It’s true: There are many technological advantages of being part of a hotel brand, but there’s also something to be said for the agility enjoyed by independent hotels and small collections of boutique properties. For Mark Rupert Read, Director of IT for boutique hotel-focused Firmdale Hotels, that agility makes all the difference in the world.
Firmdale operates eight hotels in Central London and two hotels in New York. Since the properties are independent, it’s up to Read and his team to devise and execute the company’s holistic tech strategy, relying heavily on vendor partnerships. Rather than being a hindrance, this approach allows Firmdale to nimbly react to both new demands and solutions, keeping the company at the digital forefront.
Known for his hotelier-first perspectives on IT, Read employs a seasoned, measured stance when evaluating his company’s tech. Firmdale’s lack of brand affiliations -- which means its hotels aren’t locked into any specific, corporate-mandated solutions -- enables Read to choose the best vendors and products for the company’s needs, every time.
We recently caught up with Read at HT-Next 2019 in New Orleans, where he shared his insight on Firmdale’s approach to hotel technology development and implementation, with the ultimate goal of enhancing the guest experience:
Q: We hear a lot about the guest booking process and the friction it creates. Do you see technology helping to removing that friction in the guest journey?
A: It should. That's what it's all there for. We wouldn't put technology into the booking process for any other reason other than to make sure the guest journey with us is as frictionless as possible. The goal is to make it simple and intuitive, really; don’t ask ridiculous questions, just make it easy to book.
Q: At Firmdale, how do you put all of your tech together? Do you outsource or develop in-house?
A: We're quite a simple organization. We buy shrink-wrapped technology, basically off the shelf. I wouldn't really develop any technology within the company. It's a nightmare to manage and update. But we will work with innovators; if someone has a good idea for us, we'll look at what they’re doing and how, and whether we can customize it to work with Firmdale. So it's a bit like, “Show me your wheel, and then I’ll show you how the wheel turns in Firmdale.”
Q: How does that approach compare to building technology for a brand?
A: A brand is a lot different, because they're normally much bigger than us. We’re much more agile in working with suppliers and trying to convert them to do the things that we would like to do in our way. For a brand, there are a lot more moving parts, so I'm thankful I work for a smaller company, where we can make decisions fast.
Q: When evaluating technology vendors, what are some of the most important questions to ask?
A: What problem is the technology solving? Is it a fit for the business? You have to explain yourself to vendors so they understand what need they’re trying to meet, while also asking them about recent developments within the product. To see what features they're adding, ask, “What has been your product development over the last year?” It’s also useful to ask where their direction is, and what they are planning on doing for the next 12 to 18 months. This will help you get a sense of how that organization is working and where it sees its focus. If that aligns with where you’re going, sign the deal.
Q: Do you prefer long-term contracts with vendors, or shorter agreements?
A: I never sign an agreement for more than 12 months, because it means that in months eight and nine, that company’s coming back to us and asking for the business again, and they've got to prove why we should do the deal again. If you're signing a five-year agreement, or even a three-year agreement, there's a long lag time. So no way: One year and that's it. Maximum.
Q: One issue with using multiple vendors is making sure all of those systems are integrated and talk with each other. How can we keep improving and evolving those integrations?
A: Working with Hospitality Technology Next Generation (HTNG), adopting their standards, is fairly key to that. Having open APIs is really essential, as integration is the point. We've recently undertaken a project where we were bringing 38 databases of information into one point. We still have those 38 entry points, but we now have one view of the guest through our CRM system that manages all of that. So you're gonna have to accept that you're going to have many systems involved; it's just taking that information and putting it into one central point.
Q: In the past you’ve mentioned using a “service bus.” Can you walk me through what that is and how it works?
A: Basically, rather than connecting your systems point-to-point, you’re connecting into one box. It's almost like having a data lake, where all information is shared and each interface is just pulling out the bits of information it wants, and it's not reliant on one system. So if one system stops within that ecosystem, every other system is going to continue to work. I see this as the way going forward to deliver better services.
Q: How do you see revenue management technology evolving?
A: Revenue management used to be taking a bit of data from various sources and putting it together, giving you a decision once a day that you were putting into your PMS system. It’s much more now: You're taking-in data all of the time, coming from everywhere. We're talking about using some of that data within our CRM system, for example, to offer customized pricing, so that when people are using an OTA, we can go back to them and say, "We can make a customized price for you” and not upset the OTA in the process. That's what I see as being key for revenue management; it's actually taking that information and doing something with it.
Q: Do you see the job of the revenue manager getting any easier?
A: No, not really. It's always been a real challenge in that position. It's giving people access to that data, and then someone's gotta make a reasonable decision on it. So it’s adding as many points as you can get into that data, and then saying to the revenue manager, “Make a decision on that.” Then, you go with it.