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Marriott Calls on the Cloud for Enterprise Voice

Staying at a hotel often can leave you feeling as if you've journeyed through a communications time warp and landed in telephony's yesteryear -- that desktop phone with its oh-so convenient Ethernet port, that blinking message-waiting light, and that wake-up call coming in at 6:45 a.m., just as requested. Just don't expect be able to initiate a call to the hotel operator from your connected laptop, retrieve a message as you sit in the lobby, or place a wake-up call request from your smartphone.

Hospitality companies might be excellent at providing outstanding customer amenities but they're not so great at the whole communications thing. They provide functional voice services and Internet access, but often without consistency and typically far short of state of the art. Unified communications hasn't been an emphasis, let alone a possibility given the gear on hand.

PBX Extravaganza
As Bob Galovic, vice president of IT with Marriott International, told me in a recent phone interview, "We have phone systems of all makes and shapes and sizes and ages" at 4,100 properties in 79 countries around the world. Marriott, for one, has long known it has needed to enable more efficient and effective communications at those properties, but has been hamstrung by its mishmash of premises-based phone systems, he said.

For quite some time, Marriott has been considering swapping out those premises-based systems for a cloud-hosted alternative -- a move it has embraced elsewhere in IT, Galovic said -- but until recently it hadn't found an option suitable for its needs. Its five-year search ended with the introduction of Verizon Hospitality Communications Express, a cloud-hosted UC solution that, as its name suggests, is tailored for the hospitality industry and which Galovic considers a good fit for Marriott.

"Slowly we looked, year after year, formalizing our search a little more each year," eventually putting out a request for information and then a request for proposals. "Finally we got a catch -- the pricing in the marketplace had come to the right point and the service had matured enough that we finally had an opportunity to take action," Galovic said.

The hospitality industry has some particular requirements, such as the capability to make hundreds of simultaneous wake-up calls and to interface with property management systems (PMS). Regarding the interaction between the cloud solution and the PMS, Galovic gave this example: "When a guest checks out, we have to know that the voicemail he received and saved isn't sitting there waiting for the next guest in the room to listen to."

Marriott signed a multiyear agreement to deploy the cloud-hosted enterprise voice services at North American properties, as Verizon Enterprise Solutions announced in a press release issued late last year. Galovic did not specify a dollar amount for the contract, but noted that Marriott has an aggressive goal of migrating from its PBX systems to cloud-hosted voice service at several hundred domestic properties in 2015. "We're going to have a very active next couple of years," he said.

Many of those PBXs are overdue for an upgrade, as Marriott staved off making replacements knowing that it was close to "what we consider a better long-term solution," Galovic added.

Properties with newer systems -- deployed in the last three to five years -- will ride out their depreciations, he noted. Similar efforts are ongoing in Europe as well, although not via Verizon, he added.

Testing the Waters in Vegas
As we talked a couple of weeks back, Marriott already had reached its first big transitional milestone. It moved off of premises-based phone systems at two Las Vegas hotels, which are now served by Verizon's hospitality solution. Galovic said he hadn't anticipated any problems, having vetted the service in a mini hotel lab environment, but was happy nonetheless that the transition went "very smoothly."

As the company plots its migrations, one of Marriott's biggest concerns is ensuring connectivity from the physical property to the hosting center, Galovic said. Continuous service, even during a network failure, is essential - especially for 911 purposes. Marriott has achieved the resiliency it wants by using primary physical paths as well as secondary 4G LTE wireless links. From what it's seen of Verizon to date, "it's a very solid system with stability and failover capability that we don't have in our current [premises-based] world," Galovic said.

As Marriott moves from its disparate PBX environments to the cloud-hosted solution, Galovic said he believes security gets a boost as well. "When you have thousands of properties with different systems at various stages in their lifecycles, it's very difficult to track the patch levels and make sure everything is as current as possible. So we see this as a big stride in a positive direction from a security standpoint since Verizon can keep everything current."

While Marriott's main focus for now is on the transition from premises to the cloud, Galovic said ultimately being cloud-based means the ability to give guests the ability to interact with the Marriott team, whether on site or not, from their smartphone, any phone throughout a property, or the Web, in a seamless and easy way. "It's all around how we make that guest experience pleasant, and, in a way, that means letting them take technology for granted."

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