The IT lifeline - HOSPA CEO Jane Pendlebury talks about embracing hospitality technology as a result
The furlough was a lifesaver for most hospitality businesses across the UK. Without the funding from the Government, the face of hospitality in this country would be entirely different. There is still a long road to recovery ahead, but at least now we are out of full lockdown and our venues can operate, if only to a limited level. No-one wants to see another closure of all hospitality businesses, however temporary, again.
There were some roles that were less likely to be furloughed than others and – assuming ‘lucky’ describes continuing to work whilst others didn’t – often those in technology-based roles were the lucky ones. Initially the tech team might have believed this was the perfect opportunity to complete unfinished projects and to write the how-to guides department by department, but no. It quickly became a demanding time for those non-furloughed workers. Often they operated with a reduced team and an increased workload. Strategy papers were screwed up and thrown away. It was time for a clean sheet. Systems still had to run, websites were still live, building management systems were crucial and day-to-day operational software solutions had to be managed.
In many establishments there were no kitchen staff to monitor temperatures of freezers, there were no room attendants to check in-room technology, there were no office staff to run daily routines. All avoidable expenses, not least support contracts, were under the spotlight and became the focus of new negotiations. Utilities including heating and lighting had to be closely controlled.
On top of all of that, there were staff galore working remotely for the first time with no technology in place to access servers remotely. Laptops were purchased, configured and dispatched. Old laptops were reconfigured and others limped on with ancient technology. Employees working from home were often using their own devices. Security was paramount with the cyber security risk increased, so logins were changed, VPNs were built and broadband issues addressed. The security responsibility of the tech team didn’t stop there, the focus on physical security became different in so many ways. The hotel or venue may have been boarded up, but that didn’t negate the risk.
Plus, of course, the operations team were still using software solutions daily to manage communications, to issue refunds, and in many instances to support ongoing trade from key workers and new enterprises. Systems to manage pop-up coffee shops, takeaways, home delivery tools – all potentially required new technology or adaptation of existing solutions. The sale of gift vouchers, incentives and other initiatives generating much needed income to help with cash flow were introduced – again IT were called upon to manage vital new activities. Property management systems and points of sale had to be adapted to match the new demand.
Finance departments continued to run payroll, pay invoices and negotiate with suppliers. IT were called on to support these functions.
Other systems that were totally switched off had to be fired up into action for re- opening in July and beyond. Bringing systems back online having been shut down for months is rarely straight forward. Even when it all appears to be back up and running, testing is a critical part of the exercise.
In addition to all of that, IT Directors had to consider all the new guest expectations. Would it still be acceptable to have a TV remote control and a guest directory in the bedroom? What about telephone handsets, coffee machines and other gadgets? How would room attendants let the front desk know a room was ready without using the freshly sanitised phone? How would keys be distributed to guests? Could the food menus be used? How would diners place their orders and pay their bills? What tools could be used to monitor the temperature of guests and staff? How could businesses maintain guest engagement with such reduced contact?
The hospitality industry was delighted with the Government support, not just of
the furlough scheme, without which there would have been significant redundancies and earlier, permanent closures. The introduction of the #EatOutToHelpOut scheme and the VAT reduction – were warmly welcomed by the industry. But yes, you’ve guessed it another demand for our tirelessly working technology experts. And, the industry continues to hope for more recognition to help with the devastating impact of social distancing, controls on group sizes, next to no demand for meetings and events, handfuls rather than plane loads of business travellers. Each lifeline is grasped by hospitality, welcomed by everyone, whilst the IT team diligently deliver the tech to support new business models.
And that is just skimming the surface. I can hear people shouting at me already! What about ever changing goal posts, local influences versus national directives? What about delivering all of this with reduced budgets? The list is a never ending one, and the ever-present demands on the IT teams to document processes, highlight potential savings and develop new solutions didn’t disappear.
We must also not forget that many in IT were not lucky enough to keep their jobs, adding to the workload of those left holding the fort. Still the pressure is on. Reduce costs! Increase margins! Re-imagine the offering! Be creative! Don’t spend any money! Technology is essential and will need to be resourced appropriately.
Hospitality’s heads of technology (IT Managers, IT Directors, CTOs) have seen their roles change in recent years, mostly for the better. Recognition of their contribution to the smooth running of operations and commercial advantage is not new. However, now – more than ever – may be the time to take a moment to value their positive influence on the overall success of our businesses.