scott-strickland newsletterOver the years, hospitality companies have become quite adept at leveraging data from customer loyalty programs and other forms of guest feedback to help deliver more tailored experiences to guests. 

But as customers increasingly expect more personalized experiences, hospitality companies may have to step up their game. According to Deloitte Consulting LLP’s 2017 Hotel Guest Experience Survey, just 65% of respondents feel a hotel truly knows them. When hotels do understand their guests, stay frequency increases by 13 percent.

Helping Wyndham Hotel Group to better understand its customers and improve the guest experience is a prime focus area for EVP & CIO Scott Strickland. Strickland, who joined Wyndham in March 2017 following previous IT executive roles at Denon & Marantz Holdings (A Bain Capital Company), Nissan North America, and Black & Decker, has three primary focus areas at the company: enabling the world’s largest and most diverse hotel company to operate better, faster and cheaper; enhancing the guest experience and differentiating the brand.

HMG Strategy recently caught up with Strickland to discuss how he and the IT team at Wyndham are delivering value to the company.

HMG Strategy: How important is your alignment with the business? 

Scott Strickland: It’s critical, especially for companies that are trying to differentiate themselves through technology. Geoff (our CEO) consistently talks about three platforms – sales and marketing, property quality, and technology. He structures our earnings calls on these platforms including our recent achievements on the technology side. It was really exciting to hear him share this during our last call. 

For the tech platform you’ve inherited and as you reimagine how technology can deliver value to the company over the next 36 months, what are some cool things you’re working on?

SS: Some of our work has been focused on the fundamentals and in getting out of developing and maintaining platforms ourselves. We’ve moved out of our legacy central reservation platform and onto Sabre’s hotel reservations platform (entirely cloud based). We’ve also moved off our legacy property management systems and onto Sabre. In addition, we’re moving to Salesforce’s Sales Cloud from a homegrown sales system. This enables us to be faster, cheaper and better as it relates to franchisee service, hotel conversions, and overall cost structures.  

We’re also working on ways for leveraging data and technology to help differentiate ourselves. I’m on the customer advisory board at Salesforce. Salesforce has a Sales, a Service and a Marketing Cloud. At Wyndham, we have customers that use each one of those. We’re working with Salesforce to figure out how we can converge those three clouds and get a complete view of our customers. Not many other hospitality companies have done this. 

From a business standpoint, this shift to a buy vs. build approach allows us to better partner with the business. If we acquire a company now, I know how to plug them into our property management and Salesforce systems. It also frees up members of our IT team from software development and maintenance. 

Has it been tough to sell this vision to senior management? 

SS: It was when I first arrived. The execution wasn’t occurring for a number of reasons. So, when I first came here, I made a big presentation and we structured it around the Journey song Don’t Stop Believin’. The first page was the Journey album cover. We explained why the migration to the cloud is a good idea and what’s different in our execution plan. It resonated and we received the funding we needed. 

How do you get scored on your progress? 

SS: I just passed my 18-month anniversary and our progress is good. We’ve hit all of our deadlines on transitioning our service desk, data centers, and our property management systems. 

I score myself an 8 out of 10 to date. The reason I wouldn’t score myself higher is that I haven’t been able to execute all of the organizational and cultural changes I want to. 

We will be focused on those areas through year-end. This will include the creation of new roles in the organization, including data stewards and having property management advocates and other similar liaison roles.

What are some of the ways that Wyndham is differentiating itself in the market?

SS: In a couple of ways. As a franchisee, you will choose your flag or brand (e.g. a Wyndham La Quinta or a Hilton Hampton Inn), based on what the brand will contribute. 

We have one of the highest direct contributions to the business. You don’t have to go through Expedia and pay their high commissions for your bookings. In addition, thanks to Sabre’s reservation system and volume, we have one of the lowest prices out there on a per-transaction basis. It’s 80% lower going through us.

How does Wyndham use AI and algorithms for pricing?

SS: We use a third-party vendor that’s developed a set of algorithms for us for dynamic pricing. What I’m most excited about in AI is in the voice-to-text area and taking all of the calls that come in from franchisees. Looking at these patterns will allow us to better serve both the franchisee and the guest.

There’s also a ton of untapped insights for applying AI to improve the franchisee and customer experience. With 9,000 hotels, we receive a load of calls each day that are rich in insights. For instance, AI can inform us that 72% of the calls that franchisees receive are due to XYZ and here’s how we can respond to that. 

We also want to use AI on the promotions side to look for correlations. If you’re a loyalty member, are you more prone to promotions? If so, which ones? Through which channel or channels will the promotions be most effective? I’m working with the CMO on this. 

What are your biggest competency concerns for your organization? 

SS: We’re enabling innovation in three areas. One is the thought leadership in my team - people who can come up with cool stuff. Can you teach thought leadership? I don’t know if you can. 

Second, I need better project management capabilities and fewer methodologies. Let’s focus on delivery! Third, I need to adjust my organization to think in terms of services, especially in terms of integration and data services. So, instead of building a massive data warehouse, let’s create a data lake and provide APIs to our internal customers and guests. Those are the three competencies I’m driving right now.

What are some additional ways that you’re helping to drive business innovation at Wyndham?

SS: One of the ways we do this is by empowering members of the IT team to collaborate with their business counterparts on innovative ideas. For instance, the ability to partner with our VP of Operations and come up with a great idea for improving the hotel room experience is great but I need to empower them and provide them with the tools to do this. We’re creating a lab with LG, one of our huge TV vendors. Amazon is sponsoring the build-out of a 2,000 square-foot lab to play with some of our toys and back-end stuff like gesture recognition.

In terms of enabling the business, our CEO also brings out IT sometimes from a sales standpoint. We converted the Galt House Hotel, an 1,800-room hotel where they host the Kentucky Derby and their executives wanted to understand our tech platform. I met with their CEO, their CIO and some of their front desk folks and made clear how we go about it and the benefits of our approach. 

Key Takeaways:

  • As much as company executives have learned about its customers through a variety of customer data that’s available, there are always opportunities to go wider and deeper.
  • Every company in every industry is a technology company. Step up as a CIO and play a leading role on the executive team in setting the company’s strategic course.
  • Empower members of the IT team to collaborate with their business peers on innovation. Provide them with the tools, the time and your support in helping them to succeed.