CIO interview: Lee Cowie, chief technology officer, Merlin Entertainments
The theme park giant faced an enormous challenge during Covid with its venues closed, but digital technology came to the rescue and is now opening up new opportunities
Lee Cowie, chief technology officer (CTO) at Merlin Entertainments, chats about technology leadership responsibilities in front of a giant picture of superhero Iron Man. It’s a vivid reminder of the kind of company he works for and a visual clue to his feelings about his role.
“I get a real buzz from working on something that is relatable,” he says. “That’s what gets me out of bed each morning and that’s why I took the role. It’s like the ultimate job for me. I am a big kid at heart. I just love what we do. No day ever really feels like working for me.”
Cowie is leading a tech-enabled business transformation at Merlin, the world’s second-largest operator of family entertainment destinations. It runs a range of resorts, hotels and attractions, including Legoland, Sea Life aquariums, Warwick Castle and Alton Towers. He joined the company from Ericsson in 2017, becoming CTO in January 2020.
“I started my career in insurance as a graduate years ago,” he says. “I thought at the time that insurance was great – everybody’s always going to need insurance, so the job is safe and this is going to be lovely. But it’s really hard to relate to selling insurance policies. And the thing about this job is that it’s really relatable.”
Implementing technology change
Cowie, who reports to chief financial officer Alistair Windybank, is responsible for the global technology strategy at Merlin. He is leading a programme of technology projects that are aiming to change the company for the better.
“I run all products globally,” he says. “That encompasses pretty much everything you would find in a normal company – your corporate IT, your ERP [enterprise resource planning] systems and your back-office systems. It also encompasses the more guest-facing systems – our websites, our e-commerce platforms, the booking journey, the systems that take our hotel bookings and the in-park operational systems, whether that’s retail or digital signage.”
Some of Cowie’s key achievements include rolling out a global e-commerce project to 128 locations across 25 countries, implementing self-service checkout kiosks at Merlin venues around the world, and ongoing governance and control of a portfolio of more than 90 active international technology projects.
“People ask me what my job involves and I say it’s pretty much everything with a plug and a flashing light on it,” he says. “It’s a broad role and my team is scattered around the globe. We’ve got embedded engineers in some of our major attractions. We’ve got a big presence here in the UK, a big presence in the US, and teams in Europe and Asia-Pacific.”
Taking on new priorities
Cowie also recognises that being CTO, despite all the enjoyment and all his achievements so far, has not been an easy ride. When he assumed the role at the start of 2020, he had a “grand vision” for technology-enabled change. However, priorities shifted radically with the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I became CTO and then, two months later, the world collapsed,” he says. “In terms of a baptism of fire, I don’t think you could have had a much harsher introduction to being the CTO. But actually – and I think it’s something that a lot of a lot of industries have seen – necessity is the mother of invention.”
Lee Cowie, Merlin Entertainments
The need for reinvention at Merlin was greater than in many other businesses. Cowie says that, at one point during the pandemic, the company only had one attraction open across the globe. So, as well as shifting employees to remote working, Cowie and his technology colleagues had to work with the business to think about how they could spin up alternative business models.
“You really start digging deep to understand how technology can solve this problem. We had a massive, almost overnight, transition from office-space working to home-based working that we in technology had to enable at very short notice,” he says.
“We were looking at how do we establish new revenue streams. We were shut and we had virtually zero revenue coming in. So, we looked at rapidly establishing a dozen or so online e-commerce shops and selling memorabilia and fan items for our attractions. We spun them up in a matter of weeks.”
Improving back-end systems
While all this innovation took place, Cowie’s team also had a series of important technology projects to roll out, including updating and modernising Merlin’s back-end systems. One of these projects included the implementation of a new ERP system based on Oracle NetSuite.
The company recently added Oracle’s Micros Simphony point-of-sale system and Opera property management technology. Cowie says the aim of standardising on Oracle is to make it easier for Merlin to serve customers in a more personalised manner.
“We really want to use technology to augment our experience and make people feel special, so that next time they come back we can offer them a different perspective on the park. It’s all about how technology personalises experience, so next time it’s different to the last time and we give them another reason to come back,” he says.
Cowie says alignment around digital innovation meant Oracle came out top in “pretty much all” the areas that Merlin considered during its procurement exercise. While he says there are other good back-end systems on the market, Oracle covered the hard measures – such as price and technical measures – and also provided a good cultural fit.
“It was the integration piece,” he says. “When you look at the complexity of the Merlin business, with its hotels, restaurants and retail outlets, if you didn’t have a partner at the scale of Oracle, and the suite of technology it has, I would be spending all my time integrating and customising systems spread out across a really large geography – and it would be much harder if we weren’t partnering with Oracle.”
Boosting customer experiences
Cowie has continued to focus on innovative solutions to intractable business challenges as Merlin enters the post-Covid age. As its venues and hotels have reopened, so his team has had to think carefully about how technology can help to prioritise customer safety in a business model that is based around bringing people together.
“Obviously, we had some challenges coming out of Covid,” he says. “We looked at rapidly deploying mechanisms for ordering food on mobile devices, so that people didn’t need to join a queue for the food and we could deliver the food safely to them.”
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Cowie’s team also had to think about how to create a fair queuing system for rides when people weren’t physically present. The answer, he says, was a series of virtual queueing systems. They also looked at how to stagger people through various revenue-generating areas, such as restaurants and shops.
“Contactless technology became really important – how do we allow the guests to interact with us but feel safe? We put kiosks in and online-checking systems, so that people could check in safely from their mobile without needing to interact with us. It really was a period of extremely rapid innovation.”
Even more impressively, these technological solutions had to be spun up at the same time as the business was adopting new ways of working. Lockdown meant the IT team was unable to be in close proximity with each other. Cowie says social distancing meant they couldn’t have the kind of whiteboard moments that lead to sparks of inspiration and engagement. Instead, all of the IT team’s innovation was being pushed through remotely.
“We successfully navigated that journey and deployed some really good technology,” says Cowie. “Some of that technology was always in the plan but we just brought it forward really quickly. A lot of what we had to do through necessity has now become an integral part of the guest experience and will continue to evolve post-Covid into normal operations.”
Feeling the buzz
What’s interesting, therefore, is that extreme circumstances have led to fresh ways of serving customers through digital technology that not only might not have existed without the pandemic, but which are also likely to help create better experiences in the future.
“It gives you a real pause for reflection when things like that happen and it crystallises things. People come to attractions because they want a great immersive experience – they want to be in a physical environment, and that will always be the case. That’s what Merlin is about. But I think, increasingly, we’re seeing that technology, and digital technology in particular, can make that experience better,” says Cowie.
Lee Cowie, Merlin Entertainments
He says the company will provide access to additional features, such as gamifying the queue. Customers will join queues for rides and Merlin will create a digital experience through its mobile app and augmented reality technology that gives people the opportunity to experience another dimension as they wait.
“And I think increasingly, as we move forward, the goal for us is, how to stitch digital and physical worlds together,” says Cowie. “How do we engage our guests in a Merlin ecosystem that is all centred around the attraction but is augmented and enhanced by digital experiences and digital stories that persist after the visit and which are also connected to your next visit?”
Cowie concludes by returning to his original suggestion that the buzz he gets from leading technology at Merlin comes from helping his team to create improvements in a tangible way. He says it’s enjoyable to walk around the company’s attractions and see the difference that digital and data are making to the business and the customers it serves.
“We make the experience better, and I love just wandering around our attractions looking at where we’ve deployed some really interesting, really great tech, and seeing how it’s impacting people’s lives,” he says.