Follow Mei Li on Instagram @mei_li_the_crestie.
So, what does my Chinese Crested rescue Mei Li have to do with this series? No, it’s not the fact that Chinese Cresteds are hairless or the breed most often voted the ugliest dog in the world. Rather, Mei Li was the genesis for one of the most imaginative and personalized gestures of hospitality that I’ve ever experienced.
Last summer, my wife Stephanie and I vacationed in London and stayed at our absolute favorite hotel in the world – Ham Yard Hotel – which is part of Firmdale Hotels (and a Venga client). Founded by the husband-and-wife dynamic duo Tim and Kit Kemp, Firmdale is a collection of 10 luxury boutique properties in London and NYC. Firmdale is the only hotel group to be recognized four times with the Queen’s Award for outstanding achievements in International Trade, which is the UK’s most prestigious accolade for business.
When we checked in, there was a handwritten note with a mysterious request: Please be in the lobby tomorrow at 2 p.m. We went to the concierge to inquire further but were met with blank stares and shoulder shrugs. Stephanie and I love adventures and the unknown so we were totally up for whatever came our way.
At the appointed time, an employee escorted us down a flight of stairs and opened the door to reveal a completely empty 47-seat movie theater. Two of the plush seats had popcorn and glasses of champagne waiting for us. As the lights dimmed, we settled in to watch something, but what, we still had no clue.
Not until the opening credits started to roll did we realize it was one of Stephanie’s favorite movies, How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days. For those of you not familiar, a Chinese Crested dog plays a small but fun role in this rom-com starring Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson. Ever since seeing the movie in college, Stephanie wanted to rescue one.
As remarkable as the experience was, equally remarkable was the mastermind. It wasn’t the concierge or the GM, it was Firmdale’s Director of IT, Mark Read. Anyone in Mark’s orbit will tell you he exudes hospitality, takes measured risks, and prides himself on being an early adopter of new technologies. After all, he reached out to Venga back in 2014 when we had barely emerged from the early stages of our product and became one of our first clients.
Like our beloved Chinese Crested, Mark is distinctive. I know you’ll enjoy our conversation and see why I think he’s a breed apart.
Living the Hospitality Technology Evolution
Winston: I know you are in IT, but I’ve heard you say you think of yourself as a hotelier first. How did you get started and come to love hospitality?
Mark: My story starts when I was 15 at school, and I broke both my wrists on a trampoline. In those days you weren’t allowed to go back and retake your exams, so I walked out having taken only one, which was basically oral English because I couldn’t write for anything else. I took my learnings from that class, including the idea that if I could articulate myself, and if I was able to talk with people, there would be a world of opportunity out there for me.
I started working in hotels and got my first job as a trainee luggage hall porter. I saw again how valuable my interpersonal skills were – the more I related to people, the more I actually earned, because if they liked me, I got tipped better. And that was the start – I discovered how much I really enjoyed working with people!
Over time, a lot of work started to move on to computers, so I started by joining a switchboard team where I learned how to program a telephone switchboard system. At one point I was running a team of 20 people focused on switchboard of a large hotel when an IT Director left, so I got offered the role. They actually combined IT with my switchboard responsibilities to save the hotel money in a time of recession, and I was able to see the similarities between the two areas from a programming perspective. After really getting into it, I realized how interesting IT is!
But it really does go back to the people for me. There’s a lot of loyalty in my team. I myself have been with Firmdale for 19 years. My head of IT has been with me for 18 years. The next longest tenure is 17 years. That’s the sort of pattern with my team because they’re always learning something and we think totally differently to most other people, which is great.
Winston: You’ve been front and center for some serious technology evolutions – from switchboards to today. What are some of the key changes you’ve seen over the last 20 years?
Mark: When I was working in a small, privately-owned, 35-bedroom hotel as a switchboard operator, marketing people would come up to me and say, “Would you mind just filling in these cards?” Which was a record of people’s stay. So I would write in, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith have stayed on this day,” and their card would fill up with their stays. Somebody from marketing occasionally would pop up and flip through the files and have a quick look at who was there. Even then I could see how important it was to understand our customers. Now we have CRM systems like Venga that are designed to automatically keep track of those of stays, needs, and preferences.
Winston: As a trailblazer, you’re always thinking five steps, six steps ahead of most people I work with, which is so exciting to see – and you take risks. So have there been risks that failed?
Mark:I suppose my frustration now as a veteran of IT is the huge amount of information I have access to and determining how to deliver that information to team members.
I think my risk mitigation is: you never bet the whole farm. You never bet the whole business on it and you don’t compromise the security around your business. If you listen to your customers, you’ll hear some of what you could do or is missing for the business to enhance service. It’s then trying to find the vendors to deliver what you’re looking for.
Winston: How important is it that you cultivate relationships with those suppliers and vendors?
Mark: I am always looking for vendors and suppliers with a “yes” attitude. We actually recently changed vendors in one area because it’s just much better service and they are really responsive. I’m always looking to develop that two-way street.
Whenever I first meet a new vendor, I’ll actually test them a little bit before they get to meet with me. I’ll ask them to meet at one of our hotels and I’m purposely 5 minutes late or so to leave them in the lobby, where they can see and hear everything that is happening around them. When I do actually meet with them, if they can’t relate something they saw or they overheard that was interesting, then it’s likely a no from us because there’s no attention to detail about what’s happening around you. You don’t want to be stuck looking at your phone! Take in the ambience, look around you, and think about how you synergize with our business and what you could possibly do, and then talk about it.
Winston: What’s on the horizon for technology innovation? What are you trying out in a small way? What’s going to be here in three years?
Mark: It’s really difficult to say because technology is moving at a much faster pace. All the buzzwords have been there forever: big data, AI. This stuff goes back to the 1960s and just gets re-brought-up in a new vein. So I’m looking forward to using some of those technologies practically, things like AI in the business to eliminate repetitive tasks that add little value.
It could also be something like automating the booking process so you have a simple email inquiry coming in with enough information to complete the booking. We can then have a human element to add value if somebody wants to sit in a certain place or wants to know something specific.
We are all in the process of just building with more data. It’s for people like me to now make sure that the frontline staff have the right information at the right time to do something with it and enhance the service that we give our clients at the end of the day.
A Vision for Technology Supporting Hospitality
Winston: Is data creepy or cool?
Mark: It’s all about how you use it. Let’s say I walked into a bar and they knew through the CRM system that I was a drinker of gin with a preference for Gordon’s. Then after I sit at the bar, the Gordon’s gin is just plopped in front of me… that’s the wrong use of data. The information we’re giving to the team should be used to try to build a rapport with the client. So if we know the client’s a gin drinker, start the conversation around gin. Don’t talk about what they’ve specifically consumed in the past, but instead focus on your cocktails that have a gin base when making recommendations.
It should be subtle. It shouldn’t be that I know everything about you, so therefore I’m going to order for you. It should be that I have more information to suggest things on the menu you might like, more than others that you do not.
Winston: Well, as you know, I’ve told you the most incredible hospitality was when you provided my wife and I that special afternoon in the theater. And when I tell people that story, I often don’t lead with who provided that, and I end with, “Well it was someone who’s in IT,” and it just blows people away.
Mark: Right. IT is about data how you use the asset you have, whether your asset is people or systems. I often say to my team, “Look, you have all of your systems available to you. You don’t need to buy yet another system to do this. Use what you have, and use it to the nth degree.”
So in your case, I know we have a cinema that’s not doing anything on a particular on that Saturday afternoon. Why not offer it to somebody and make a really special experience for them that really no one else is going to think to do? So let’s just do it! Also I was lucky enough to speak with one of your team members Alison Panza who mentioned a film you liked, and I thought, “That’s it. I’ve got all the data I need, so now I can make this surprise happen!”
Winston: What is the difference between recognition and loyalty?
Mark: The word loyalty doesn’t resonate with me at all. It’s more about recognition, and that should start from your first interaction with the company to whatever happens forward. It’s not something that you need to build with an organization. You don’t have to have a hundred points before you can stand on a special piece of carpet in front of a check-in. It should be instant. It should be absolute. That’s what customers want at the end of the day.
Winston: So recognition on the first visit, what do you mean? Give me an example of how you can recognize them and make them feel welcome.
Mark: In our business, it’s looking at the arrivals list for the restaurants/hotel and seeing who is on it, seeing if we know the reason they’re coming to the hotel, and ultimately seeing if there’s an opportunity to build up a conversation and make a connection. It could be as simple as “Mr. Read, welcome, how’s your day been?” And that then leads to “Oh, wow, they know my name, I feel more at home.”
It’s the same in our restaurants, though. When someone comes to the restaurant host, that host has already been provided with information about who’s coming in today so they can just recognize the guest and take them to their table rather than the guest having to ask. Now the host is empowered to say, “I know who you are, I know what you’ve booked, so I’m going to take you to your table.” No more of – “do you have a booking?”
On Being Present
I left my conversation with Mark reminded of just how lucky the hospitality industry is to have an innovator like him in their corner. He truly has seen it all, from the 1980s switchboards to today’s powerful CRM systems. Equally as powerful is Mark’s ability to connect his passion for technology back to his love of people and relationship building. He recognizes how powerful data can be in enhancing the guest experience, and actively seeks out the tools to help him facilitate.
The biggest takeaway: be present. For me, this is not only a professional guideline but also a personal reminder. I love Mark’s litmus test of making anyone interested in meeting him wait a few minutes. In this day and age of technology, he looks for people who are present and engaged, not addicted to their phone. I couldn’t agree more and will double down on making sure I do that when I’m home. When I’m with Stephanie and the kids, that email can wait.
The true utility of this experiment will be hearing from YOU about your problems, suggestions for interviews, your own “aha” moments and, most importantly, your feedback. You can enliven and help me shape this platform – tell me when you jotted down notes and when you yawned. I encourage you to email me at email@example.com.