve around users. After all, users are the ones, well, using the Extranet, and everything should be as easy as possible for them. There are several ways we can make improvements. One of them is for new users to be able to individually sign up and create an account in the Extranet for their property (hotel, hostel, B&B, etc.), at any time they like, without being dependent on the business hours of SmartHOTEL. Afterwards, they should be able to set up all required data for the channel manager for it to work properly; think of defining rooms and rates, connect to OTAs, and specify prices and availability. A self-supporting Extranet would allow users to manage their own data, at any time and any place. Although these features are already present in the HTML Extranet, they are hidden to most users. The reason for this is the complexity of them: it requires quite some training to understand the difficult concepts of the channel manager. During development of the Extranet, these features were copied over from the Backoffice, a tool meant for power users. However, in order to make the Extranet accessible to anyone (in the hospitality industry), things should become much simpler. As the back end of the Extranet (the C# web service mentioned in the previous blog) is already finished, it is 'just' a manner of designing a new interface. However, it's not as easy as it sounds, because we need to find a tradeoff between experienced users and less experienced users. A wizard/tutorial for beginners was one proposal. With some simple questions, information can be retrieved from the user, after which this is translated to the correct setup. The major challenge here is asking the correct questions. Progress bars could indicate how much required information has been entered already, and what still needs to be done. We even thought of the concept of gamification, where users would be rewarded with experience points the more often particular features were used. Once the user would level up, they would unlock even more features (possibly after a 'boss fight', an online exam). This concept could be directly linked to training. In addition to the help guide and channel management training from a SmartHOTEL employee, we could offer a dynamic help guide based on the page a user is on, or even online videos, in which we would dress up and perform funny tricks, eeh... tell about the Extranet features and show them on the screen.
Trainings are useful, but preferably it shouldn't even be necessary to follow them. Concepts in the Extranet should be easy to understand and easy to use. Two concepts currently stand out from the others in terms of difficulty. The concept of weights is one of them. Without going into too much depth, weights make it possible to automatically modify a rate based on another one. For example: 'breakfast included' should be 5 euros more expensive than the 'standard rate', where 'non-refundable' should give a 10% discount. Now think of a non-refundable rate with breakfast, a deluxe room that is always 40 euros more expensive than a standard room, or a non-refundable deluxe room with breakfast, and it's easy to see why this concept is getting harder and harder. With the current way of setting up weights being difficult and cumbersome, it's clear to us that changes are necessary at some point in time. An approach with mathematical formulas, but then presented in in a way that is easy to comprehend, could be the one we're looking for. Another difficult concept is mapping the rooms and rates in the channel manager to their counterparts defined at the different OTAs. When adjusting the price for a particular room rate combination, this price needs to be sent to the booking sites the hotel has a connection with. However, each party uses its own definitions. Where the 'standard room' is identified by ID 1 in the channel manager, it may be identified as 'Standard' by booking site A, '37346' by booking site B, or 'STNDRD' by booking site C. Mapping is required for the channel manager to correctly communicate with the booking sites and to make sure the correct rooms at their side are updated. The current way of mapping in the Extranet is complex, as each OTA works in a different way, and several exceptions need to be taken into account. We still haven't figured out what is the best solution, but it's certainly a puzzle we would like to crack. We've even been toying with the idea of providing OTAs access to the Extranet. This could give them the opportunity to advertise their site, making hoteliers aware of their presence/existence. This in turn allows hotels to expand their target market. OTAs could even provide hoteliers assistance in this mapping process through the Extranet.
Here's some other requested features that may see the light one day: revenue management functionality to automatically update prices based on several factors, more control over user rights (who can change what), a customizable dashboard with useful quick functions, handling rates and availability per booking site, advanced export to Excel functionality, a digital agenda with PMS functions, and customizable themes (colors etc.). You want more? Let's continue a bit longer. It would be nice to be able to define what items to show or hide in the Extranet, for example the columns in the tables. To improve on that, reordering those columns could be useful as well. To expand to other markets, more language options (besides Dutch and English) would be necessary. Aiding users with the handling of errors would also be extremely handy (that is, the errors returned by booking sites after sending R&A in case there's an issue in the connection or setup). More nice to haves: easier navigation through the Extranet and displaying what chain and/or local office a selected hotel belongs to, more advanced search functionality for reservations and other items, the display of a tasty digital cake on the dashboard when it's the users birthday, login options with social media (e.g. Facebook), or a 'year in review', in which the user can see an overview of what happened during the past year in terms of growth (number of connected OTAs, reservations, etc.). Related to this year in review, another highly requested feature was the introduction of statistics. How cool (and useful!) would it be to see some graphs (bars, diagrams, cakes) about the number of reservations per month? Or the number of reservations (or revenue) per OTA? Or a combination of both? Or what about statistics of guests, such as demographics?
Some final ideas to share with you are about communication. In order to provide support to our customers, we could include chat functionality between customers and SmartHOTEL, making
communication quick and easy. We even thought of expanding this functionality by delivering a means of communication between all customers of the Extranet, in the form of some kind of online forum or social media platform. That way, users can, for example, ask others about issues they're facing, tell each other about special events in the neighborhood, help each other out when a hotel is fully booked and new guests pop up, or make some suggestions about improving the Extranet. For this last example, we could even include a voting system to find out which suggestion should be tackled on first by us.
The list could go on forever, but it's time to wrap up. This blog shows that the possibilities are endless. However, the more features we add, the more difficult the Extranet may become to users. Key here is customization. As long as each individual user understands the Extranet, and can do everything he or she wants or needs to do, everybody will be happy. It's clear that there are a lot of items on our wish list. The Extranet is far from finished, its lifecycle is far from over. But as long as we're here, the Extranet will be here. We started a long time ago, have worked on it for the past years, and will continue to do so for the years to come. Together we're able to create something unique for the world of channel management and hospitality. We will all be part of its evolution. Let's make it a revolution.
Jassin Kessing, developer