Automating The Guest Experience – An Interview with Rob Paterson of Village Hotels

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Village Hotels Automated Checkin

At Triptease’s recent Direct Booking Summit in Barcelona, much was discussed about marketing automation, AI and machine learning. All fantastic technologies to help reduce the strain on operational teams within hotels and all hotly debated as ‘the next big thing’ in hospitality.

Beyond the concepts and theory, UK hotel group Village Hotels showcased their approach to automation, having consolidated dozens of systems into an ecosystem that utilises open API technology, allowing them to easily integrate and share data in real time – handling almost all stages of the guest experience.

From guests having their room key delivered to a smartphone before they arrive, to asking questions of an in-room Alexa (Amazon’s voice operated virtual assistant), Village Hotel’s guest experience is now very different.

But does different = better?

We caught up with their Commercial Director, Rob Paterson to hear more:

Rob Paterson Village HotelsConsolidating dozens of systems into a new data sharing ecosystem is no mean feat, I’m sure a lot of hoteliers would love to know – just how and where did you start?

The process of truly understanding our full technology cost base was the first step in this journey. That’s not always apparent as various license & subscription costs for applications can sit in different parts of the P&L depending on what purpose they serve and which area of the business owns that cost. Once we truly understood the annual spend of infrastructure, licenses & subscriptions we knew what we were able to work towards and find savings alongside improved performance.

And what about compliance? How did you ensure systems and payment platforms were secure? Are they adaptable to future regulation change – for example, GDPR which is looming on every hoteliers horizon for 2018?

We had the support of some very good people involved to achieve this very early on. Once we had drawn a schematic of the desired architecture and applications we engaged a 3rd party specialising in this space to ensure we were in the right direction and on the good side of imminent GDPR regulations. To keep it cost efficient we didn’t bring in fully certified consultants until we had satisfied ourselves we were fit for purpose.

On the system itself, what’s the uptake been like? Have you found any resistance from guests to things like automated check in?

We took the decision to reconfigure our lobbies entirely and replace the traditional reception desk with a square shaped kiosk and 4 check in points and that helped transition the customer journey to a different approach for check in. Our strategy that suited Village Hotels was not to remove the personalisation and actually improve on it so we have hosts permanently in the lobby that welcome our guests and look for anyone that might not be comfortable with self check in. We also offer mobile phone check in 48 hours before arrival and keyless bluetooth room access however this only represents just over 10% of check ins. There are still the occasional polarised view on automation but at scale our check in & check out scores have improved from being one of our lowest scores on survey to our 2 highest scores so it is very well received by our guests not having to line up and be completely frictionless.

And what about the traditional feedback channels, has it impacted guest satisfaction and your performance on review sites like TripAdvisor?

In parallel to the technology transformation we have invested almost £40m in transforming the product as well so we have seen improvements on the online review sites for a few factors. Naturally that makes it less easy to pin this down to technology given they’re mostly unstructured reviews. That said, like many hotels today we also use an online reputation management system and we can see positive movement attributed to arrival & welcome so all in all its been well received.

Of course, the commercials need to stack up on a project like this too – has Village Hotels managed to make the numbers work?

Commercially its been a very successful project with much higher ROI’s than any physical investment. There are many benefits both direct and indirect. Licensing, support & infrastructure alone achieved a big saving to the bottom line but we also have a far more modern and dynamic platform that allows greater flexibility and ability to optimise our business topline.

Have you managed to pass on any operational savings to guest? Or, has automation helped you maintain and improve competitiveness within the market?

We define ourselves as affordable lifestyle hotels as we offer a lot of high quality leisure & dining facilities within the building. Having a more efficient cost base allows us to maintain and even build on our value proposition which is important for the brand and keeping our bottom line moving forward. We rely on high volumes of happy guests to feed those facilities and the tech platform allows us to be creative in achieving that goal.

Do you think automation has helped you to compete on a more level playing field with OTAs when it comes to data capture and better understanding your guests?

I can’t say we’ve seen any material difference in our channel mix to support that however our marketable database certainly has moved in a very positive direction. A fresh, innovative brand means more people want to hear from us and that has very positive impacts for us naturally.

Finally, having introduced such a high level of automation within your business, what’s your position on the thought that automation detracts from the human interaction aspect so inherent with hospitality?

Its a total misconception. It is all in the chosen delivery of the service and that’s going to differ from brand to brand. For example in a high end boutique brand the adoption of automation to take care of the back office processes and free the reception team to focus on an amazing personal arrival is a big addition to customer care. Not being behind a desk focused on a computer or PDQ device is a big benefit to the service delivery. Its really up to each brand to determine what journey makes sense and build the automation around that journey to take care of the administrative tasks. Automation of back office, open API products etc work for all categories of hotels.

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