Jon Davis, CTO of Village Hotel Club, explores how a digital transformation future-proofs a technology infrastructure…
Technology has undoubtedly redefined the very nature of modern business. Traditional business and operating models are being restructured and realigned in order to embrace innovation to be ready for an increasingly digital future. No more is this seachange apparent than in the hotel and hospitality industry, where the modern-day hotel guest is a very different and more technologically driven guest than those of years gone by. Not only has the hotel guest changed, but so has the competition. Gone are the days where price points and the physical hotel itself were key differentiators; in their place is connectivity and best of breed technology solutions. Guests will expect the same level of interaction and engagement with technology in their hotel rooms as they would in their everyday lives with the same level of seamlessness to their experiences and so hotels have had to look at how to enable this within their guest experience.
One such hotel company is currently undergoing a major digital transformation journey in order to better serve the modern guest and offer a digital ready experience like no other, is Village Hotel Club. Village Hotel Club operates 30 hotels across the UK and by its own admission, its hotels are “much more than a bed for the night – they are a place to meet, socialise, work and get fit” – a clear sign that the business understands that the guest experience has changed massively. “It’s a question of how we give our customers options to interact with us, options they have in their day-to-day lives,” explains Jon Davis, CTO of Village Hotels.
“A hotel is no longer defined by being a place to find a bed for the evening. Our business is very varied. We have a thriving F&B department, bedrooms and a massive leisure facility and they all run independently of each other, so as a hotel we need to understand where technology is going because the guests of today will be expecting the latest and greatest from our systems, whether that is contactless payments, self check-in or an in app experience. If you don’t have that then they’re going to leave you.” A typical Village Hotel Club comprises high-tech bedrooms, Village Pub & Grill, Starbucks, Village Gym and the co-working space VWorks, but in order to ensure that it has the best in-breed solutions in place and to better serve its guests it needs to have a solid technology infrastructure, one that is agile enough to cater to the rapidly evolving demands of the guest. This was most certainly the vision for the company’s CEO in 2018, as he set out a plan to update or replace the existing technology stack and bring all of the company’s data into one collective space. A three-year strategy was laid out, with 2019 being earmarked as a year of change.
“We looked at our whole tech infrastructure and mapped out what we wanted to achieve,” says Davis. “The first year has been about really driving change into the business and focusing on change management and strong project management. We looked to put in a number of collaboration tools so that everyone’s involved in the journey from the central office right across the hotels and that they understood what we were doing.” Village Hotels also set out to build what Davis calls the “data lake” where information is pulled from all of its systems into one area. Through a number of business dashboards that are aimed at all different departments and areas, everything that happens in the business is tracked and stored within the data lake allowing the company to make informed decisions moving forward. One of Davis’ personal goals since joining the company 18 months ago has been to create a culture of collaboration and so one of the very first things that was looked at was the way in which people within the business communicated. “We’ve moved everyone away from the traditional email communication and the reams of information that get sent across the business. People are receiving more than 150 emails a day and we looked at how we can change the conversation and the way in which we talk to each other and share information,” he says.
In order to achieve this, Village Hotels moved everyone from a Microsoft-based environment across to G Suite for its collaboration tools. This allowed a more seamless and effective sharing of information across 30 hotels across the UK. Davis is keen to highlight that while there are many departments that technology touches, he and the company must remain focused on this journey that people are going on together. “It’s about a collaborative approach. There’s often a spearhead of technology, pushing everyone into the new era, and it very rarely works because you’ve got a one-person crusade to get technology and for everyone else, it feels like they’re not included in that journey or delivery and it’s a recipe for failure in my eyes.”
Davis believes that this is a reflection of the overall changing conversation surrounding technology. Technology is now the driving force behind significant business decisions and the challenge for him is one of exploring how Village Hotels can use technology to change the culture of its business. He points to finance as an example and how technology is allowing the company to move the finance team away from a very manual, Excel based approach, to a more automated approach which in turn feed the business intelligence tool for the future. How this impacts the customer facing side of the business gives Village Hotels the utility and speed to cater to the customers’ demands. “We are able to build and deploy projects that are customer facing very quickly,” says Davis. “So, for example, we can activate in-room voice communications with Alexa or introduce the Village Hotels app to the business. That app can allow guests to book gym classes, or a hotel room and even order F&B. It becomes a full digital wallet in there thanks to our partners at MyCheck, it then matches that digital wallet to the journey that people have on our internet booking engine.”
This collaborative approach brings together a number of different parts of the business, including F&B, rooms and finance. These departments, as Davis says, would often work independently of one another. “It is through that collaboration tool that we now know everyone understands the goals of each department and how we can get there together,” he says. “It gives us agility. In normal groups our size it’s like turning a tanker, isn’t it? It takes a long time to change your course, so we have built our infrastructure to be able to do that very quickly and be able to fail fast. We’ve created that culture now, which is great.”
With 2019 representing the year of change following the successful implementation of collaboration tools including a new property management system, central reservations tool meetings and events booking system and moved out to an online system and the digital wallet app, 2020 will be the year in which Village Hotels will begin to see the fruits of its labour. Success is never a guarantee, but in order to achieve any success at all there has to be a belief and a clear drive throughout the entire business and it starts at the very top. “It is a fairly difficult journey to go on if you don’t have the backing from people at board level,” says Davis. “We are blessed with a Chairman and a CEO who have absolutely bought into the vision of what technology can bring to the business. There will be bumps in the road, undoubtedly, but if you don’t have that buy-in, then those bumps in the road become mountains and there are things you can’t get over because people don’t really believe in what you’re trying to do. When you’ve got the buy-in from the top, the bumps in the road are just that, they’re bumps. We go around them, we go over them, we build a bridge over them if we need to, but because we’ve got that backing, we can do that very easily.”
Bumps in the road are to be expected. No journey is ever an easy ride from point A to point B and companies will set out a roadmap and factor in that things will head in different directions along the way. With a CEO and a leadership team that is clear in communicating the vision and drive for the journey throughout the whole business, the attention must then turn to the partners and vendors that will collaborate with the business in order to actually realise the outcomes of the journey. Over the past 18 months, Davis has been working on building improved tender processes, evaluating vendors, doing proof of concepts to ensure they are the right partner against Village Hotels’ product roadmap. “We’ve future-proofed our tech infrastructure,” says Davis. “We don’t want to be halfway through next year and having to look at individual pieces of that puzzle again, and say, ‘Oh, we’re going to need to change this because of that vendor, or move this because that’s happened,’ and that’s been a key focus when selecting our partners.”
There are three main partners that have enabled Village Hotels’ tech journey to date: Access Hospitality, Volara and the aforementioned MyCheck. Access Hospitality manage a number of the company’s back office systems such as the ERP system e-procurement functionality through its Procure Wizard tool. “Access are a strong partner for us and really underpin what we are doing as a business,” says Davis. “Procure Wizard is a revolutionary tool. When I started in hospitality, people were writing orders on the back of a pad or even a napkin, now it’s as easy as shopping on Amazon, where we have chefs building baskets through the tool; it’s changed the way F&B works.” Volara is key to Village Hotels in-room technology as the number one provider of voice solutions for hospitality. Village Hotels wanted to be the first company in the UK to work with Volara. Four of its hotels now have Amazon Alexa functionality in-room that gives giving access to hotel information, calling reception and concierge-type services, which will look to expand with another 10 hotels in 2020.
Despite working to a three-year plan, for Davis it’s actually about driving a culture of perpetual innovation. Whatever the future holds, Village Hotels has made the systems and the infrastructure as flexible as possible to be able to do things quickly. “We don’t do projects anymore where there’s a start and an end date. That’s when that vendor partnership comes into play, where we’ll then start the innovation in terms of what we’re doing with the platform. “I think during 2020 we’ll start seeing the fruits of our labour and driving real business efficiencies so the people that we’ve got can start driving real business change. Whether it’s through process, increasing sales or even cost savings, the ultimate goal is that technology is not just there as a nice thing to have; it should be driving business change.”