Village Hotels is a UK-based hotel group with 31 properties, known for integrating a high-tech approach into a seamless guest experience.
We sat down (virtually, of course) with Jon Davis, CTO of Village Hotels to chat about their efforts in reacting to the various lockdowns throughout the UK. He talked about how they leverage technology to be more operationally flexible and ensure not only a safe guest experience but an exceptional one.
Can you start by telling us about Village Hotels?
Village Hotels is a UK-based hotel group with 31 properties in the UK, with our most recent opening in Basingstoke in 2019. We had planned pre-COVID to have a total of 50 hotels by 2025 and that is still the goal. We have plans to open three more hotels next year and continue growth through 2022 and 2023. It’s a difficult time, but we are confident the market will bounce back and we want to be in a strong position when it does.
As CTO, what is your company’s philosophy about working with technology?
Pre-COVID, we were already on the cutting edge in terms of online experience and booking journey. We were one of the first hotels to have check-in kiosks and have been doing that for six years. Now we’re looking at how to further develop our tech stack to make the guest experience more efficient. Guests have different wants and we have to be aware of that. Myself as a guest might want a fully contactless experience, whereas a couple visiting for a leisure break on the weekend might want a more traditional experience, meeting someone at the front desk rather than relying on their smartphone.
“We’ve had 220,000 [direct booking] members in just six weeks.”
Just before lockdown, we added mobile check-in and key-delivery to our guest-facing app. These added features enable our guests to order room service, talk to reception and have access to special offers, all from the same app that they use for their room key. Pre-COVID, we saw this as a big step forward and during COVID these additions became even more relevant. We have an A.I. chatbot integrated in there as well to answer any questions. Last year we had a big tech year with a new PMS and CRS, new event booking tool, new business intelligence and reporting platform. We’re using our partnership with Google in using GCP for our data and their DialogFlow solution to automate a lot of our incoming calls and online chat. We use that to process information quickly but also have the human element – trying to take care of the general questions and answer these efficiently and quickly. We’re using tech to drive efficiencies during lockdown.
Another initiative we have worked on is with Volara and Google Nest. We’re going to be the first hotel chain in the UK to have Google Nest for in-room functions, taking away the need to have a physical phone in each room and using the ever improving voice activated technology so prevalent in homes. We already have Alexa in three of our properties and it’s been pretty successful. We are big Google Cloud and G-Suite users so we’ve been very keen to build on the Google relationship and be the first in the UK to do that.
What were some of the other initiatives you took in reaction to COVID and the lockdown?
One of the big initiatives during lockdown was that we wanted to have a quicker booking experience, so we came up with our Booking Revolution scheme. When a guest books direct they get different offers like free WiFi, parking, access to our B-Work meeting spaces, gym offers, etc., driving the direct booking connection. The Booking Revolution has been really cool. We’ve had 225,000 members in just six weeks.
We were keen to show our loyal customers that we had taken massive measures to ensure everything is sanitized and secure. We wanted to make sure that the experience was so good that when they came, they’d not only feel safe but have an amazing experience.
As part of our ongoing automation strategy, we moved to an AI-based call center. Using Google Dialogflow and our partnership with Mitel, the chatbot and voice AI has allowed us to be flexible in how our call centre can react and manage the constant changes in our business environment. Having the cloud-based solution has meant we can be flexible in allowing agents to work from home, reducing the impact COVID has on the operation.
What impact has COVID had on your business?
It was a pretty steep learning curve when the first lockdown happened. No one had ever been through this before, having to stop the operation completely across the group. We were very conscious that we wanted to ensure our customers and staff were safe. We had a very open cancellation policy and rebook policy and wanted to ensure we were accessible for our guests to contact us. That was the start– moving events and bookings to other times or cancelling them, meetings but also weddings. We were very open and honest with customers, trying to be as flexible as possible.
The first few weeks were extremely difficult not just ensuring our customers were looked after, but moving from having 31 properties to then having a team of people that all were home workers. It was challenging for the IT team. I think everyone assumed we would be working for a three-month period in terms of the impact of lockdown. We took the opportunity to change some of the operations and also our online booking journey. We won’t ever – hopefully – get this amount of time where the hotel and central operation is closed for this long, so we thought, “What can we do with this time that we have?” We developed our Booking Revolution program from concept to delivery and in six weeks after re-opening we had 220,000 members. So that was very rewarding.
What do you see as the main operational challenges right now?
It’s hard for us as an industry at the moment. Hospitality in general relies on forecasting massively. Having the ability to accurately know your sales and costs two, three, four weeks in advance is what we build our models from, and now we’re looking ahead only one, two, or three days, with constant changes. England, Wales, and Scotland, each have different methods for lockdown that we have to adhere to, and any of them can change at any time.
We’re in a position now where we think, “Let’s see what happens and be able to react.” It puts the hotels in a difficult position, but we knew there would be ups and downs. Our operations team have been amazing at ensuring the business is ready to change at the drop of a hat. It’s very important that we’re adhering to government guidelines even though it’s sometimes within two hours that we need to be ready, so flexibility is extremely important.
And where do you see your business headed in the future?
The leisure market has come back quickly and much stronger than expected. On reopening we were encouraged by seeing a lot of leisure business coming through the doors. There was a real bounce back for our leisure-oriented properties almost immediately around the backend of August. We were encouraged by this and it gave us hope that October and November would be OK, and now we’re doing more business than we expected.
We see tech as being a real driving force behind getting business back safely. We want to make sure both guests and staff feel as safe as possible when they are with us, we have our temperature check stations, contactless check in and check out, safe F&B operations, secure working spaces so we are confident in the work we have carried out. What has changed in the last five months has changed expectations and put health and safety at the forefront.
If someone chooses to stay with us, it’s a show of trust, and we need to be aware of that and ensure we meet extremely high standards we set ourselves. I think in the UK we’ll see different stages of restrictions by region for at least the next three months, impacting the Christmas period. It will be very difficult for a lot of businesses as Christmas is when a majority of income is made. Village Hotels are still driving forward with our growth and expansion plans. I think we’ll see that people want to come back and that they’re ready to travel, but the uncertainty makes it difficult. Once we get the curve flattened and make people feel safer and that they can rely on safe travel, we will see a solid uptick across the industry.
Note: Since the original publication of this interview, the U.K. re-entered another lockdown for all non-essential businesses due to state of the current international pandemic.
With a career starting in the operations side of the hospitality industry, and a deep knowledge of technology, Jon quickly learned that bringing the two disciplines together could bring massive business benefit.
As the current CTO at Village Hotel Club, Jon continues to change the way Hotels harnesses technology to drive efficiencies while at the same time improving the guest experience.