Hotel rooms that can access everything from your favorite food to your musical preferences - while running on technology that's clever enough to repair itself - might sound like a page torn right out of a pulp sci-fi novel.

It isn't.

Hotels are doing it today, and many more are on the verge of implementing these innovative technologies. If you're a guest at one of these forward-looking properties, get ready for a completely different kind of experience—one in which technology anticipates your every need and gives it to you without you ever having to ask.

And it isn't just hotels that are leveraging these new tools to their advantage; so are theme parks, restaurants, and casinos. The overall effects of these new tools on the hospitality business promises to be far-reaching. From the perspective of a hotel, casino, or restaurant, these important advances have the potential to create more efficient and profitable businesses, and make your business more appealing to guests.

Here are the five biggest technology trends in the hospitality industry.

No more "20 questions" at check-in. Remember all those queries when you pick up your room key, such as, What kind of newspaper do you prefer? Would you like a poolside or oceanside room? Asking such questions eats up hotel employees' valuable time and, after a while, guests get tired of answering them. New customer relationship management (CRM) tools allow a hotel to gather guest preference information from various systems at property level and distribute them throughout the company. So your hotel knows what you like, right away.

For example, one hotel chain asks guests signing up for its loyalty program to fill out a preferences questionnaire that is entered into its CRM system at the property level. The information can be made available for any hotel in the chain that the guest checks in to, while the CRM system itself is still maintained locally, at the property level. (This is made possible by merging the property level CRM data with the larger CRM system held at the headquarters-level for the chain.)

When the day of arrival comes, the preference data is pushed to the property and generates an activity list to prepare the guest's room. At the same time, historical transaction data about the guest is made available, which can help predict the behaviors and likely service consumption the guest will have. "If the guest typically orders room service shortly after checking in to their room, then you can proactively suggest—or offer—the in-room dining specials for that day, even take their order at the front desk to shorten the wait for their dinner" says Bill Frizzell, the industry technology strategist for the Microsoft Worldwide Hospitality Team.

"This has been a long sought-after capability for the industry," he adds. "Defining a single view of the guest, without duplicate stores of information, is the key to understanding their habits, trends, and behaviors."

Cutting-edge CRM solutions leverage the latest Microsoft technology, including Microsoft Dynamics CRM and BizTalk Server 2006.

TVs that deliver music, movies—and much more. Today's leading-edge hotels have in-room systems that do far more than allow guests to watch their favorite first-run movie. They can also control in-room music, provide gaming options, display your bill—even control the thermostat and lights.

The Hotel 1000 in Seattle, Wash., for instance, has centered the room around the availability of favorite media and services on a number of widescreen plasma monitors located throughout its rooms and suites. You can control content, multi-area volume of the sound system, and interact with your profile through these devices. And because it's a multi-use property—part residence, part hotel—the same entertainment offerings are available for their property owners. That lessens the typical multi-use management burden of maintaining multiple service offerings per type of area on the property.

State-of-the-art media and services delivery are offered today through the Microsoft Media Center by using plug-ins. See some of the latest plug-ins to MediaCenter at Windows Marketplace. For more on direct media delivery for in-room services and entertainment, see the latest on Microsoft IPTV.

Find yourself (and pay for lunch). People in the hospitality industry have found a variety of uses for new radio frequency identification (RFID) technology—from helping guests find each other at a ski resort to allowing them to pay for a meal. That's because, increasingly, this technology is gaining traction with hotels and resorts in the form of cashless payment systems that can be used on-property and, more and more often, off-property as well.

For example, at Wild Rivers, a water theme park in Irvine, Calif., RFID locator bracelets can be preloaded and used to pay for food and beverages (which is especially useful when everyone's wearing a bathing suit). The RFID systems, developed by Guest Technologies, have yielded an almost immediate return on investment. After the system was introduced at Wild Rivers, guest spending quadrupled, with the average family of four spending twice their normal amount on meals.

Another key capability of this offering is location-based services, where groups of individuals can be instantly found at the property, simultaneously allowing for more freedom and security in these safety-conscious times. "Imagine taking a group of seven 12 year-olds to a water park for a birthday party," says Frizzell. "You can go to any information kiosk in the park and instantly find where all of the kids you are responsible for are, and what activities and payments they have made, using their RFID bracelet. All of this is enabled through the implementation RFID and location-based services, using Microsoft technologies and Microsoft MapPoint Location Server."

For more information on RFID technologies in the hospitality industry, please see this Guest Technologies article.

The Guest Technologies product is developed in the Microsoft Visual Studio development system with the Microsoft .NET Framework. It also relies on Microsoft BizTalk Server to help integrate applications and technologies from disparate systems, and Microsoft's MapPoint Location Server for location-based services.

Back-office systems that are actually on speaking terms. Hotel guests might not have noticed this (and if it was done right, they shouldn't have), but applications that handled property management, food and beverage, and sales and catering functions often couldn’t communicate with one another easily. Now they can.

A large, multi-property hotel chain in Las Vegas is currently integrating systems and platforms that were in application silos—meaning that they were running as stand-alone applications, not intended to share their information with other applications—to better integrate each other's data. Through this interchange of data, they are better able to implement efficient business processes that rely on the delivery of data between these systems that were previously separated. For example, if you dine on-property the morning you intend to check out, you can get a final bill that is inclusive of your full folio of charges—even the breakfast you had five minutes ago. That's because there's no more "batching" of data to be sent to the property management system for posting to your guest folio. Instead, the interchange of your transaction to your folio is now happening at the time you make it.

"To achieve this level of integration between property-level systems, hospitality organizations had to create specific interfaces between them," says Frizzell. "But these interfaces are not typically designed with flexibility and scaling of processes in mind, which had the unfortunate side effect of making the interfaces very brittle in use."

Think of it this way: If you have 10 on-property systems that all needed to share the same base set of guest transaction data, it would result in 90 separate interfaces being built to accommodate the integration. Considering the inflexible nature of these point-in-time interfaces, keeping them running and orchestrated to perform the simple task of sharing data can easily become a huge financial and management burden.

But by implementing an "Information Hub" at the property level, all systems and applications that need to share data report that data in an open format, based on industry standards, to the hub. The hub is then responsible for routing the information to the various systems and orchestrating the intended business processes. In effect, the hub streamlines the exchange of data, reducing the number of integration interfaces from 90 to 10.

For more information on how the Information Hub can help you realize the value of coordinated integration activities at your property, see the corresponding information at the Microsoft Hospitality site. The Information Hub is powered by Microsoft BizTalk Server.

Self-healing hotel technology. A hotel's information technology (IT) systems are typically managed in a reactive way, which is to say that when something breaks down an IT person is called upon to fix it. But bringing systems offline to repair them can affect the whole operation—think of the long check-in lines when the credit-card systems aren't working. The solution? A dynamic platform that constantly monitors a hotel's systems for problems and fixes them before they affect the whole property.

A large multi-concept fine dining chain has added a system to keep an eye on its restaurant-level systems and enterprise servers. This system controls everything from the deployment of operating systems to the handheld devices the company's employees use. System problems and failures are reported to the IT help desk as they occur, minimizing the time it takes to get mission-critical systems back online.

Related Link: Microsoft System Center