One look at the hotels around Heathrow and you see monuments to seventies' blandness. But beneath the exterior of the biggest of them all is evidence of a plan to drag hotels into the hi-tech nineties.
Two years after taking over the Heathrow Penta and a £1.5m refurbishment, the Ramada group has completed its conversion and now boasts computer and point of sale (PoS) systems.
Ramada Hotel Heathrow has brought in a high-specification PoS system, interfaced to the front-desk property management system (PMS).
There are several reasons why it needed such a system. As a 638-bedroom airport hotel, it is a 24-hour operation. Airline crews check in and out all day, often at unconventional hours. Passengers in transit - typically those needing accommodation when their flights are delayed - will arrive virtually without notice, and may well have to check out in a hurry. They may also want meals at non-routine hours, so there's 24-hour room service.
The Ramada's business is not all travel-related, either. The hotel claims to offer the largest flat exhibition space at Heathrow, and has a 262-seat conference theatre.
Combined with its big car park, these facilities attract exhibitions and conferences from an international market.
The first phase of the hotel's new systems was installed from July 1993 to the summer of 1994. A project committee planned both the purchase and installation of the new technology.
The two main hotel-specific aspects of the systems - PMS and PoS - to some extent chose themselves. Renaissance International, Ramada's parent group, has a preference for Fidelio as its PMS.
Micros now belongs to the same company as Fidelio, so Ramada general manager Heinz Volland and his colleagues benefit from a totally interfaced solution and support from the same Micros-Fidelio offices, situated just down the road in Slough.
While the Fidelio package is not mandatory for all hotels in the group, most Ramadas comply - and with good reason. When a Ramada or Renaissance hotel installs Fidelio, it gets additional software specifically written for the Renaissance group. For example, yield management models have been included for the sales department.
For its PoS system, the Ramada chose Micros' top-of-the-range 8700 touchscreen terminal. This won the day partly on adaptability and appearance - it has a smart, slim-line casing that fits well in a hotel setting.
The hotel has so far installed eight terminals, but there are an additional four positions where they can be plugged in (using a telephone jack and socket), so that the terminals can be moved around to cater for banquets and other functions of different sizes.
Wherever they are plugged in on the hotel network, they are controlled by a SCO/UNIX computer system and are networked to Fidelio on the front desk.
First job when the Micros system was installed was to load into it the menus, wine lists and bar lists from all the hotel's catering outlets: the Brasserie, the Icarus bar, room service and the banqueting department.
Setting up this configuration was a day's work because as well as the names and prices of all the items, modifiers had to be programmed in, too. This means that if a customer orders steak, for example, the waiter or waitress cannot go any further without specifying how it is to be cooked.
Now that the Micros system has been in place for more than six months, the people using it are seeing the benefits. Each manager has some favourite example of its advantages.
Executive assistant manager Ron Voss quotes how the Ramada can cope with unexpected guests, such as those passengers who are being accommodated on an airline's behalf when their flights are delayed.
"With Fidelio and Micros, we can set up a requirement for these guests to leave a deposit at the front desk, which is common practice for airport hotels, with customers we don't know," says Voss.
"The airline picks up the bill for a package - room and meals - but if they want to charge bar drinks to their room, they first have to hand over a credit card at the front desk."
Once the guest's credit card has been taken, a second bill is set up on the same room number. When charges are posted from any of the Micros 8700 terminals to that room number, the system will "know" which of the two folios has to be charged.
Food and beverage manager Paul Davies sees benefits both on the staff management side and in the quality of service the hotel can provide to guests.
The touchscreen interface, for example, makes training on the 8700 terminals faster and easier than when using a conventional PoS keyboard with price look-up keys. "It's much easier for new employees," says Davies.
Once trained, the staff's productivity can also be monitored. Davies is working on a regular productivity report, drawn from the Micros system.
As each person uses a card to log on at the 8700 terminals before keying in orders, Davies can see which are most productive, and which less so. "People know we're doing it, so it keeps them on their toes," he says.
Davies is keen to use the information positively. "We discuss the productivity report as a general issue every month with the heads of department. They in turn talk to individuals who work with them."
This information can help identify training needs for those staff who are less productive. And for the best, there are rewards, such as a bottle of Champagne for the employee of the month.
With more effective management of staff also comes better service to guests. Davies is confident this has improved as a result of installing the Micros system. "Provided we have enough terminals - which we have - guests can settle their bills at the table, either posting a charge to the room account on the PMS, or paying cash or by credit card."
And with the system helping on the "technology" side of the job - taking orders and collecting payment - waiters and waitresses are freed up to be meeters and greeters, their proper job.