“We’re not just a hotel company,” said Jeff Eckard, vice president of Americas Technology for InterContinental Hotels Group. “We’re a digital company.”
That doesn’t mean IHG isn’t laser focused on soft pillows, fast check-ins, and other amenities. And with 5,000 hotels around the world and iconic brand names like Holiday Inn and Crowne Plaza, it’s not all about bits and bytes.
But more and more, Eckard stressed, digital is the key to happy hotel guests.
“Everything,” he said, “is enabled by this digital transformation we are going through.”
In a world of constant disruption, fickle brand loyalty, and endless distractions from mobile devices and social media, those happy customers aren’t a given. So, it’s crucial to turn new technologies into an advantage.
“We take those exploding technology trends,” Eckard said, “and we think about how we can connect with our guests before, during, and post-stay.”
That demands a whole new culture and mindset around technology — in an industry that traditionally viewed IT as a pure support function, not as a driver of innovation and customer interactions.
“In the past,” Eckard said, “IT was maybe a necessary evil. But now our business partners, our brands, and our hotel operations teams really see this technology foundation as a way to amplify that guest experience.”
Eckard’s IT team is driving greater efficiency and convenience at every step. And reaching customers in all-new ways.
“Leveraging mobile and our amazing Wi-Fi,” Eckart said, “gives us new channels to interact with you and exceed your needs.”
And, he continued, to do it at every stage of the customer journey.
“We have an opportunity to interact well before you visit us on property, when you’re starting to dream about your vacation or business trip.”
‘The Highway of the Future’
IHG knew that a superior customer experience depended on a superior network foundation. So, the executive leadership team invested in an agile, modernized, and centralized infrastructure — with an eye on the future.
“We are setting up the highway of the future for our hotels,” Eckard said. “So we’re very excited that our leaders made this significant investment.”
That global network investment, he added, will pay off in all kinds of ways.
“Customer experience and expectations are changing almost hourly, through the advent of social media, et cetera."
“Making sure that we’re more reliable at keeping the lights on, delivering better services, and lighting up new services capabilities — like cloud-based reservations systems, property management, sales, and catering systems. The list goes on, and we couldn’t do any of those things based on our previous network or infrastructure.”
As a global “highway of the future,” the network needs be to be flexible and secure, and ready for any trends coming down the pike. And if recent history is any guide, those trends will be customer driven.
“Customer experience and expectations are changing almost hourly, through the advent of social media, etc.,” he said. “And we want to be well positioned to plug in the next Internet of Things gadget, even if we don’t know what it’s going to be. By having this consistent platform — both network and Wi-Fi — it allows us to introduce these things quickly, but also securely.”
All of those connected things open up potential avenues of attack. But Eckard emphasizes the importance of the upgraded network infrastructure — along with a carefully cultivated ecosystem of technology partners — in securing IHG assets and data.
“Security’s at the top of our list when we think about protecting our business,” he added. “Because one bad breach can really derail where you’re going from a brand reputation perspective.”
ROI, for Guests and Workers Alike
The upgraded network is enabling the rollout of a new program called IHG Connect. Eckard calls it a cloud-based system that will enable “seamless, turbo-charged” connectivity for guests and workers at all IHG hotels around the world.
“Connectivity is like hot water,” Eckard stressed. “You really want it when you need it — and you always need it. As we roll this out, we think we are dominating the Internet experience in the hospitality business, and powering our brand.”
Technology investments can be tricky to justify. But IHG’s customer focus was at the heart of every discussion around infrastructure.
“A lot of ROI discussions go on,” Eckard said, “and sometimes those benefits aren’t obvious on day one. But we know we’re making our brands and our hotels stronger by driving things that guests are looking for, and that allow us to have sustainability and growth compared to our competitors.”
The customer is, of course, central to IHG’s technology strategy. But making life better for the workers is another prime concern. After all, they make or break the hotel experience.
“All this infrastructure that we’re investing in,” he continued, “it’s allowing us to turn on new apps, social tools, collaboration. Because having the best tools for our employees allows for more productivity and drives the right talent into our hotels.”
Talent is a continuing challenge for many CIOs. And as a Cisco study revealed, skills gaps are slowing transformation in 93 percent of organizations. But Eckard agrees that top talent is drawn to cutting-edge companies that invest in new technologies, solutions, and skills.
To that end, IDG has no shortage of creative ideas for future technology applications. For example, Eckard and team are looking at how the Internet of Things will expand the customer experience, with smartphone-controlled locks, thermostats, and lights, and voice-activated elevators.
“We’re quickly going from this platform,” he said, “with turbo-charged, seamless connectivity around the globe, to layering on the Internet of Things.”
All of which has him excited and optimistic about the future.
“In my 27 years in technology and hotels,” Eckard concluded, “it’s the best time. I’m excited that our company has the foresight to say technology will be the key differentiator for us in enabling our businesses and our brand. So, it’s an amazing time for us.”
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