CIO interview: Fergus Boyd, vice-president for digital, Yotel

The fast-growing international hotel chain sees digital technology as central to its offering and expansion plans

Hotel chain Yotel is driving a transformation of its underlying systems and adopting a “digital first” strategy to further develop sales and improve internal operations.

Leading the strategy is Fergus Boyd, the company’s vice-president for digital. A veteran of the travel industry, Boyd has years of experience in senior IT roles in the sector, which include launching British Airways’ first on-board internet services, and an open innovation initiative with UK innovation charity Nesta to collaborate with Virgin Atlantic customers to design new services.

Since joining the firm a couple of years ago, Boyd has put a strategy in place at Yotel that is focused on developing the group’s pipeline to have 50 hotels by 2020. To that end, the legacy IT systems that supported the business are being replaced by new platforms.

“We believe it’s imperative that the platform and systems we are investing in now can grow with us. As a result we are avoiding traditional, hospitality-centric systems and instead opting for light touch, cloud-based products, which complement our BYOD [bring your own device] philosophy,” Boyd tells Computer Weekly.

“We firmly believe the technology platforms we are investing in now will be crucial in the drive to future cost savings and revenue. Chiefly, we aim to continue to deliver great guest service, as this is at the heart of what we do, while our infrastructure and systems ensure that we facilitate everything guests need during their stay.”

Keeping IT “lean and light”

Boyd says the mantra for Yotel’s IT is to keep assets simple and less complex to manage. The result is a portfolio that is largely composed of software-as-a-service (SaaS) products, with Microsoft Office and Outlook 365 at the core. In addition, the company uses a cloud-based intranet from Jostle as a hub for staff communications.

Imminent deployments include other cloud platforms such as ExactTarget, a digital marketing product from Salesforce.com that will be used for guest-facing email communications, and an open-source content management system from Umbraco.

Yotel uses Oracle Opera as a property management system for its New York hotel and a product provided by startup StaynTouch for its bookable by-the-hour airport hotels at London Heathrow, London Gatwick and Amsterdam Schiphol.

The StaynTouch system, as well as self-service kiosks, will be rolled out at a new 80-suite property at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, which will be launched in June 2016. Boyd will also be working on having IT in place in a new 600-cabin hotel on Orchard Road in Singapore, which will open at the end of 2016.

“We will keep our overall proposition lean and light, focusing on investing in new technologies that will help deliver on what our customers need – a seamless guest experience,” says Boyd.

Fergus Boyd, Yotel

“As a technology-focused brand, a key part of our business strategy is to place technology at the heart of our expansion and to upscale our digital presence”

Fergus Boyd, Yotel

For 2016, other projects will focus on further developing the company’s digital-first mindset. Achievements so far include the launch of a responsive website in April 2015 – which converts sales up to 20% better than before, with direct web contribution having almost doubled to more than 30% of the company’s global revenue – as well as a mobile app, which acts as a personal concierge for the company’s New York City hotel.

The hotel chain has also developed its own application programming interfaces (APIs) that enable sharing of room rates and inventory with travel meta-search engines such as Kayak and Trivago. Boyd says this widens the company’s audience reach and Yotel is seeing “excellent returns”.

Other projects include the implementation of a central reservations system from Sabre Synxis, which will be in place by mid-2016 to help the company distribute its inventory more effectively.

Upscaling digital

Yotel wants to continue to grow direct digital sales, so enhanced distribution platforms are needed, as well as the ability to communicate through sophisticated customer relationship management (CRM) tools and e-marketing. To that end, Yotel will also introduce a CRM platform later in 2016.

“As a technology-focused brand, a key part of our business strategy is to place technology at the heart of our expansion and to upscale our digital presence,” says Boyd.

An example of this is the company’s investment in conversion rate optimisation. Yotel has implemented Maxymiser, a multivariate testing tool supplied by Oracle which can test the entire multi-channel customer journey. According to Boyd, the plan is to use this tool to continually tune and optimise the company’s site.

Yotel also places a lot of effort on social media as an effective channel to reach guests and is very active on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Boyd says this initiative pays its way, as the company’s sales via social are “significant”.

“We use online survey tools to keep monitoring the heartbeat of our audience. All guests who visit our properties are invited to respond on their stay, plus we use the traditional tools such as TripAdvisor to hear from our guests,” he says.

“We are still nimble enough to get things done in an agile way and we have no formal committees, meaning we are freer to respond to guest’s feedback. Project owners collaborate with key stakeholders and things get done in an effective manner.”

Data also has an important role to play in the hotel chain’s IT strategy. Boyd is leading a large business intelligence project which will give Yotel a view of all key financial and operational insights.

“Our new central reservations system will give us a global view of our hotel inventory and pricing as we develop. We don’t yet need our own loyalty programme, but one may come as we scale,” he says.

Keep the human touch

Other innovations being introduced at Yotel in the coming months include mobile-key enabled locks using Bluetooth Low Energy, so that tech-savvy guests can go straight to their cabins without needing to check-in at the front desk.

“We will, however, keep our human touch by complementing any fast-track journey with our round-the-clock reception service, although this may become more of a roving, hosted service,” says Boyd.

“We aim to be a sustainable company, so our product designers are constantly looking for low-power, efficient technologies in our hotels and cabins. For example, we are exploring the use of transparent concrete to let natural light into the hotel.”

Read more interviews with CIOs in the hospitality sector

Despite having several partners that help deliver the IT that underpins its operations, the global team delivering the technology and digital initiatives is composed of only four people, while the flagship New York hotel has its own team. The department will grow this year to aid work going into the new hotel openings.

Boyd says the main challenge he faces as a leader in a fast-changing and highly competitive sector is to manage tight budgets, as well as retaining talent and developing good in-house expertise.

“We have a very aggressive growth plan for the company, so keeping up with that and the pace of change of new technology will be key to success,” he says.

“In the next 12 months, we hope we will have a robust CRM system in place with personalised, targeted and effective communications. We also hope to have a highly tuned and optimised digital presence, with world-class photo and video content to enhance this, boosting our SEO [search engine optimisation] and, in doing so, reduce paid search costs.

“We want a streamlined, low-maintenance internal IT infrastructure with most platforms moved to a cloud/hosted environment. And, of course, our Paris and Singapore hotels will be open and buzzing.”

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