Q&A with new DHISCO CEO Toni Portmann, on taking Pegasus beyond the hotel switch
Late last year, Toni Portmann took on the challenge of being a turnaround artist for Pegasus Solutions, the company that created the original “hotel switch.”
A tech pioneer, Pegasus eventually helped more than 100,000 hotels (including 300 hotel chains) distribute their room rates and availability to global distribution systems, and later to online travel agencies and metasearch platforms.
Yet last year, Pegasus split up some of its operations. Private equity firm H.I.G. Capital bought the distribution business. Since then, Portmann’s team has been working to get the it innovating again.
Renamed DHISCO — for Distribution Hospitality Intelligent Systems Company — the Dallas company is now aspiring to become much more than a mere distribution switch for hotels.
Critics of the company prior to Portmann’s arrival have accused it of being complacent. Its growth numbers have been flat.
The critics say that hotel booking has changed in recent years, and that DHISCO needs to adapt by building systems that can help customers select amenities or sites that are focused on specific types of properties rather than just price, as well as handle ancillary (up-sell) offers.
DHISCO also needs to cope with a more complicated array of distribution channels brought about by the rise of mobile and other devices, among other challenges, such as the arrival of non-standard types of lodging, such as short-term rental stays and the digitizing of group and meeting and events.
Portmann was previously the chief of LockIN, a SaaS e-Learning company. So she’s had to be a quick study on the quirks of hotels and digital distribution.
She says her team is making quick progress. At the end of last month, it re-launched its products. It recently signed deals with some new booking sites. It says it will soon reveal some partnerships with destination management companies in the Middle East.
In a wide-ranging interview with Tnooz, Portmann conveyed a dynamic enthusiasm and a charismatic speaking style that could make her popular on the conference-and-events circuit.
Her views range from the threat to hotels posed by Airbnb, the short-term rental startup, to the seven most critical hotel attributes in the eyes of consumers, according to DHISCO data.
Portmann talked with us about what she feels is her most important product (hint: DHISCO Framework) and she gave tips on how hotels can become more creative with merchandising and retailing, using some practical examples.
Saying “Hello, again” to hotel clients
Tnooz: For people who don’t know about the spin off from Pegasus, is there an explanation?
Toni: I think the quick one is focus. Pegasus is now focused on its central reservation system, and they are a wonderful, very important client of ours. The carve-out of the distribution business was really one of focus. There is a very attractive asset in the distribution switch itself, and I think to split those apart gives focus to both companies to maximize what they do best. Pegasus makes reservations and we are the de facto standard for connecting the world.
Tnooz: So when you re-introduce your brand to major hotel chains specifically, what do you say?
Toni: We spend all of our conversations with our large clients talking about our mission, which we say is to passionately provide intelligent solutions that drive our partners’ success. Every bit of our conversation is about how to either take costs out or add revenue in. One very important fun fact is on average there’s a lot of noise in the system about the cost of distribution. For switching through the DHISCO Switch, our distribution cost as a percent of hotel revenue is less than 1%.
Toni: We are the best deal around for distributing and switching.
Tnooz: Less than 1% of what would it be? Is it percent of hotel revenue, is that like the…
Toni: Yup, if you take the ADR, the numbers of revenue coming through our system, that revenue, we are less than 1% of the cost of that.
Tnooz: What is your message to hotel clients that you’d like to have that haven’t worked with DHISCO or other recent Pegasus solutions in awhile?
Toni: Well, the major message is really our vision, which is connecting the world. We are the only company that has access to all of the major online travel agents, all of the major distribution, global distribution systems, and all of the major supply-side hotels, so whether you’re on the front end, an OTA or a GDS, demand partner, or you’re a supply partner or a property or group of hoteliers, we’re the only one that says “Hey with one connection through us, you have immediate access to all the major OTAs, all the major GDSs, and if you’re on the demand side, about 200,000 properties and 100,000 hotels,” so very, very important connections when you make a decision to let DHISCO be your switch.
Tnooz: What have you been up to since you joined in November?
Toni: We’ve gone through and completely rebranded the product suite that we have. We are building out our two-year product release plan for five product suite categories. The first is the switch itself — DHISCO Switch we’re calling it.
I think in the past, the switch has just passed through transactions. Now we want to add value to those transactions…. In our vision, the reservation wouldn’t be just for a room and a rate. It would include what we’re calling total pricing, which means all of the ancillary fees and all of the ancillary taxes that have to be included and bundled in that reservation. It would include your favorite amenities if you were a group. It would include child pricing and similar non-standard rates.
Group travel is another area. It would also include… what’s called rendered shopping, where I might do a group and I need individual names on individual rooms at individual rates, with one having a crib and one having two queens.
So, today all that, Sean, is done by hotels manually on a spreadsheet. All that is done sort of manually, because I book a block of rooms and then I’ve got to go through and basically reserve every room individually. We want to digitize it.
If you think about rendered shopping, you would have a matrix and you would just click for that group of rooms the transaction set that you would and then it would go book in that block all of the different room types in one single transaction. That’s a big deal technologically. A very, very big deal for DHISCO Switch, our first and flagship product.
Tnooz: What’s a new product you’re really excited about?
Toni: The really exciting program that we are launching, we’re calling DHISCO Quick Start, and we believe that for connectivity, we will have a demand partner live and transacting real business in 5 weeks, and for a supply partner that wants to get connected to all that demand, a 2-week connectivity, and that is unheard of. Traditionally, it would take months to get those things configured and connected. As we launch DHISCO Quick Start, one of our key focuses is get connected and get easy access to the switch.
Tnooz: Mm-hmm (affirmative). How many employees does DHISCO have, by the way?
Toni: Eighty-two. Small and mighty. It’s pretty cool to think about 82 employees and 9.4 billion transactions a month. That’s up from 7 billion to 8 billion back in late 2014. We also cut the speed of the switch from an average of .69 milliseconds to an average of .39 milliseconds. That’s 49 percent faster. And it was already really fast.
Helping CRSs cope with computing demands
Toni: DHISCO Shop is our another key product suite. What we’re finding is the unbelievable demand that the central reservation systems are having because of the leisure traveler, the business traveler, and all of the meta search and online travel agents is just banging the system.
Tnooz: What’s the typical look-to-book ratio now?
Toni: We’re finding now an average of 35 looks before there’s a book.
Tnooz: What would be the comparable number for some prior period, for comparison?
Toni: Around a decade ago, or so, the look-to-book ratios were much lower. Maybe magnitudes of 10 times lower than they are today. That 35 times might have been 3 or 4 looks to get it, and then I’d book. Today, it’s about an average of 35 looks before there’s a book. Believe it or not, 8 of those looks are done within 48 hours before travel. Travelers are waiting until the last 48 hours. They’re asking, Did that rate go down? What if there’s increased availability and I can get a better rate inside that 48-hour window? It’s straining systems.
Tnooz: What’s an example of how this changing behavior affects DHISCO’s technology?
Toni: Cancellation policies, this is one example. You’re going to start seeing different rates based on cancellation terms…and we need to adapt.
Tnooz: All these extra calls on the system, is that something that’s a problem?
Toni: Huge, it’s crazy! What’s happening is for one booking, you’re getting hit 35 times. That rate and that room availability may change 30 times within that 35 looks…. We want to allow all that shopping to occur without impacting the central reservation system, which takes us into another product.
DHISCO Cache aims to protect that central reservation system. There’s a lot of things that you, as a consumer or third-party, would shop for that are static, that don’t change. When you hold in a cache things like the room description, things like the amenities of the property, because really the only thing that’s changing is that rate and that availability.
In our smart cache, DHISCO intelligent cache solutions, we’re making business decisions about what things we don’t let through in that shopping transaction and we just hold in cache because we know the answer.
We’ll go get the room and rate, then we’ll bring it back and package it up and deliver it out to the shopper intact. In doing that, you severely protect that reservation system from toppling over, and you’re really just letting booking transactions go through, and you’re really just shopping for the things that change.
In that shop and cache topology, we’re going to give the hotel of yours, the supply partner, the opportunity to refresh that static content from their own portal. Today, it’s a pretty laborious process for them to have to go say, “Wow, we just bought a new property,” or “We just did a renovation, so we’re changing our room descriptions. We’re changing our square footage because we’re taking-”
I learned this, this is fascinating, a lot of hotels now are taking tubs out, for a couple of reasons, but mostly because what they’re finding is the guests don’t really use the bathtub. They use the shower…. That’s another amenity, so as these refurbishments are taking place, they’ve got to change that content to say “No bathtub.”
Today, they basically have to send all the content for a property or for a hotel chain through, and that all has to get updated. Instead of just what we call “change DHISCOvery,” which is let’s just discover what has changed, and that was, in this example, that there’s no more tub, and that transaction is a lot, we call lighter, than the heavy, heavy transaction of having to replace all of that content for that whole hotel because the system wasn’t smart enough to figure out what changed.
Now, all you’ll have to push through is that new set of descriptions and our technology will look at and discover what has changed and be able to refresh for all those online travel agents to now know real time there’s no more tub there. That will refresh that cache and hold it static until there’s another change. Change discovery and DHISCO Cache — very, very, very important.
The 7 most popular hotel attributes
Toni: Content is really key. Today we have over 200,000 properties in the DHISCO system represented with each hotel, unique content. Right?
Tnooz: We’re talking about attributes of a hotel and its rooms, right?
Toni: Correct. The attributes that you might have, and think about it, right now that becomes really important, I’ll give you one fun fact, it’s fascinating. American travelers, when they travel abroad, the one thing that they want to look for that typically is not listed as an amenity is is there a coffee maker in the room.
Tnooz: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Toni: Other countries think Americans are crazy, that they want to have coffee in their room. You’re supposed to go to the café, you’re supposed to go to the, right, you’re supposed to go out for coffee. You don’t have coffee in your bedroom. It’s the persona by brand, by channel, by traveler that you curate that content out of so that you can present that amenity in the online experience so that you know when I travel there if I really want a coffee maker, I can go see if that box is checked.
We’re doing, right now, with all of our lucky clients, we’re doing a content audit. We’ve found that there are 7 key attributes: free internet, free parking, pets allowed, airport shuttle, free breakfast, no smoking, swimming pool. Those are the most hit attributes. We are going out and doing an audit of over 200,000 properties and going back to the hotel chains and saying “You’ve got to make sure that this content is correct and is complete.”
We’re calling it the Content Completeness Audit, against at least the 7 attributes, because these are what we’re finding people are searching for the most in 2015. That list has dramatically changed, even over the past 3 or 4 years. It’s the typical stuff that you would imagine, which is WiFi in the room, that’s huge, and think about it, 5 years ago, that was not a common amenity that the box gets checked on.
Tnooz: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Toni: Another one that is a surpriser is, are pets allowed? Fascinating, right? That’s a key attribute that is searched on for differentiation and if you don’t have it checked, then the assumption is you don’t allow pets, and you’re probably giving up a traveler that could book in your hotel.
Anyway, we’re doing this audit, and then we’re going back to the hotel partners and saying “You really need to get content completeness so that when there’s a search going on, your content shows up and can be shopped and can be consumed.” We want to do really intelligent use of that content, making sure that every property that’s loaded is complete with it and then, and to make sure our technology is able to update that as seamlessly as possible. That’s for our product called DHISCO Content. Make sense?
Tnooz:It does make sense, yes.
The most important product
Toni: Then the fifth and very important product suite is what we call DHISCO Framework. In our framework, we’re really attacking a couple of things. Number one, we are transforming the entire legacy, Pegasus technology stack and taking advantage of new topology and new architecture and new technology. In order to do this intelligent cache, we need really really importantly intelligent caching systems. That leads us into our business intelligence framework. Robust reporting engines that can get back to our hotel customers with really meaningful concepts and business intelligence.
What we’ve just announced, that I’m really excited about, is a partnership project with University of North Texas here in Denton, Texas. University of North Texas has what they call an innovation greenhouse, and in partnership with them, we’ve put up 14 terabytes of data and we’re turning it over to the students, the professors, and putting cross-functional teams in place, we’re going to just let them play in a complete sandbox of information and see what they come up with.
Tnooz: Are there trends that they mine out of that that might be super-meaningful for the hotel year?
Toni: What we know is because we do 9.4 billion transactions a month now that there is a lot of data to be mined that could be very useful for the hotel year as they determine their channel strategy, their brand strategy, what’s resonating, where are click-throughs happening, so we’re really excited about what might come out of this DHISCO Framework experience in serving up our business intelligence strategy. Isn’t that fun?
Tnooz: Yeah, it sounds promising.
Toni: What we know is we can’t use yesterday’s thinking to solve tomorrow’s problems. The college, the university is so excited because the students get to play with real, live data instead of sort of the theory and the old case studies that are not built on real-time.
Tnooz: The data’s anonymized, right? So people who read this article aren’t going to start panicking that…
Toni: Yeah, it’s all neutered. It’s all redacted and it’s all completely neutered.
Tnooz: Okay. What do you think is the… Are there sort of changes in the front-end agent side of things?
Toni: You know, we, because we are no longer… If you think about DHISCO, we are just the distribution piece of the business. Our technology really doesn’t interface on the agent side at all, but here’s the one thing that does blow my mind a little bit. We have signed up distribution partners, Sean, that don’t have a web presence. They’re mobile only. That, for me, is mind boggling. If you think about it, all of those reservations are getting made through, you know, a mobile phone or an Ipad that are totally mobile. There’s no website.
Tnooz: Is it going through an app?
Toni: Yeah! Yeah, it’s completely an app, and I think that is just, I think that’s fascinating.
Tnooz: Presumably, you have to find the app in order to download it, right?
Toni: Well, think about the App Store. If you know it, you don’t go to website to download it, you just go to the App Store.
Toni: These things go viral and … the uptake is incredible, and think about the cost of customer acquisition, very, very low.
Toni: You’ve now opened up the billions of users on mobile apps.
Tnooz: You talked a bit about business intelligence. Some very basic templates for a the business intelligence dashboard is starting to spread in the hospitality industry as an expected tool. Things like Expedia Partner Central’s dashboard, TravelClick’s tools, Priceline’s BookingSuite and PriceMatch products, services from small revenue management companies that charge, you know, multi-subscription fees are trying to offer data insight. Is that of anything of interest to you at DHISCO on either the supplier side or on any of the demand partners?
Toni: Yeah, great question. I would say that for the near term, our first consumer of our BI works are our clients. We believe that this is an incredible value ad, and at the current time, there’s not a strategy to charge for that. We think that that’s really a differentiator and what we’re finding, we’re on the road going out to our 24 major connectivity partners and hoteliers and they’re seeing the beginning of our BI, and they’re saying things like “We’ve never seen anything, obviously out of your company, like this. In fact, we have not seen anything out of the industry like this.” For each of those 5 product categories, we’re going to data mine and show the impact that that hotelier has, and I’ll give you one example.
We want to make sure that every product and every feature that we release to the marketplace can show a step-function change in performance. One of the most important things about DHISCO Switch is the performance, the speed of the switch, because as you can imagine, with all of these transactions going through and with our consumer being completely “I want instant gratification,” and nobody wades through or waits for transactions to be returned, they click out.
We took the speed of the switch from .62 milliseconds down to .39 milliseconds, so almost a 50% increase in the speed that went through, and when we show that to our partners that have central reservation systems, they can see the speed of the DHISCO Switch, they can see their speed, and then we show them, within a comp set, how their speed compares to all the other CRSs that are connected to us, which are their major competitors. We don’t call ‘em out by name, but we show them how their processing speed differentiates.
One of my favorite examples was at a core hotel, the core customer said “Number one, we’ve never seen anything like this and I want you to show me if we’re really, really bad compared to competitors, because I can go forward and get budget money, and I want you to show me if I’m really best of breed with all our competitors, because I’m going to go forward and get me a raise.” He said “The power of this data is unbelievable to our company, and we can’t get access to it even for ourselves, but we certainly have never had access to how we compare and contrast technologically in the marketplace.”
Toni: I know!
Tnooz: Matching hospitality distribution to other services, like transportation, tours and activities, on-demand services. Any interest?
Toni: In the short term, we’ve got a lot of wood to chop. We named our company very purposefully, right? Distribution Hospitality Intelligent Systems Company. I wouldn’t say “never” for sure, but for right now, we are very focused on delivering best in class connectivity through ease of access, through the advanced technologies that I talked to you about, content and cash, and then through business intelligence. That has a very, very busy serving what we see as a very vibrant market right now, which is the hospitality space.
Tnooz: How is the competitive landscape now, compared to 5 years ago let’s say, or 7 years ago?
Toni: I would say that there is no competition for DHISCO Switch, because we’re the only one that does what we do. I would say the competition for a bed and a room is incredible because of mobility and because of access. I don’t see us having competition because we are such the heartbeat of the industry in the support of the eservices transactions, but I think the competition for a room is at exponentially high, because there’s just so much access to what’s available.
I can search by zip code, I can search by amenity, I can search by price, and I can see things that heretofore I would have never have known existed, even in my own town, when people come to stay overnight, people are finding “Oh, I went and searched on that and I found that there’s a hotel like two blocks from my house. I didn’t even know it was there. I drive by there all the time!”
I think the competition for the traveler and the wallet share of the traveler is exponentially higher than it ever has been, and I think it’s amazing. When you can book a hotel room on your Apple Watch, or you can search, that’s pretty amazing.
Tnooz: One of the hottest things that I’ve been hearing about at hotel events and conferences, and I’ll leave this as my last question, is the revenue management side of things. You’ve touched on some of this incidentally, but is there anything about DHISCO’s tools that can really help a hotelier either interface with their revenue management strategy in some way?
Toni: Well, for sure. This entire content audit and transformation is all about maximizing wallet share with amenities and maximizing the experience of being able to match that traveler with the perfect room. The BI is directly feeding into the revenue managers, and how they create personas of and brand their hotel.
Tnooz: How will hotels will respond to the rise of short-term rentals? For example, there are already signs that Airbnb’s threat to hotels may be structural, going beyond the fight over tax collection.
Toni: What we’re hearing in the hospitality industry as it relates to lodging and the impact of Airbnb, HomeAway, VRBO, etc., is this: Hotels are sort of staying pretty firm, saying “This is our space.” How Airbnb is meeting the hotel business is sort of like when Uber met the limo company business.
For DHISCO, it’s like, until there’s the appropriate level of regulation and attachment to all of the things that go into being a real lodging company, we’re staying pretty fixed on the fact that we will support the traditional hospitality industry.
I will tell you one pretty cool thing, sharing economy-wise: Marriott has a strategy where they’re dipping their toe in the water and they are using some of their staff, so they are taking their housekeeping staff and they’re creating a separate services company.
They’ll go in their downtime and go clean AirB&B apartments and/or rooms. I thought that was a super cool idea. I think that’s a way of extending, maybe not the room inventory, but extending the services so that you’re more effectively managing the expense side of the equation and keeping your staff fully busy with revenue generating opportunities.
Think about all of the housekeeping staff that a hotel might have. Why not make it available for cleaning houses and short-term rentals? So, create a professional services organization out of that. Now it’s a service for a fee, and so instead of cleaning the hotel’s room, they’re cleaning any room that’s out there that wants to consume the housekeeping services.
Tnooz: So it’s not going to just be ADR anymore. Hotels may become multi-pronged companies, competing with firms like SYSCO Guest Supply?
Toni: Ye! Hotels will be doing it and branding it in the same brand of the experience, so we’ve got the, cleanest rooms in the hotel business, and oh by the way, you can take advantage of professional room cleaning, bed cleaning, they’re consolidating all their laundry management, so if you think about it, it’s one thing to change the sheets on the bed in the hotel, well why not extend that and go down the hall, go down the street, and then do an Airbnb room and have that same laundry facility now extended to more capacity? I think it’s fascinating.
I’ll admit Marriott is one of our key clients, but I do love the way they are looking at the ancillary services. They take great pride in their spa services. They take great pride in their restaurant. They’re now focusing on really top-notch chefs and very little of that traffic, that revenue is coming from the guests in the hotel, so they’ve turned, if you think about it, these hotels have got fine dining, look at the Fairmont, I mean world-class fine dining, and they’re serving the restaurant industry, they just happen to also be in the hotel.
Those ancillary services are very important when you think about the total wallet share of the property itself. It used to be that hospitality kind of thought about room revenue, room rates. But if you start to compound these amounts of money that they’re making from all those ancillary services and opening those up to the larger public in a variety of ways.
Tnooz: How does that affect DHISCO?
Toni: It affects our distribution business in that we’re signing up online travel partners that are doing packages, group packages. I love the concept of the persona of content being geared around the traveler, so I may know that you are a luxury traveler and when you travel, one of my hotels might say “Oh, welcome Sean. We know that you enjoy golf, that you like your coffee and the Wall Street Journal,” so they’re actually coupling up, “We know that you like fresh croissants, so we’re going to go down to the Belagere and bring it when you’re in Paris and have croissants for you.”
Extending those services based around the persona of the content desired for the traveler themselves. I think that’s very cool. From our standpoint, we’ve got to be able to accommodate technologically a reservation that is a lot more than free WiFi and “Are pets allowed or not?” Very very complex content, so we’ve got a head of content, Anne Cole, who is working on the syndication of complex content, so that we can really differentiate between brands the kind of amenities that might be available.
Tnooz: Are property rentals and short-term rentals something that will be added in, do you think, into the switches?
Toni: We add them in today. We add them in if, for example, a Weston might have a residences strategy, and so we are switching those transactions every day. I think as the hoteliers expand their reach into suites, the corporate traveler for longer-term stay, enhanced length of stay is a given now. You’ve got to support that extended length of stay. Then the added complexity of “Boy, there’s an owner that owns this piece of property. It’s in the hotel pool, and when it’s available, I search it just like I search all the rest of the rooms and I book it. I book it like I book all the rest of the rooms.” Yeah, we do that today.
Tnooz: Are there changes in the consumers facing distribution that you’re seeing, such as the rise of … I’m not putting words into your mouth, but some of the changes that I’m aware of are things like instant booking, the trends of new players like Trip Advisor, possibly Amazon, possibly Google trying to be channels as alternates to the household names, third-party intermediaries.
Toni: We are talking to every one of those with the intention of being their switch…. They can focus on what they are doing strategically, and they can outsource the commodity of letting us be their switch. It’s the classic core competency argument. So we just want to be the switch that switches all of those transactions, but I think we’re talking to every one of those that you just mentioned and then some.
Tnooz: A couple years ago, I think under the old entity Pegasus was getting new square footage at a property in Dallas. Is that something that’s fallen to distribution-side, or is that on the side, or is that old history?
Toni: That’s old history. We, in the transaction, we are the landlord for most of the space. We’ve got offices in the UK, we’ve got offices in Scottsdale, Arizona, and then we’ve got beautiful property at Lincoln Center in Dallas, which is where the headquarters is.
Tnooz: Okay. How hard is it to hire great technical talent? The difference between a good programmer and a great programmer, a good developer or engineer can be logarithmic. Is there anything about the value proposition for technical people who read this and wonder whether they should seek a job with your company?
Toni: Here’s one thing that I have found, and I didn’t grow up in this industry, but I think people come to work, especially if you’re in I.T., for 3 big reasons. One is they like to work on really fun stuff, and our stuff is fun. Anytime you’re doing 9 billion transactions in a month, you get to do some pretty cool things. The second is to work with tools and technology that are world-class. With our transformation, our sandbox is really full of the latest and the greatest technologies. Then the third, and I do believe this, I believe that people love to work, even if they’re technological, in collaborative teams. We’re an Agile shop, we are doing tests and learned. We are highly dependent upon the collaboration because these systems are so complex. The people in the hospitality industry, I.T. people in the hospitality industry are so nice.
Tnooz: Got it.
Toni: This is a hugging community, and they like working in teams, and they like the collaboration and especially the new millennials really embrace the fact that they get to play with the coolest stuff, work on some super-cool projects that they can tell people about because everybody stays in hotels, and then they’re just working with people that they like. Knock on wood, we have had real success in attracting top-notch, A+ technologists, even in a market like Dallas, Texas, where you’ve got a lot of competition for talent.
Our goal is to be the place where people want to work. I’ll give you one fun fact, we have in our company a CFO and the CFO stands for Chief Fun Officer, because I.T. guys tend to kind of go into their man cave or their woman cave and do all of their coding work. Our CFO every month provides 4 activities and fun and tchotchkes and you know, it’s just those little things that keep people engaged.
Toni: You’ve been patient with my exhaustive list of questions. Is there anything I didn’t touch on that you’d like to say?
Toni: Our 4 strategies of connectivity, easy access, advanced technologies including content and cache and business intelligence, play very nicely into our 5 product suite, and we’re just excited to have the distribution part of the business be this thing the matters.
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