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PBX helps communication keep up with hotel image.


Order coffee of an afternoon in the Edwardian Room of the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, and a formally attired waiter sets down a three-cup pot made of pewter.

A pianist tinkles the ivories as you stare out at a sea of opulence--high-ceilinged, gilded, with chandeliers that nearly make you dizzy.

New Plaza management has been trying to keep everything on the property in accordance with lofty standards such as demonstrted in this dining room. Recently the four-star giant took on the project of improving its telephone system management.

When Donald Trump bought the place in 1988, one of his unfortunate holdings became a voice system that drew unseemly complaints from customers and ominous headshakes from telecommunications engineers.

Normal topology calls for a "Christmas tree" arrangement: major equipment on the bottom floor, with the branches of wire radiating upwards throughout the facility.

Topsy Turvy

At the Plaza, the "crown" of the tree was in the basement, of all places, and the "root" was on the top floor.

Richard Wilhelm, communications director at the Plaza, remembers the decision-making that accompanies Trump's takeover from Westin Hotels and Resorts.

"We knew even before we walked into the hotel we had to restore the property to its original elegance of 1907, when it began, while at the same time bringing it to the year 2000 as far as the modern traveler is concerned. And one of those items was the telephone systems," he says.

The big target was that room of antiquated electric switches on the top floor.

Parts were being flown in regularly from Third World nations to try to keep the hobbled system running.

The top floor eventually will house new executive suites. Hotel voice switching now is handled in the basement by a Northern Telecom Meridian SL-1 PBX that now has 1000 ports.

"We could go to 10,000 easy, which is enough for anyone," Says Wilhelm.

The new switch --essentially a computer, and totally software-driven--resides in air-conditioned comfort for efficient continued operation.

Because of the new system, fewer customers complain about improper billing, and business travelers are better linked to the outside world.

12 Hour D-Day

The changeover was a trick in itself.

"We had to close down the switching gear on the top floor, rewire the hotel, install the new system, and then--over a 12-hour period one night--go from one system to the other," Wilhelm says.

This had to be done without any interruption to guest services. Other hotels plotting similar updates had elected to shut their systems down temporarily, but that expedient would look shabby at an establishment which prides itself on its relentless onslaught of amenities.

The changeover from the old switches to the PBX was not a moment too soon. "We had to work fast," Wilhelm says, "because the old system was breaking down."

Three months had gone into preparation. All wiring room to rooms was old and had to be replaced with new copper.

On top of that, one-wire rooms were given two wires. The "rollover" line enables the traveler to see there's another call trying to come in. The guest can touch base with the new caller or put him on hold.

One advantage of the new PBX is a software package that measures call volume. This will enable Wilhelm to monitor, in all the different busy areas of the hotel, how many calls are getting through and how many are not.

Tracks Dropped Calls

Dropped calls are a key statistic. As the installation is new, no major data has yet emerged to spur disciplinary or other reforms. But Wilhelm is visibly relieved to be able to eliminate one major source of the seat-of-the-pants management of yesteryear.

"It's very important down in reservations," he says. "A person calls in and says, 'Reservations, please.' The telephone operator puts him through. The phone rings 110 times, and the person gets tired of waiting and hangs up. We may never know there are 30 people an hour who hang up out of frustration--and call onother hotel."

Other kinds of calls into the hotel are also handled more efficiently. For instance, if the operator-switched call rings in an empty room (or one in which the tenant is otherwise predisposed not to answer), within five rings the call flips back to the operator, who suggests that nobody is answering and offers to take a message.

Voice messaging is the natural next step, but Wilhelm has no immediate plans in that area. He's happy for now with the progress he's made. "The caller doesn't get put in limbo anymore," he says.

Northern Telecom offered not only state-of-the-art hardware and software but critical followthrough as well.

"You have to have experts in computers who understand how to maintain a system like this. Support systems nowadays are very important. If you have to fly somebody in from Dayton, Ohio, when the system's down, you have a real problem. You need somebody right here, in the city, who's available within half an hour if there's a major problem," Wilhelm says.

For a period of months, Northern Telecom engineers and servicing personnel were on-site at the Plaza to help with the changeover to the SL-1 driven system.

"The consoles themselves aren't that difficult," Wilhelm says. "There are some features that requires some in-house training, though."

Voice and print (the call accounting and other data reports) are the two main products of the system.

The call-accounting faculty cuts down dramatically on complaints, even from the very well heeled, of unjustified long-distance charges.

"Now we're better able to get the best rate possible through a long-distance service, then resell it to the guests," Wilhelm says.

The Plaza also now provides a phone to switch guests can link PCs (via modems) and facsimile machines.

Bring Their Own Faxes

With that extra jack in his room, the business traveler now can skirt the expense of using the hotel's own machines, as well as achieve greater convenience.

"An attorney in the middle of a case has 30 sheets coming over and wants it to be able to be there right away," Wilhem speculates. "Somebody into a big deal needs to put it to bed. A salesperson finds it very important to be able to fax back and forth. Our concierge has 20 fax machines to lend out, but more and more guests are bringing their own."

Another perk is the more user-friendly key system in each guest room.

The "old-button sets"--standard 12-button desk phones--were pulled in favor or 20-button units that mean you don't have to consult that blasted card that pulls out from the phone anymore. The buttons themselves identify everything from room service to valet to system manager to housekeeping to front desk to laundry. The IDs are both verbal and pictorial.

Data traffic at the hotel--which handles such things as billing for in-room Spectra Vision cable movie viewing and accounting for food and beverage outlets--is switched in the basement by two IBM System 36 mainframes. One handles front-office functions, the other the back office. All the programs on the 36s ar being converted to AS/400 programs.

But you can't neglect voice traffic, as Richard Wilhem has learned. It's more of a lifeblood than most people realize. When it falls into disrepair, it finally emerges as more than worthy of attention--and dollars.

Whatever Donald Trump winds up spending on a divorce, he's not throwing his money away here. By modernizing one of the juiciest plums in Trump's hospitality empire, Richard Wilhelm is making sure old technology never rusts the gleam of a venerable institution.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Manhattan's Plaza Hotel
Author:Gitlin, Bob
Publication:Communications News
Date:Jul 1, 1990
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