Hand in hand with the recently completed £10m renovation on its six hotels, Hastings Hotels have placed greater emphasis than ever before on new technologies to meet growing customer expectations. With the much-anticipated arrival of Northern Ireland’s largest hotel, the Grand Central, Eir Business NI caught up with Pamela Shaw, Group Revenue Manager, to see what they’ve been up and the role technology plays in their operations as a leading hotel group in Northern Ireland.
The human element is possibly more important in the hospitality industry than in any other. Is digital technology transforming this?
Digital technology is absolutely transforming our business but we need to strike a balance when it comes to the guest experience. The human element is crucial. Today there are unmanned hotels, or self-service hotels, where the only people are the guests who are serviced by robots or kiosks. At Hastings Hotels, I can’t see us becoming totally human-free anytime soon. Yet our customers have become more tech savvy, more tech demanding, which means we have to embrace technology to keep up. Be it a leisure traveller, a business traveller or a conference organiser, secure networks and superfast Wi-Fi are all becoming must-haves.
How has technology most benefitted the hotel guest experience so far?
Quite simply, customers want a more responsive service, they want convenience – for instance, they want lightning-fast booking confirmation. And they want to be able to make that booking via a channel that suits them, which is increasingly mobile. We’ve had to respond to that and make our booking engine mobile friendly, and that’s not just that it looks good on a mobile screen, but that it’s more streamlined and the process can be completed in one or two clicks. Customers also want a personalised service and we’ve been able to improve on that by sharing of data across all our locations so that we are better informed about our guests’ past visits and preferences.
The hotel industry has access to an incredibly rich pool of customer data. What are the biggest challenges and opportunities in this area?
The biggest challenge is protecting that data and ensuring you are using it correctly, particularly as we look to GDPR. When it comes to opportunities, targeted marketing and building customer relationships are the two key areas for us. We can create highly targeted packages for specific groups of customers. We can deliver geo-specific email marketing campaigns for our leisure centres for example. For us, the data allows us to be smarter and more in tune with our guests across our hotels.
Technology is about adding real value. Where has it had most notable impact on your business?
While this might not sound exciting we’re making real savings by linking key kitchen equipment and utilities like heating and electricity to a central portal where we can monitor and manage usage and costs. We can also use that portal to switch off particular machines or heating systems remotely. It’s IoT in practice. For a hotel group like Hastings, having that real-time overview of heating and electricity usage is invaluable. It has helped us to streamline our costs and give us control. The advanced networking technology has been critical to guarantee this information is up-to-the-minute and always-on.
Which technology investment is the Hastings Group making the most of this year?
Firstly, Cloud. Over the years we’ve migrated many of our critical apps to the cloud, from the customer database to our office apps and email. Having our customer database in the cloud ensures that we ‘know’ our customers across our hotel estate: if a regular customer from one of our hotels stays at another of our hotels, the front of house can see that information and use it to build that relationship. Secondly, a Managed Network. With all our hotels now connected to just one server over a secure managed network we have been able to consolidate and streamline much of our overheads. For instance, where once we had to have three air conditioning units operating constantly in the comms room, we now have just one. Rather than having 6 disparate telephony systems, we now have a centralised IP telephony and contact centre solution. All this has dramatically reduced hardware and the associated operational costs.
And looking to the future, what does technology success look like?
I am pleased to say we have now created the technology capability that will help us continue on our path of success. We have embarked on a cloud and digital transformation that is working, embracing smart data and smart infrastructure. It will support business expansion and provides a solid foundation our 7th hotel, Grand Central. Success for me would be that we continue to use and build on that platform, improving the guest experience and operational efficiency as we grow.
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Kevin McAteer is Business Development Manager at eir Business NI, networking partner for Hastings Hotels. You can connect with Kevin on LinkedIn or find out more about the solutions from eir Business NI on LinkedIn or on Twitter.