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Time is money

Frensham Pond Hotel’s general manager, Kevin Halstead, reckons he, his deputy, Andrew Timms, and assistant manager, Roland Andersen, wasted perhaps 20 hours a week on number-crunching and paperwork before installing a computer system that generates the same work in minutes.

In 1988, the hotel, near Farnham, Surrey, was a 19-bedroom “restaurant with rooms”, most of whose customers lived nearby. It is now a 52-bedroom conference hotel. While the number of covers served in the restaurant has nearly doubled, from about 25 each evening to 45 or so, average spend has fallen from about £28, including wine, to about £22.

Much of the business now comes from booking agencies, with the general manager getting his end-of-day report from a computer system, rather than the laborious manual reconciliation of z-reports from tills against booking sheets.

Customers have changed. Six years ago they were mainly individuals living in a 20-mile radius in the Surrey stockbroker belt. Now they are corporate clients, booked largely through agencies.

In the late 1980s they used to come in couples and fours for a special-occasion dinner, and sometimes stay overnight as well. Now they come in groups of a dozen or more and stay for three days for training and brainstorming sessions.

Just before the recession, Aristel Hotels, which owns Frensham Pond, spent £4m building 36 new bedrooms, completed in 1991. With a new total of 52 bedrooms, the hotel was in a position to develop a strong banqueting business, and it has done that. But Halstead admits: “There’s lots of paperwork, a lot of room for mistakes. We weren’t operating efficiently.”

Two years ago, Halstead was thinking of putting a computer into the hotel’s Fathoms Leisure Club, which has a pool, gym, squash courts and solarium.

“We were going to install a couple of PCs and develop some software,” says Halstead.

NFS Europe’s representative persuaded him Fathoms was too small to justify computerisation, but that as the hotel had grown substantially, including conference business growth, he should consider a full property management system running the rooms business.

Halstead saw a demonstration of SLS, the small hotel property management system, in the Master Series offered by NFS Europe. He also looked at IGS Hotel, Innsite and the XI-Data front-desk system. He ended up buying a five-user SLS system, which is now partly installed. The Novell network linking the computers goes in shortly. Halstead doesn’t disclose the deal he negotiated with NFS Europe, but list price for the type of system he has bought would be £10,000-£15,000.

SLS won the day, partly on price and partly on the way it gives Halstead and his colleagues quick and easy access to their figures. “There were certain things that SLS does that even Innsite couldn’t do.”

Halstead was particularly keen that his computer system should be able to do the same tasks he and his staff could do with the old manual system. “For example, we were used to turning pages in the diary to check-in a guest, while checking the room list. All the time there would be different calls coming in, and the manual system would have the information you needed on several different sheets, but you could flick from one thing to another.

“The computer system had to give us the information just as flexibly, but at the touch of a button.”

Before installing the SLS system, room reservations were written in a book as they came in, and a rooming chart was drawn up each day. “Jobs like this used to take receptionists about three hours a day,” says Halstead.

Now, room reservations are logged as they come in, and rooms are allocated at check-in. The system calculates automatically the best way to allocate rooms to satisfy two main criteria: the best “fit”, avoiding as far as possible having to turn away more bookings when the hotel is not full; and a regular rotation of rooms. This second element avoids wearing out the carpets and furnishings in some rooms more quickly than in others.

Presentation of paperwork is smarter and easier, too. “The way bills are presented to our guests is much more professional,” says Halstead. “Before, we had to type bills manually, separate out VAT and non-VAT elements and calculate the VAT. The system does all that for us.”

Frensham Pond, like the four other properties in the Aristel Hotels group, is seeing its accounts increasingly supervised and controlled from head office at Hotel Mostyn in London, which has a higher-grade Master Series system, with a “multi-company” accounts module.

Halstead has a stand-alone system and produces his own accounts, but the “bottom-line” figures from these are sent down the line by modem to the Mostyn, which can then draw Frensham Pond’s figures into consolidated accounts.

“Probably all the hotels in the group will get the system,” says NFS Europe director Luis Desouza.

While the plan is to centralise accounts for all the hotels, authority for sales and marketing is moving in the opposite direction. The central sales and marketing office at the Mostyn has closed, and individual general managers who, after all, know their local markets best, are now given autonomous control of marketing.

“The opportunity the system would give us for developing our marketing was one of key consideration,” says Halstead. “We had little guest history: you had to compile it manually before, and often it wouldn’t be done.

“We have to go out to get business – there’s no passing trade here, no chance business. So we’re just starting to build up a database of our corporate customers.”

Halstead knows his corporate clients, but the computer system has managed to surprise him. “A company may give you a lot of business, but when you count up how many room nights it’s giving you over the year as a whole, it may not be as much as you would expect at a guess.”

When Halstead has a workstation on his own desk, as he will soon, this kind of information will be at his fingertips. That will enable him to make better decisions about what rates he will accept.

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