Editor’s Note: Although this simulation is highly successful in the classroom, it also has great potential for distance learning. Quality training of this kind should lead to an extremely high level of guest satisfaction n at hotels and restaurants.
A New Paradigm for Gaining Access to Hospitality Applications
in Classroom Environments
Almost since its inception, students at the School of Hotel and Restaurant Management (SHRM) at Northern Arizona University (NAU) have received training on an actual property management system (PMS) in a required core course entitled Hospitality Information Technology (HA 270).
A PMS is a computerized lodging system that performs both back and front office functions and a variety of other functions such as housekeeping, sales, catering, energy management, and call accounting. In 1989, Phoenix-based Multi-Systems (MSI), founded in 1985 as International Property Control Systems, donated the PM 1300 PMS to NAU. The MSI PMS, which is presently used by more than 2800 properties throughout North America, was selected because of its functionality, simplicity, and reliability. The student learning outcomes were positive. Students gained practical, transferable skills in completing common PMS tasks (e.g., making a reservation). However, configuring the MSI PMS for a classroom environment utilizing university computers presented ongoing technical, financial, and support challenges. In 2007, the School of Hotel and Restaurant Management entered into a partnership with Choice Hotels International (CHI), one of the world’s largest hotel franchisors (e.g., Comfort Inn, Rodeway Inn, Quality, Clarion, etc.), enabling NAU students to gain hands-on experience using their Web-based PMS on any computer equipped with a browser. Providing student access to an industry-specific application via a corporate intranet was the first of its kind in hospitality education. This article discusses the issues of using PMS software on classroom computers at NAU and the viability of Web-based PMS solutions.
Challenges of installing and maintaining PMS applications on classroom computers
Successfully installing and maintaining an industry-specific program in a university computer lab requires control over certain information technology (IT) resources and knowledge of the application’s technical requirements and database architecture, which evolve over time. Assistance from IT personnel is often necessary. Patience and persistence are also required to solve thorny implementation problems.
Operating system and hardware incompatible. In 1989, the author created a training database using MSI hardware. The next step entailed installing MSI’s DOS-based PMS and training database onto a Zenith desktop computer in the SHRM computer classroom lab. It took several weeks to make this industry-specific application work on a generic desktop system. Operating systems files, such as “config.sys,” a text file containing a number of special commands, had to be modified to enable the PMS application to use the computer’s hardware components (e.g., memory), without disabling other resident applications. Furthermore, new releases of the MSI application software sometimes required a newer version of the operating system (e.g., DOS 4.0 to DOS 5.0) and a 7hardware upgrade (e.g.,7640K RAM to 2 MB of RAM).Budget constraints and university technology replacement cycles resulted in delayed updates of the MSI PMS application.
Database incompatible. The 2003 edition of Hospitality Information Technology: Learning How to Use I, the required text for HA 270, included a demo version of the Micros Opera PMS (Collins et al, 2003). Most of the universities who adopted the book were not able to use the program because of the Oracle database requirements, which required a particular version of Oracle, 6 gigabytes of hard disk storage space, and a dedicated PC that was not already running Oracle for any other purpose.
Software failure. During the first year of using the MSI PMS, the training database had to be loaded repeatedly due to user errors. Students would accidently perform a processing routine or database maintenance task that would break file links and render the PMS program inoperable. Consequently, a batch file, a text file containing a series of computer commands, had to be created that copied the pristine training data files over existing ones each time a student used the PMS application. This limited the scope and depth of assignments and prevented the completion of the night audit because the business and calendar dates were always out of sync.
Web-based PMS Solutions
Various communication applications (e.g. central reservations) have been designed to facilitate the flow of information in a geographically dispersed organization. Enterprise-wide Web-based applications are the latest development. They enable a single centralized server to support workstations and printers throughout a hotel group or chain. Web-based applications are installed on one server. Workstations are required only to have a Web browser installed. As a result, product installation and updates are faster, easier, and more reliable. In addition, the cost and maintenance of Web-based workstations are significantly cheaper than windows-based workstations. Choice Hotels International completed the full deployment of its proprietary Web-based hotel property management system, Choice Advantage, to all Econo Lodges and Rodeway Inns in 2007. Among users of this Web-based solution, the company reports satisfaction ratings of about 90%.
Since the fall 2007 semester, online and traditional students enrolled in HA 270, Hospitality Information Technology, have been using the CHI Web-based PMS and accompanying training modules at no cost. CHI built a training database (57-room Econo Lodge) exclusively for NAU students. The advantages of a Web-based PMS over a traditional PMS for instruction include:
Ease of deployment. A Web-based application does not require hard disk space and the installation and configuration of additional software at each local workstation. The only technical issue preventing students from logging on the CHI PMS Web site has been pop-up blocker software, which prevents annoying ads from opening new windows on workstations. However, they can also block legitimate content. Pop-blockers can be easily disabled and are part of the CHI PMS logon instructions, which also include the CHI PMS Web site address, user identification, and password.
Ease of classroom management. Because CHI handles all system upgrades and enhancements, students are always learning the latest version of the software. The instructional time devoted to the PMS application is greatly reduced. Prior to lab activities, students are required to complete the interactive multimedia Web-based training (WBT) modules for the Choice Advantage PMS (see Table 1). Successfully completing a particular module requires a minimum score of 75% on the module quiz. Students can print a certificate of completion for each module. For several years, MSI provided computer-based training using CD-ROM technology. The program was discontinued in the early 90s when it became too costly to keep current. In 2008, MSI and d’Vinci Interactive, a provider of digital training products, became partners to create WBT tools for MSI’s Enterprise suite of products. According to Vincent Hellane, the President of d’Vinci Interactive, WBT is perfect for the hospitality industry, as so many entry-level positions require computer-based expertise, and hotels require a well-trained staff if they are to provide great guest service” (www.msisolutions.com).
Cost reduction. Ongoing expenses associated with deployment, support, and maintenance are greatly reduced or eliminated.
Broad accessibility. Students, including those enrolled in the online HA 270 course, have access to the application from any computer with Internet Explorer browser software and Internet access.
CHI WBT training modules completed by students at NAU.
PMS Training Topics
Welcome and Introduction to the PMS
Checking in and Checking out Guests and Guest Folios
Advanced Folio Functionality
Groups and Direct Billing
Working with Guest Accounts
Night Audit and Shift Reports
Evaluation of the CHI Web-based PMS
There are a number of evaluation techniques. Designers are primarily interested in feedback that helps improve design. Managers are worried about whether the application is cost effective, while end users are concerned whether the application helps them achieve their goals. Educators are concerned with learning outcomes. Consequently, the form of evaluation will vary with the group (users, managers, educators, designers, etc.) assessing the product (Boyle, 1997). In this evaluation, only users or students were used for assessing the Web-based PMS and training system.
Forty-five students enrolled in HA 270 evaluated the CHI Web-based PMS and training system. The evaluation instrument consisted of 17 statements, where the respondents rated each statement using a rating scale that used a range of numerical values to indicate the performance level. Possible responses included: Poor (1), Fair (2), Good (3), and Excellent (4).
The User Rating Evaluation Form, found in Appendix A, addresses three basic areas: interface design, learning experience, and program functionality. Critical items evaluated included ease of use, navigation, cognitive load, screen design, information presentation, media integration, aesthetics, performance, and reliability. The average score for each item evaluated is denoted in Appendix A.
The average scores for each of the three basic areas, denoted in Table 2, indicate the respondents had a favorable perception of the PMS design and learning experience. Although program functionality received the lowest score due to pop-up blocking problems and slow response times when Internet congestion peaks on the NAU Flagstaff campus, especially in the early afternoon, these factors did not undermine the overall perceived instructional effectiveness of the PMS and training modules.
The performance ratings indicate that the CHI Web-based PMS and training system are suitable for classroom use and appropriate for a sophomore-level college course in hospitality information technology. The students felt that the PMS skills gained are practical and transferable. The convenience of having the PMS and training modules available on the Web received the highest score. Many of the students completed assignments on their personal computers.
Summary of ratings by students enrolled in HA 270.
Average Score (sample size=45)
In the past, deployment of sophisticated commercial hospitality applications (e.g., PMS) in a university classroom was not feasible or sustainable for most hospitality programs. However, with the migration of hospitality applications to the Web, universities now have the opportunity to develop partnerships that enable students to use the Internet to learn state-of-the art hospitality systems without past constraints. NAU’s partnership with CHI has demonstrated the viability of this instructional model. It has eliminated technological and financial barriers and resulted in increased instructional and staff productivity, positive student learning experiences, and easier and more flexible student access to a key hospitality application. A variation of this approach is for a university to partner with a hospitality technology vendor that provides complimentary access or charges a reasonable flat or per student fee. For example, students at the University of Delaware Hotel, Restaurant, and Institutional Management program are using a Web-based PMS provided by WebPMS, a full-service online company that provides a fully integrated property management system with an online booking engine, remote access to real-time hotel inventory, and secure off-site hosting of property data (www.webpms.com).
Boyle, T. (1997). Design for multimedia learning. London: Prentice Hall.
Collins, G., Cobanoglu, C., & Malik, T. (2003). Hospitality Information Technology: Learning How to Use It (5th ed.). Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.
User Rating of the Choice Hotels International Web-based PMS
Evaluation Rating Scale
1. The PMS training modules provide the necessary information on how to successfully use the PMS.
2. Picture, graphics and audio enhance the text in the PMS training modules.
3. PMS navigation links are easy to use and understand.
4. PMS tasks are logically grouped and easily spotted.
5. PMS task descriptions are understandable and precisely defined.
6. Chosen colors display well.
7. Font type and size is easy to read.
8. You always know where you are in the PMS.
9. Program content, structure, and available response options are appropriate for a sophomore-level college course.
10. PMS skills gained are practical and transferable.
11. Different media in the PMS training modules are thoughtfully combined to produce a meaningful, cohesive learning experience.
12. In-class PMS assignments and activities strengthen and add depth to the learning experience.
13. Having the PMS and training modules accessible on the Web makes learning convenient and desirable.
14. The program was void of errors.
15. Audio segments in the training modules were of acceptable quality.
16. The response time was acceptable.
17. Technical requirements did not impede use of this program
About the Author
Galen Collins, Ph.D., Professor at the School of Hotel and Restaurant Management (SHRM) at Northern Arizona University, has been with SHRM since its beginnings as a free-standing school in 1987. He was an early adaptor and advocate of distance learning as a radical tool for bringing SHRM instruction to far-flung locales and diverse students. He developed the first Web-based course in the United States on hospitality information technology in 1998. He is the founding publisher of the Information Technology in Hospitality journal and co-founder of HITA, the Hospitality Information Technology Association. He received his B.B.A. and MS degrees from Florida International University and his Ph.D. from the Graduate School of Computer and Information Sciences at Nova Southeastern University.
Galen Collins, Ph.D., Professor
School of Hotel and Restaurant Management
W.A. Franke College of Business
Northern Arizona University