Data-Driven Hospitality

In hospitality, aggregated data is here to stay

D/SRUPTION spoke to Julien Ramakichenin, VP of Distribution and Integration Systems at AccorHotels about the value of diverse data in hospitality.

Demanding customers, competition from disruptive startups, and sustainability requirements have placed serious pressure on hoteliers. But by shifting the customer experience from linear to cyclical, major hotel companies can retain their market share and convince customers, quite literally, to stay.

Rethinking reservations

At French hospitality company AccorHotels, Ramakichenin and his team manage the central reservation system for around 4,800 hotels. This involves taking reservations, sending them to hotels, and processing payments. Increasingly, bookings come with personal information that can be used to tailor the customer’s stay, ranging from what kind of bed they would like to which activities they want to do during the trip. Providing personalisation relies on embedding vast amounts of data from local businesses within Accor’s central systems. Building the best customer experience depends on connections, partnerships, and sharing data with other organisations. This isn’t necessarily confined to kayaking companies or restaurants – sometimes, it can be as simple as connecting with a guests’ employer so that expenses claims can be sent. But, more often than not, legacy systems have struggled to cope with incremental data streams.

“It was quite difficult to scale the old system because you needed to keep buying bigger and bigger servers. That’s why we started a project called the Life Cycle of Booking, and looked at everything we could do once we had a reservation,” says Ramakichenin.

In the past, checking in could take a few minutes or so, but the Life Cycle of Booking cuts this to a matter of seconds. Having received a booking, the company uses the Life Cycle of Booking to look at what can be added to the reservation to meet the growing expectations of their guests. The same approach has been taken by Tink Labs, the makers of handy, a mobile based device built to enhance travel experiences.

“On an everyday basis, customers experience many great apps through their phones,” says Ramakichenin. “They want the same experience when they come to our hotels. They want to be able to check in and order room service using their phones. They want everything the moment they think about it,” he says. “We knew we needed to work with a new architecture streaming platform, and we discovered Apache Kafka.”

Apache Kafka provides companies with a unified platform for real time data flows. AccorHotels worked with Confluent, one of the main providers of enterprise-optimised Kafka services, to use the software most effectively. Eventually, AccorHotels aims to connect all of its hotels to the Kafka-based, Life Cycle of Booking solution. At the same time, Ramakichenin points out that it’s important not to lose the human touch.

“We also want to provide the human experience in the hotel so that when you come you feel you have someone who can help you if something goes wrong, or to tell you about interesting venues or events in the area. Technology is not the only answer – it’s really about the full experience.”

Riding the data train

Recognising the potential benefits of diverse data streams, and finding a platform to bring them together, has positioned AccorHotels as a leader in hospitality. With 38 brands and an increasing number of partners to integrate and communicate with, using a centralised data system is crucial.

“It’s a good thing that we started to do this two or three years back because now we see many use cases,” Ramakichenin says. “For example, for Chinese clients, we want to deliver reservations in WeChat and integrate this with the post reservation process. We can see the way the market is going, and all of the brands we operate need to be integrated.”

Recently, as part of its efforts to deliver holistic experiences, the company announced a new loyalty programme called Accor Live Limitless (ALL). The programme combines all of the aspects of a hotel stay – attractions, activities, dining, and travel – to offer unique experiences based on user preferences. ALL represents the growing influence of the experience economy… Something that customer facing hospitality companies are keen to tap into. Diverse data, then, is key – but it’s far from simple.

Data reservations

For AccorHotels, handling so much data from a growing number of brands and partners comes with its challenges. One of the most difficult has been finding the talent to use insights effectively and work with the technology needed to unlock the value of data.

“Every day and every week the new applications you are using become old. You have to create new services,” says Ramakichenin. “Attracting the best tech talent is still a challenge. We also have the challenge of reskilling the people that we have in the company. If we don’t reskill, we will be out of the market.”

Another major pitfall associated with sensitive data is cybersecurity. Accor’s approach is to A/B test all communication systems, and invest in identification technology to lessen the risk of cyber attack. Part of this is ensuring that information is stored securely, and only shared with approved parties. While this won’t stop data breaches from happening, it means that the business is compliant with increasingly demanding regulations.

As we move into the experience economy, looking beyond the lobby has become imperative to success. Aggregating data from relevant sources has made it much easier for hospitality companies to manage their growing networks, and to understand the needs of customers, clients, and partners. Collating information from different sources has provided the knowledge needed to offer relevance and personalisation – but, as ever, the first point of call should be customers themselves.

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