Technology drives Travelodge expansion

Technology drives Travelodge expansion

Director of IT Alex Thomson explains how technology is supporting the firm’s rapid growth

When hotel chain Travelodge decided to embark on an expansion programme with the aim of opening a new hotel every eight days, it looked to appoint a new IT chief to support its ambitious plans. Alex Thomson fit the bill and joined the organisation in February 2007 from electronics retailer DSG International, owner of Dixons, PC World and Currys.

Travelodge has 5,000 employees across the UK, with about 30 in-house IT workers plus 50 outsourced staff. As director of IT services, Thomson sits on the company’s executive team and reports directly to the chief finance officer.

Technology is crucial to the hotel chain’s success as its e-commerce operations are at the heart of its business. During 2007, Thomson oversaw five refreshes of the web site that included the introduction of the Verified by Visa and MasterCard SecureCode online payment security schemes, and the rollout of a pre-paid booking process for extras, such as breakfast and Wi-Fi connections.

“Eighty-five per cent of our bookings come through the web, so we need that site up and running. We get six and a half million customers a year, and five million of those book online,” Thomson says. He adds that while Travelodge’s site receives 250,000 hits on a normal day, during a sale period this can leap to two million.

Travelodge’s web site is built on the open-source Lamp stack. The site is managed by a third-party provider, which is also responsible for building the business rules that link back into Travelodge’s systems, such as central reservations, and managing its business intelligence requirements, including demand and forecasting, and key performance indicators.

“An admin console lets us monitor the number of transactions for a particular period, such as today or the previous quarter. We can access real-time data about our performance and any impact a service disruption would have on our web site,” Thomson explains. “We also use Google Analytics and sometimes we use a specialist provider to mine our data further.”

As a web site owner, online security is a key concern for Travelodge. Thomson says, “We came through a Payment Card Industry (PCI) compliance exercise last summer across the business. All 250 of our head office staff, along with our hotel managers and receptionists, went through a PCI awareness course, while the business was audited and we’ve got our next audit coming up in the second quarter this year. But the distributed nature of our staff made it quite a challenge.”

Another hurdle in achieving compliance was the use of third-party providers - the organisation’s helpdesk, central reservation, financial and human resources systems are all outsourced.

“We don’t host many systems ourselves, and while some of our suppliers understood PCI very well, for others it was a bit of a learning curve. Some were saying, ‘We don’t need to be PCI-compliant’, but they do as they’re doing business with Travelodge,” Thomson adds.

Another area that required Thomson’s attention on joining the firm was the relationship between Travelodge’s UK operations and its division in Spain. “We needed to get a balance between the cost efficiencies gained by using centralised systems across our locations, and letting Spain tailor the web site to their own requirements,” Thomson explains. “We didn’t want them buying their own mission-critical systems so we all use the same software, licensing structure and supplier, but Spain wanted more control around the look and feel of the booking site.”

Thomson decided to partner with a local web development firm to design a tailored version of the Spanish web site. “We achieved maximum reuse of our booking channel web application but with local control,” he adds.

Managing IT support for Travelodge’s overseas operations will become increasingly important as the organisation continues its expansion plans. The firm currently has 330 hotels ­ 318 in the UK, nine in Ireland and three in Spain. By 2010, it is aiming to extend its Spanish footprint with another five new hotels and 15 in the pipeline; by 2020, its intention is for threefold growth, operating 1,000 hotels in the UK, 100 in Spain and nine in Ireland.

When it is not planning the next hotel location or web site promotion, Travelodge focuses on developing technologies to improve guest stays. Recent innovations include the “Nodcast” series of motivational sleeping audio programmes; rolling out Wi-Fi access across every UK hotel room; and developing high-tech therapeutic pyjamas to regulate body temperature while sleeping. “The top priority from our guests was for Wi-Fi, and this was for all customers, not just business travellers,” Thomson says.