IT in leisure – Serious Fun

More and more leisure companies are using IT across their business processes. And, according to research firm IDC, IT spending by UK media and entertainment companies will reach $1.9bn in 2002.

Last summer, for example, travel specialist Brittany Ferries installed an Internet-based system to help issue monthly statements and invoices to its 3,500 booking agents. The company had been using paper and post to issue statements and it was a slow and costly process. Brittany realised it was time for a change. “We’d been talking about this idea for several years,” says company accountant Graham Harrison.

The company opted to use software from business process specialist AXS-One, to automate its operations. The AXSPoint Travel system allows agents to query statements online, and Brittany can use the technology to reconcile these queries automatically.

“Our system is built to replace paper,” says Brittany Ferries systems accountant John Napton. “For speed and ease of access, we wanted to gear everything around the end user.”

The online interface is password-protected and Brittany’s AXSPoint Travel system is attached to an integrated sales ledger. Invoice data is held on a Compaq Alpha server 8400 platform.

After an initial pilot project in April 2001, Brittany Ferry now has 300 agents online. It expects to have 70% of its booking agents online by the end of the year. Harrison says that the system allows closer control of company finances.

“The amount of money outstanding in agent accounts at the end of each month is as low as possible and credit control is tremendous,” he says.v Brittany also expects to save £35,000 a year on postage, stationary and administrative costs.

Now Brittany is considering extending the system for use in France, for the management of its 1,000 freight customers, and Harrison believes other leisure IT directors could use IT to solve their “real world” problems.

IDC says total European IT spend by the media and entertainment sector reached $8.9bn in 2001, and is expected to rise to $14bn by 2005. Within that market, UK companies will be spending $2.7bn in 2005.

Some leisure companies are already leading the way and investing in innovative IT systems. Mention Orient Express and you might think of sumptuous trains, Agatha Christie or a certain Belgian detective – but you’re unlikely to think of an innovative website.

However, with a level of stealth and discretion that even the great Hercule Poirot would be proud of, Orient Express has created a top-quality web presence.

Its new portal-based site is a far cry from Orient Express’s previous online identity. Each of the luxury travel group’s 30-plus hotels and trains had its own HTML site, but if prices changed, or other site information required alteration, head office had to fax details to a web agency. It was a slow and cumbersome process.

“The web agency had to edit thousands of pages for 30 different websites,” says Orient Express e-commerce director Brian Tickle. “It was easy to see how content management was going to be relevant.”

So last July, Orient Express launched a web portal to combine its travel services under one corporate banner. The portal has been designed to allow each of the company’s 27 hotels, six trains, one river cruise ship and two restaurants to develop their own microsites.

“It reflects how we’re decentralised as a business,” says Tickle. “Each of the hotels and trains is run as a separate business and we want to make sure that we can replicate that online.”

Each Orient Express business can use a web-based interface, developed by web content management specialist Tridion, to build, update and develop their own presence within the portal.

The company’s central IT team designed a template. Each Orient Express business discussed with the IT team how they intended to present and organise content online. Key workers in these businesses were then trained to use the Tridion DialogServer content management package.

“We have almost no IT infrastructure in the individual businesses,” says Tickle. “We used the Tridion system because we wanted marketing people to be able to pull up a browser and add content as they wish.”

The Tridion system will also be used to manage the company’s various foreign content sites. This system will allow individual hotel businesses to create localised personalities within the broader Orient Express brand.

“With our hotels up to 70% is repeat business, and our customers want to know what’s going on with a local voice,” says Tickle. “We have hotels from Peru to Australia and we want to reflect that in the corporate website.”

Attached to the Tridion content management system is a Broadvision One-to-One personalisation platform. The technology is hosted in the US in a PSINet server farm.

The service provider has been set tight service level agreements and Tickle has been impressed with the results. “PSINet has been extremely good so far,” he says. “Our customers log on from the extremes of Nepal – so we have to be ready.”

Since last summer, around half of Orient Express’s train and hotel corporate websites have gone live. “It was about co-ordination,” says Tickle. “We were trying to pull together Broadvision, Tridion and a whole new website feel. The effort required was significant.”

Throughout this process, the luxury travel group leaned heavily on web design agency Nucleus, which completed site design and provided on-site training. “Choosing one organisation for design, build and training was the main thing that’s kept us together,” says Tickle.

Dedication from the travel group’s small in-house team was also essential, as was continued financial commitment from the executive team. In all, Orient Express has shelled out about £1m for the web portal, but Tickle believes it’s money well spent. His proof: online bookings for Orient Express trains have increased tenfold.

This year will see a number of further developments. Tickle’s first aim is to get all hotels and train sites online and in English. Stage two will be a multilingual version of the portal.

Tickle’s final aim for 2002 is the full development of Orient Express’s Broadvision personalisation software. Using a database of global bookings, he will begin personalised e-marketing campaigns targeted to individual customers.

The luxury travel group is carefully developing a top quality online presence. “We spent a lot of time planning what we needed,” recalls Tickle.

“There was a lot of pressure to get online quickly. But planning was so valuable and sifting what’s important is key.” M. Poirot would approve.

Another example of the innovative use of IT comes from hotel chain Radisson Edwardian which has installed a new telephony network to increase customer service and improve billing techniques.

The company’s Alcatel 4400 telephony network across 10 UK hotels offers guests a range of in-room and personalised conference facilities.

“It’s something many hotels can’t offer,” says Iype Abrahams, head of IT with Radisson Edwardian Hotels.

“Many business clients come in with laptops and we offer three lines so you have a phone on your desk and access to the Internet.”

The Alcatel system is designed to integrate with Fidelio, a reservation, billing and administration application for the hotel industry. Staff can now control guest telephony requests through the reception’s desktop.

Each guest has their own direct dial, voicemail and digital enhanced cordless telecommunications (DECT) phone. The DECT phones mean that guests can be contacted wherever they are in the hotel.

Frequent visitors are also allocated a direct dial number, so calls are billed to the same person wherever the location of their stay. Under the new system no revenue is lost, as all calls are directed through the Fidelio-powered reception desk.

“Before it was a little bit hit and miss and you had to read the metres and manually charge guests,” recalls Abrahams.

Radisson’s new telephony system also allows staff to provide conference communication facilities. Rather than outsourcing connection to BT, Radisson can now set up multiple ISDN lines for blue-chip conferences.

The hotel chain’s telephony project was initiated in mid-2000 and took almost a year to complete. During this period, Abrahams and his team faced a number of key challenges.

“It was a new technology and it was important to train the staff internally,” he says.

The hotel group relied upon a tried and tested approach. With the assistance of Alcatel, Radisson trained key management staff in each hotel, who then passed on their newly acquired knowledge to other personnel.

Abrahams suggests that the requirement for a single directory between all hotels and tight scheduling created additional challenges.

Once again, Radisson relied upon Alcatel for project management expertise and internal co-ordination.

“The biggest challenge inevitably was migrating from old to new technology,” says Abrahams.

“When the systems are down and you’re making changes, you have to make sure the guests are out of their rooms.” Regular meetings between Radisson and Alcatel ensured disturbances were kept to a minimum.

After 12 months and £1.7m investment, Radisson’s network is beginning to ring in the profits and telephony revenues at the hotel group have been boosted by 30%.

Further investment is likely this year, with Abrahams and his team now evaluating a wireless infrastructure to provide wireless access to the existing Alcatel network.

For now, Abrahams is happy to pass on wisdom learned from his experiences with the implementation to other IT directors.

“Understand what you want before you go in,” he says. “There’s a lot of detail to get through so get a dedicated vision before you sign the deal.”

Mark Samuels is senior reporter on Computing, where this article first appeared

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