Data hub6 January 2021
Even in the age of ubiquitous Wi-Fi and cloud-based software solutions, many hotels have yet to fulfil their data-gathering potential. In the age of Covid-19, however, many hoteliers are monitoring and analysing data like never before, enabling data scientists to fulfil a more prominent role in the industry. Jim Banks speaks to leading IT experts from the hotel sector about using data to create change.
Data is the new oil. Easy to collect and store, constantly fluid and versatile, it can drive enormous value in any industry – and hospitality is no exception. A vast interconnected web of information, anything digital has a data point and, when linked together, those points create a roadmap to better service, greater efficiency and more personalisation. As the industry reels from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the need to mine that topography is more important than ever. After all, when so many changes are required to achieve social distancing and guest safety, every tool must be put to work to build a safe environment for guests, while supporting the personalised and welcoming service on which hotels depend.
“Undoubtedly, this has been a challenging year for the industry,” says Bryan Hammer, vice-president of IT at luxury hotel chain Belmond. “However, for many organisations, including ours, it has accelerated and expanded our internal innovation systems, and this is clearly a positive when it comes to technical solutions.
“As the world of travel begins to resume, the most important battle for brands to win is the guest experience,” he adds. “The right technological platforms – ones that allow your company to adapt quickly in an ever-changing global environment – are vital weapons for winning this battle.”
In its favour, the hospitality sector is rich in systems that collect data on guests and their preferences. Collection is only half the battle, however. Increasingly, the challenge is to bring together the data that lies in property management systems (PMS), customer relationship management (CRM) solutions and myriad other platforms. “The industry’s ownership model is fragmented, so there are many systems for gathering information, which results in silos of data,” says Carl Weldon, CEO for Hospitality Financial and Technology Professionals (HFTP) in Europe. “There are websites, CRM and billing systems, revenue management systems and many other places, so there are front-office and back office data silos.”
Calls for change
The goals of integrating valuable data streams are clear in the wake of Covid-19 – safety, hygiene, booking flexibility and effective communication with guests. Beyond collecting data, hotel chains such as Belmond and Netherlands-based brand citizenM are deploying sophisticated analytics to monitor, among other things, booking trends and changes in online customer behaviour to enable better forecasting of shifting market demands.
“Covid has forced a level of disruption on the hotel industry – and the world – not seen in a hundred years,” says Mike Rawson, CIO of citizenM. “The outcome is that the industry has been pressured into mandatory innovation to survive. Contactless, for example, forced many hotels to do in months what normally would have taken years.
“Without a contactless offering, guests simply would not feel safe and therefore would not stay, and staff would have legitimate health and safety concerns,” he adds. “Hotel chains with separate PMS, CRM and on-premise systems will face significant challenges to present a unified guest experience.”
CitizenM’s market offering is dependent on deploying the latest technology. Its hotels feature automated self-check-in, for example, and its citizenM app relies on unified, real-time guest data to create a guest experience that is as frictionless as possible. Some hotels might rely on local workarounds and manual systems, rather than complete systems integration, but Rawson believes that only adds to what he calls their “technical debt”, rather than positioning their systems for the future. CitizenM itself has deployed fit-for-purpose, point-to-point solutions and then unifies those data streams through a data warehouse or customer data platform (CDP).
“With fewer travellers and therefore a more competitive market, knowing your customer is more important than ever,” says Rawson. “Acquisition of customers is expensive, a cost that right now no one wants to carry, not least because of suppressed rates. As such, tribal levels of loyalty are critical for the level of repeat business they bring.”
“Without a doubt, hotels need to do more work, though not specifically within the PMS,” adds Matthew Bell, citizenM’s director of hotel operations, Europe. “Very rarely do hotels have a golden profile for customers against which they can truly understand their lifetime value. Customer profiles and data are fragmented across multiple on-property systems or across multiple properties, so building a true picture of the customer is incredibly difficult. And then there is the question of how to truly use that data to add meaningful value to the guest.”
It is here that hotels may need to look beyond their systems, be it the PMS or the CRM, to not only collate their data but to derive insight from it that will enhance their business. For citizenM, the CDP is the technological aspect, but there, and in other brands, it is the data scientist that often makes the difference.
The science of data
In an age where our work and personal lives create an endlessly mineable digital pattern that can be of great value to providers of goods and services, hospitality has long sought to emulate Amazon and company. Understanding patterns of guest behaviour has enabled hotels to create opportunities to check in prior to arrival, prebook other services, set the room to a specific temperature, tailor media content and much more. Customer data, when used well, can put the guest in control. “Big data helps us to provide an effortlessly seamless service and personalised guest experience,” says Hammer. “These things are always important when you operate at the top end of the luxury market, and increasingly so during this time when safety, hygiene and privacy requirements are paramount.
“A quick example would be allergies,” he adds. “If a guest has a dairy intolerance, for instance, having the right information properly recorded and stored can allow our employees around the world to know that non-dairy alternatives should be stocked or offered to guests. It is all about pre-empting the guest’s needs and consistently delivering hyper-personalised experiences.”
The industry’s digital evolution is one of the biggest changes to take place in the hospitality sector in recent years. From social media to online travel agents, it has reshaped every aspect of the market. Where once hotels primarily looked to recruit diligent and charismatic souls with bags of industry experience, they are now hiring specialists with the skills to harness the abundance of data, analyse it and put it to work. “At Belmond, we have a great data scientist on the team, and the information and analytics they can already provide is invaluable,” Hammer notes. “While still in its early stages, our goal is to increase Belmond’s data science capabilities exponentially in the next year.” Traditionally, the archetypal data scientist is an integral, if inconspicuous member of a hotel team; there to ensure that data is as unified as possible and can deliver actionable information to improve services and make the guest journey as frictionless as possible. They put data at the centre of the business model to achieve personalisation at scale.
“How hotels collect data and present it is crucial to their future,” says Weldon. “Data scientists are certainly coming through in the industry. In fact, one hotelier told me that he used to hire hoteliers and explain data to them. Now, he hires data analysts and explains the hotel industry to them.”
The fight for the future
For some hotel brands, survival takes precedence over investing in change. Others, however, are able to take a longer-term view on investment. Data management, and the skills of data professionals, could be high on their shopping list.
“As challenging as periods such as these can be, it is important that companies do not lose sight of their long-term strategic goals,” Hammer remarks. “At Belmond, investments in our technology structure underpin our plans for future growth. So, we have maintained our investment in critical IT systems and development projects that have long been planned and, in some cases, certain investments have been fast-tracked. “Moments of low occupancy, or even closure, are often the best time to implement otherwise disruptive IT projects,” he adds.
Widely regarded for its forward-thinking focus on digitalisation, citizenM’s business model relies on looking three to five years ahead. It, too, sees the current period as an opportunity to focus on personalisation at scale. “We see hotel chains with different business models struggle to introduce new features consistently as the data is fragmented, out of date or inaccurate,” says Bell. “Data unification and accuracy should be a very high baseline priority to enable more sophisticated strategies.”
Weldon puts it in ever starker terms. “The pandemic has created a warfare technology scenario,” he says. “Technology always develops faster in a time of war. Operators have the time to look at their systems and at how to integrate data silos. Our industry is low-tech in a way, but now it has an opportunity to stop, listen and learn.” As the industry fights to survive, it cannot afford to miss the opportunity to use data in transforming the guest experience.