Finding a Return on Intelligence

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Wyndham Worldwide Corp.’s CIO Scott Strickland sees data consolidation and mining as the lynchpin of innovation.

Finding a Return on Intelligence

By Dorothy Creamer, Editor-in-Chief, HT magazine - 12/20/2019

“But wait, there’s more…” 

The phrase could conjur memories of late-night infomercial hosts and bombastic promises of too-good-to-be-true, as-seen-on-TV products. Scott Strickland, CIO of Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, gives the locution new context using it while detailing the immense undertaking and achievements of the world’s largest hotel franchising company as it took ownership of La Quinta Holdings’ hotel franchising and hotel management business. The addition of 900+ La Quinta hotels comprising nearly 89,000 rooms succeeded in building Wyndham Hotels & Resorts’ midscale presence and furthered its reach into the upper-midscale segment of the lodging industry. Today, Wyndham operates more than 9,200 hotels in 80+ countries. 

Over the course of several conversations, Strickland shared insight to the role the IT strategy played in the larger corporate goals of the growing organization. Strickland credits the success of achieving these goals to his team and the utilization of global platforms such as Sabre Hospitality Solutions’ SynXis Platform, Adobe, Olsen, Salesforce and Amazon Web Services (AWS). 

At its core, the success of this major migration was dependent upon working with platform vendors to replicate the attributes that La Quinta was doing well and build out more functionality. Wyndham was able to minimize a number of integration points, “but is pulling the data from all of these platforms to better analyze and report on them,” Strickland explains. “We won’t have a physical data center anymore in the Wyndham Hotels & Resorts environment; it will be cloud-based which ultimately allows us to focus on the franchisee and the guest experience.” 

Step One: Consolidate Data

The coming together of two large companies necessitates a hyper-focus on consolidation of data. Fortunately, with the exponential growth of artificial intelligence (AI) and the brave new world of “31+ flavors” of predictive analytics that are now available, there are myriad ways for businesses to achieve upon insights when utilized correctly. 

Wyndham needed to balance flash with substance as it navigated its post-acquisition waters and found a give and take on best practices to apply from both sides of the equation. On the not-so-flashy, but necessary side, one of the changes the brand is making is looking at real-time stay level data. Strickland explains that Wyndham had been running financials based on an accrual basis and when actuals came in would adjust billing accordingly. La Quinta, on the other hand, had always generated bills — and the corresponding royalty bills — based on actuals pulled on a nightly basis.

“As we took on La Quinta, we moved to real-time data and now we have a framework to apply to our 19 other brands,” Strickland says.

Strickland stresses that the lynchpin of innovation for Wyndham moving forward is the consolidation of data and mining it for new ways to better service Wyndham guests and franchisees. This multi-year data initiative, launching the first week of December, will be cloud-native and utilize a combination of BI and AI tools.

3 Actual Strategies Powered by Artificial Intelligence

Businesses are tapping the potential of Artificial intelligence (AI) to answer all manner of business woes, and Wyndham is already seeing big wins with AI-powered strategies. 

1. AI as Fraud Detector. 

Wyndham is testing AI for its loyalty program, specifically in the area of fraud prevention. The company is currently piloting SageMaker, the cloud-based machine-learning platform from AWS, to identify common patterns associated with fraud that humans are likely to miss. Early results have enabled the brand to identify issues much faster and therefore mitigate problems in a more efficient manner. This helps to limit the scope of potential fraud before it escalates to full-blown identity theft. 

Strickland notes that not all AI is created equal, as more companies are writing and developing their own AI; each might be better suited for specific situations. For Wyndham, Strickland notes that Salesforce’s AI, Einstein, has proven to be appropriate for sifting through franchisee care cases, because franchisees go through Salesforce.com anyway to request rate changes or report a slow property management system (PMS). 

Where AI has proven effective is in its ability to evaluate ticket types, volumes and recurrences and potentially identify a root cause of issues by having a fuller view of aggregate tickets. Einstein was able to identify when a franchisee had a bad router on site when numerous disparate calls came in pertaining to systems slowness. The AI was able to aggregate the tickets and flag the issue as being indicative of a bad router. When that was replaced, all the other systems were performing well, and that franchisee’s call volume went to zero.

“We never would have seen that root issue if the AI hadn’t flagged it,” Strickland says. “The AI is really clever, and it’s a baby right now. AI learns as we reward it. When you tell it that you received value from specific information, it will look for things similar to that and identify similar patterns. We do not even know what Einstein will wind up doing for us, but we know that we are giving it a lot of data. We get 5,000 queries every week, so we’re generating 5,000 new data points every week that it can sift through.”

Leverage Wi-Fi as Enabler of Digital Innovation

Hotels exist in the space between the physical and digital as high-touch service increasingly must include high-tech components. Guest expectations link directly to connectivity, as they demand robust Wi-Fi and mobile access from all corners of the property.  

“Through a partnership with Cisco Meraki and Single Digits, we’re providing Hotel Connectivity Solutions (HCS) to our franchisees so that they no longer have to worry about the internet at their hotels,” Strickland says.

Currently, HCS is available for rollout at the entire North American hotel population (6000+ hotels). Through its partnership with Cisco Meraki, Wyndham was able to negotiate premier rates that enables franchisees to pay the brand roughly half of what other brands charge for hardware, wireless access points, router, circuit and the service. When a franchisee signs on, Wyndham employees then coordinate the site survey, install the go-live and provide support.

Because the Meraki solution is entirely cloud-based, troubleshooting can be done remotely. Support staff can see issues immediately, often receiving alerts about and being able to run troubleshooting procedures before the guest even knows there is a problem.

“But wait, there’s more,” [Editor’s Note: I told you so.] says Strickland. “We also maintain a home page for the franchisee, so they have a beautiful splash page and when guests log onto the Wi-Fi it’s very professional looking.” 

Taking this on for the franchisees was important for Strickland and his IT team as he sees the benefits as two-fold. First, Strickland shares that Wyndham research has proven that having rock-solid Wi-Fi “increases a hotel’s TripAdvisor rating by half a bubble.” Not only does it enhance guest experience, but it will enable the digital and additional services that Wyndham plans to roll out in the future — such as mobile key.

2.  Leave the Tedious for Efficiency-Seeking Robots. Wyndham has implemented robotic process automation (RPA) to speed up the hotel opening process. Partnering with Kryon Systems, Wyndham was able to automate the often labor-intensive data entry that goes into a hotel opening to make sure the website is accurate and OTA information is up-to-date.

“We have determined that it has improved the speed by which data is entered in (the system), so that hotels can open faster,” Strickland illustrates. 

Without RPA, the hotel owner fills out a spreadsheet, which in turn needs to be loaded into Sabre, which pushes the data to OTAs. Invariably, hotel owners don’t fill out the entire form and the form is returned. Each time a form comes back, staff would need to identify the new information and reload the data. RPA removes that back-and-forth from a human’s list of responsibilities, freeing them for tasks that will add value to guests’ experiences.

“Robots are very good at looking at spreadsheets and they speed up the opening process because the robot doesn’t sleep,” Strickland quips. “The franchisee doesn’t even know a robot is talking to them. They just get an email and a robot handles the majority of the data load itself.”

Strickland sees potential in RPA for anywhere there is grunt work in the organization. 

“Our audit team wants to use RPA to help with data collection and the revenue management team is interested in finding applications as well,” Strickland notes. 

3.  Smile, for Cameras that Let You Work Smarter. Behind the walls of Wyndham’s Innovation Lab, the brand is seeking to solve for the problem of throughput at the front desk. Strickland shares that the IT team is currently experimenting with the capabilities of Cisco Meraki cameras to implement queue detection. With AI, the cameras are able to detect when the line is more than two or three people deep. The system will then automatically send an SMS alert to a staff member to bring another agent to the front desk. This will allow staff to complete other tasks as needed, without fear of missing an opportunity to provide better service to a guest in person.