The strategic host

Technology is facilitating many changes in the hospitality industry. And, as Computer Weekly discovers, the IT director of a...

Technology is facilitating many changes in the hospitality industry. And, as Computer Weekly discovers, the IT director of a multinational hospitality retailer has to pull a lot of levers

These are busy times for Mike Fisher, IT director at Six Continents Retail, but he is used to it. The IT department he has presided over for the past nine years has had to accommodate many changes in the business.

Six Continents is the new name for what was Bass Breweries. The sale of the brewing business and trademark to Belgian company Interbrew earlier this year marked the final step in the refocusing of the group from a brewer to a leading international hospitality retailer.

This meant the company had to adopt a new name and identity. With the Holiday Inn, Post House, Crown Plaza and Inter-Continental hotel chains under its control, "the name Six Continents was chosen to reflect what is now a truly global business", says Fisher.

But while the hotel division has been hived off, Fisher, as head of the IT function of Six Continents Retail, is still responsible for an IT strategy that encompasses more than 2,100 pubs, bars and restaurants in the UK and Germany. If you have ever raised a glass in All Bar One, O'Neills, Ember Inn or Harvester - you have Fisher to thank.

He says the firm's strategy is based on developing excellent brands, churning a portfolio of premium sites and having low cost, excellent support in the back office. Fisher says IT contributes a great deal to all these areas.

Central to his strategy is the outsourcing of much of the IT infrastructure. The company's decision to outsource its datacentre to IBM earlier this year was a vital step along this path.

The 10-year, £38m deal builds on an existing relationship where IBM already provides a managed service for the shop infrastructure - the tills and pub servers and maintenance.

"Unless it is a technology swap, the decision to outsource must be strategic," says Fisher. "The real drivers must be understood, not just for IT, but how it will benefit business. It is the drivers that are important, not cost savings."

He describes the cost savings from outsourcing the datacentre, "£200,000 on a £4m budget", as nominal and says that one factor was the need to consolidate the datacentre onto one platform managed by one contractor.

Development of staff and access to new skill sets were also major reasons. "I felt we didn't really have vital skills in-house to take the company forward," he says. "I'm talking about people with technical B2B Internet skills who also understand how to move the business to the Internet.

"Also Six Continents and Bass have a culture of keeping people. There are a few people in my department with more than 20 years service. They needed a challenge."

Fisher says he was impressed with the way IBM accepted its responsibilities under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) rules and says the supplier made an effort to win people over. He is now talking to several companies, IBM included, about outsourcing a third function - the telecommunications systems. But what does that leave in-house?

"The determination of IT strategy must always stay in-house as must the development of project management," says Fisher. "The analysis is also central to the business - that is the defining of requirements and seeking of solutions."

When purchasing, he says he will always choose a software package over a bespoke solution, "because you can be sure that a package has been thoroughly tested and more man-years have gone into it".

Fisher goes on to say that IT is instrumental in facilitating the way the Six Continent Retail's business model is changing with strategy. "The pub landscape is changing," he says. "We are now in a branded game - it is as much to do with fashion as brewing. We are segmenting the market and creating brands that match segmentations."

Under the old Bass strategy, the pub manager could set prices to suit local conditions and would decide which drinks were stocked. He acted as a local entrepreneur in a micro-market.

"As we move to a more branded pub, we have a template. Local differences are less important. IT is fundamental in centralising business processes from the till prices to the stocking policy," he says.

This shift has seen Fisher supervise the replacement of a batch-processing system with a real-time browser-based network where every site has an ISDN line.

"Now all 2,100 sites can be seen from one point. Management costs are reducing, while the bar managers are out front with customers - not administering the business at the back."

Fisher says he has never had a problem approaching business people in the companies he has worked. "I feel no sympathy for managers who say that IT is undervalued," he continues. "It is the obligation of the IT person to speak to the business not vice-versa. He must talk the language of the business, talk numbers and contribute."

As a member of best practice organisation the Research Project, Fisher says he has gained knowledge of a technical and commercial nature from networking. "I can't think of another industry where people - sometimes direct competitors - share knowledge. It's like the freemasons. "Everyone has the same access to technology but it is the quality of management and implementation that are the real differentiators."

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