Yotel Director & VP of Digital Fergus Boyd reveals tech behind hotels
By Thomas Macaulay
Hotels have come a long way from the thatched rooms, fireplaces and stables of traditional British inns, with IT business leaders such as Yotel’s Group Director and VP of Digital and IT, Fergus Boyd, using technology to continually improve the customer experience and uncover new revenue streams.
Yotel has expanded to seven hotels across three continents since its first branch was opened in 2007 at London Gatwick, but Boyd still describes the company mentality as that of a “startup hotel”. The concept adds elements of luxury into smaller, smart and affordable spaces in airport and city centre hotels with a high-tech focus.
Flashy innovations such as in Yotel New York’s luggage-handling robot YOBOT may grab the press attention, but the big differences lie beyond the glare of the camera lenses in features ranging from automated front desk to in-room sensor systems for air-conditioning, heating and lights.
“The concept for Yotel is high-design value, tech-savvy, well-designed rooms for people to chill in and then go out to meetings and so forth,” says Boyd.
Boyd described himself as an “IT director with sales targets” in the 2017 CIO 100, after he surpassed a stretch target of $18.1 million in direct web-booked revenue for Yotel New York by 5% in 2016. These targets have since become central to his work.
He’s handed over much of his IT responsibilities and assumed a role closer to that of a Chief Digital Officer, with a big focus on driving revenues through web, mobile, social media and email. These online channels provide Yotel with an effective and low-cost point of sale.
“We’re hitting about 30-35% from direct web at the moment, which is two to three times more than many hotel chains, and the cost of sale is a quarter of what you’d see from an OTA [online travel agencies] like Expedia or Booking.com,” he says.
“We also own the customer data for direct channels so we can then re-target people through email.”
Innovations at Yotel
The “YO” in the company’s name connects the hotel chain to YO! Sushi, a previous venture launched by Yotel founder Simon Woodruffe OBE.
Woodruffe got the idea for Yotel after he received an upgrade to a first-class seat on a flight. He was impressed to find such luxury in such a compact space, and thought the same principles of smart design could be applied to hotels.
A prototype cabin was developed that attracted funding for hotels in Gatwick and Heathrow. They opened in the airport’s land-side terminals in 2007.
The concept soon spread overseas to its first air-side property in Amsterdam Schiphol and then around the world to larger markets in city-centre locations, including three big hotels in New York, Boston and Singapore, its first hotel in Asia.
Boyd joined the company in January 2014, and took charge of the IT strategy and delivery for both the systems in the back office and the customer-facing hotels and the in-room setup in the cabins.
These high-tech rooms can include Yotel’s signature adjustable SmartBeds, Monsoon rain showers, a “Technowall” with adjustable mood lighting, smart TVs that guests can use to stream their own content, multi power points and easy connectivity.
Boyd previously maintained a document of more than 50 pages that listed in detail all the IT hardware and systems that go into a Yotel, until his change in role gave him a more commercial focus.
He still maintains digital standards that are designed to help new owners see the cost and value of digital.
“Most of our new hotels are separately owned by investors and owners and as part of our hotel management agreements, I sell in the digital standards these days rather than both digital and IT,” he says.
Every new hotel lives within the same yotel.com domain and follows the same standards, from the marketing partners Yotel uses to the structure of the website.
Boyd and his team run the core parts of the customer experience on the website, from the corporate sections to the propriety booking engine.
“We’ve got a very high-performing booking tool that does probably twice the conversion rates of most other hotels in the market because we can do what we like with it.
“We can also do a lot of multi-variant testing in the industry, so we fine-tune it. We do multiple tests on a weekly, monthly basis to keep the website easily updated,” he says.
This year Yotel will open another branch in San Francisco. The company is also looking to expand into locations in Europe and Asia, including its first central London hotel in Clerkenwell. The growing global reach led Yotel to recently introduce Spanish, French, Italian, German, Portuguese and simplified Chinese to its website.
“We now have seven languages on our website which you can compare to my days at Virgin Atlantic I think we had a maximum of five,” says Boyd.
He learnt a lot about mobile in his six years at Virgin Atlantic, where he became head of the company’s mobile channel and was responsible for apps, mobile website and SMS initiatives.
Boyd had also introduced mobile apps to British Airways, where he worked as a senior manager from 1988 until 2006.
“I learned a huge amount there about the online customer, about content management and about mobile,” he recalls.
These lessons help Boyd to develop Yotel’s strategy for mobile. The company analysed how customers first access Yotel and how they make a booking, which revealed that they typically prefer to do their research on mobile but make their bookings on desktop devices. Yotel can use this information to tailor its services to their different desires for each channel.
“Mobile is just getting bigger and bigger,” says Boyd. “It’s actually become our main channel and in 2018, we’ll be streamlining the mobile business even further to make an Amazon-type one-click purchase.”
Yotel has also introduced mobile-powered door keys, which use Bluetooth-enabled locks to sense a smartphone’s Bluetooth ID and open as the guest approaches.
“If customers want, they can do a completely online journey,” Boyd explains. “They can research us online, book us online, check in online, and then use the door keys.
“If they want more personal service, then we all also have 24/7 onsite staff. So there’s still the personal angle if you want to have a more of a traditional service.”
The company is now in the process of rolling out a business intelligence system that combines a proprietary visualisation tool on the front end provided by Qlik with an ETL layer on the back end to find value in data.
Boyd wants to use analytics to understand why some hotels perform better than others at certain times and then share the best practices. It would also allow Yotel branches to make individual real-time changes to room rates.
He’s also investigating the value of voice recognition and chatbots, but will only roll out new tech if it benefits the customer and the business.
“It’s all about commercial value,” says Boyd. “What can we do that will add value to the customer but also will allow us to charge more? Sometimes the two don’t tally.
“A lot of hotels have tech that is actually just adding an overhead. There’s no real return on investment. They tend to get pulled out or they break too often. We’re quite selective about what we choose or produce.”