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Hoteliers' Voice S3E10 - How Headland Hotel Adapted to AI

Updated: 4 days ago

Veryan Palmer, Director, of family-owned Headland Hotel Cornwall joins us to talk about adapting technology and utilising AI and automation in the business and how to overcome the challenge. Following the Independent Hotel Show 2023, where Veryan joined Ryan on a panel to discuss practical deployment of AI, this podcast follows on the Headland Hotel's very specific experience and journey from discovery to utilisation. In this discussion, learn;


  • How AI alleviates staff pressures 

  • Gaining confidence in AI

  • Looking to new technology  and working with your team

  • Future changes to hospitality 


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Programme Notes


This episode has been automatically transcribed by AI, please excuse any typos or grammatical errors


Ryan Haynes:

Hello, and welcome back to Travel Market Life. And this is season three of Hoteliers’ Voice. Joining me today is Varian Palmer, director of the Headland Hotel, Cornwall. And we're going to be looking at adapting with artificial intelligence. Looking at alleviating staff pressures, gaining confidence in artificial intelligence, looking to new technology, 

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Director at Headland Hotel, Cornwall, where I was fortunate enough for her to join me on the panel at the Independent Hotel Show, 2023. Varian, thank you ever so much for coming along today and actually revisiting the conversation that we had at the Independent Hotel Show. Now, artificial intelligence has really played a key role in alleviating pressures on your team.


Can you talk to me about some of the tools you've been deploying?


Veryan Palmer:

So I think probably if I can set the scene of sort of June 2020, the government gave us nine days to reopen just following the first COVID lockdown. And it felt like the whole world was coming to Cornwall. That's a great summer staycation where we'd had previously almost zero bookings for the summer to everyone wanting to come and stay.

And we had so many dropped phone calls with people saying, Hi, do you have COVID protection measures? Can I bring my dog? Which way does an ocean-view room face? Obviously the ocean. And one, some of my team suggested that we look at a chatbot, an AI chatbot to see if it could actually just take the pressure off the reservations teams.

And that's what we went with. So we went with Book Me Bob and It was pretty amazing from the get-go in just stopping some of those phone calls.


Ryan Haynes:

I mean, that's really interesting, right? Because, I mean, you're diving into a piece of technology that you never even looked at, hadn't even considered before.

I mean, before the pandemic, before all of this craziness actually happened, sort of where was your head when it came to sort of implementing some of these new technologies? Had Chatbot been on your radar at all as a director?


Veryan Palmer:

Absolutely not. I don't think we'd even considered it as a possibility. And when it was actually one of our team who said, I think there's something we can do which might make a huge difference to the number of drop calls.


And we're talking thousands and thousands of drop calls per day. And we were very much led by him, by Josh in investigating something. We said to him, whatever we can do, what are the options? And yeah, he came, he proposed the idea of a chatbot. He is very systems and technological technology advanced in terms of what he proposes to us.

And yes, he championed the project from the start.


Ryan Haynes:

That's fantastic. You know, obviously having someone member of your team, having that confidence to feel they can bring a solution forward to you and a new, particularly at that point in time, by the sounds of it, it was like, don't want to be dropping any more of these calls.


They can be really valuable customers. Obviously, you guys at the Headlands Hotel have got an incredible reputation for hospitality and customer service anyway, and you just couldn't let that go. But what otherwise has been the impact that it's had on your business and your teams?


Veryan Palmer:

I think for me, I mean, just First up, look at the data.


So just year to date this year. So this is actually the data I pulled off in September. So nine months. It had, our chatbot had 6870 chats and 276 hours of chat, which saved approximately 825 hours of the team's time. But the really fascinating thing is, 49 per cent of things were booking inquiries.


So can I have a twin room in this room of a fiscal beach view suite, for example? 6, 450 room nights were referred from please can I book now? Yes. I can understand what I want now. I'd like to make it. Would you like to make a booking? Yes. And going straight through to the booking engine. And 1.


3 million pounds worth of revenue was referred. It's extraordinary and this is something that works on our website, just takes care of the, I mean, can you imagine the hundreds, thousands of emails that the team in reservations would have had to have handled, or the phone calls, if we didn't have this working.


And it just sits there like a silent, partner on our website, just chugging through all the inquiries.


Ryan Haynes:

It is fascinating because as you say, it's something that you introduced three years ago to deal with the mayhem that you were dealing with three years ago, yet Figures to date count really does show the invaluable contribution.


It provides us with another team member, a digital team member to the Headland Hotel. And you mentioned that Josh was, was one of your team players that really brought this to light. And I guess, you know, you really have to dive there in there around this use of automation and artificial intelligence, which is a technology, as you say, you hadn't used before.


When you were engaging with the team at Book Me Bob, what gave you that bit more confidence that it was going to be just that it was going to work and deliver sort of like the solution that you were looking for? I think, to be brutally honest, we didn't know. We were, by all accounts, one of the first hotels to really pick up and run with this live chat idea.


Veryan Palmer:

It would have been present, you'd see it on some of the very big sort of PLCs with, I mean a gas company, an electric company. But hospitality hadn't really adopted it. We didn't know if it was going to work, but we had to do something. We just had, what, three, nearly four months of lockdown. We were seeing an immense amount of business pressure on a number of people trying to make reservations.


And I think people had got to a place where they weren't always looking on their desktop or their laptops. They were using phones a lot and it's actually quite hard to find things on websites using a phone. You can't do your sort of control f function to try and find dogs. Any mention of a dog, can you bring a dog to the hotel?


So I think it's very much, it's sort of with the rise of phone usage to try and find information on a hotel website, which for a lot of people, it's, it's one of their sort of biggest single expenditures in a year is there is a week of holiday. And so you want to make sure you've got all the answers and using a chatbot, you can find that very quickly.


Ryan Haynes:

That's excellent. And how much have you, as a team, had to be involved with perhaps ensuring that the system is evolving constantly? Have you found it's becoming useful in other ways?


Veryan Palmer:

So, I mean, when we first did it, it was literally a, I'm going to call it a data scrape of our website of information.


That's how it went live with. But putting Bob integrated with chat GPT let's see. Maybe three, or four months ago now. And so what we're now seeing is a much more intelligent response to people on what they're looking for. So Josh and the team here do look at what people are asking. So when we realized that Lots of people are asking us about, are you dog friendly?


We populated more images on our website of people with dogs. Stop the questions coming because so it's almost like it was collecting data about how people were perceiving us from our website because they couldn't find the information they wanted. So we could then make nuanced changes to the website to make it a better experience for guests.


Ryan Haynes:

That's great. Obviously, that's what is actually really attracting a lot more guests and that's what Consumers do today. I mean, I don't know about yourself, but you know, we all want everything at ease. We want everything at our fingertips. And we don't want to have to go searching for it. So you're really providing that solution there.

Now, when it comes to sort of your wider technology stack and wider systems, are there ways in which you and your team have been looking at new technologies and other aspects of your business? I think we run quite a flat organization in terms of any team member who can spot something good, whether it's technological or operational or design, and bring it forward.


Veryan Palmer:

And certainly, there are, I think, having a young team at the Hadland, the majority of the team under the age of sort of 35 has meant that people come forward with very clever ideas that they've seen online, that they've read about, that they've heard about in online forums to approach things. And I think just being open and allowing people to say, I think I've got an idea that we could do that would be better.

And do this better or do that better means that whilst I would say that we're not a technology-hungry organization as such, we're not at the forefront, cutting edge of technology. When we can see that something would work then we can offer often move quite quickly. Being an independent family and hotel means you can, you can move quickly, make decisions and go with something.

So when there is a different solution to something, using technology, then we very much would want to adopt that. Yes.


Ryan Haynes:

So what advice would you give to other hotel managers to take this approach and work with their teams to really sort of find out those solutions?


Veryan Palmer:

I think that it's about finding those team members in your organization who truly have a love For this area, there are some, there will be some in almost any hotel.

There'll be people who are, who naturally spend their free time reading searching, looking for what's new and what's more cutting edge. Certainly, I am a bit of a technological dinosaur in certain respects. But the team know that they can bring ideas forward and not shut things down immediately.


Technology is moving so fast now that whilst we might not be the first adopters. Of a new technology. I mean, saying that we were but I don't think we knew it at the time. And I think it's, it's about just Making sure that we keep our eyes open to what is coming and what is out there.


Ryan Haynes:

I mean, you're right. You're so right. Very. I know, you know, I mean, I work at the cutting edge of hotel technology. I speak to hoteliers that are really trying to be on that bleeding edge of the newest tech that's coming out. And obviously, a lot of the technology vendors out there that are working with, with some of you know, newest systems and developments in that around, particularly as we've discussed today, artificial intelligence, but So many of the industry, so much of the industry just isn't it just either, you know, being, having the right skill sets, right experience, having the right money and, and, and finances to be able to deploy it or, or really just really a better understanding sort of like where it fits into the existing technology and systems.


So there's a whole lot to get around whilst you're running a business. 24 7 365 days of the week. So I think we've all got to give us that. Or certainly, those who are running hotels need to give themselves a bit of a break and not feel they need to be at that cutting edge. And I think that's one of the reasons why you know, this conversation is so important.

It's really understanding what and where is the right time to invest in technology. And as you identified, you know, You've got you had a major problem. You had to find a solution. There's been a lot of talk, particularly on the technology side of the hospitality industry over the last few years like the role of automation within hospitality.


Do you sort of, are you, how much further far ahead do you have to look for yourself in regards to sort of like, your team, the skills and experience that you need to use or perhaps where you go to get that level of support to make sure that you know, as a business, you're able to adapt to these changes that are happening across the industry.


Veryan Palmer:

Well, that's that's 11 big questions. I think I think nowadays A lot of young people are so fast at adopting technology. And also, whereas in the old days, you would have had one system and you've, you've learned that one system or that one, that one process of doing something nowadays, so many technological advances are piggybacking and off others that often people who've got a particular skill set in one can translate it across into another.


Area within technology. It's, it's going to be a continuous learning process for us and for our team at the Headland and one that we need to continuously invest in. We have a big learning development program and ensure that the team are sort of a match fit for technological advances that are coming, such as there's a lot of talk about the role of a sort of technology An AI concierge in, in hotels.


We're not quite at that point yet, but if we are, we can already start talking to the team about, it and about what, how, and what would the implications be. How can we, what would we need to do? Who do we need to look at training and understanding? Because it's, it's going to, the whole, there's a huge shift coming.


Personally, I feel that particularly in the luxury end of the market, the human element of service, whether it's answering a phone or making a table reservation is possibly going to be one of the differentiators moving forward, because if you are paying more money, then hotels can afford to maybe employ more team members to look after you because as wonderful as an AI chat or voice bot can be, it's very different talking to an actual person.

With the challenges that have everything that comes with it. So I think it will be interesting to continue our technological L and D within our team, but also still retain that sort of service, that hospitable service side people want when they come to the headland.


Ryan Haynes:

I mean, if we take technology aside, push that completely to one side, if you look at sort of hostility over the last four or five years, have you seen sort of a change in a way in what, guests want or the way that you need to look at delivering that perhaps with that younger generation of staff.


Veryan Palmer:

So we're slightly unique in that we employ team members from the age of 14 to 86 throughout the younger team members through our summer placement scheme. And They, these are the children, because they are still children, who have missed a couple of years of school because of COVID at quite formative years.


And it's been very interesting. I mean, they're like sponges in terms of soaking up information. It's amazing to see but they still need a lot of social awareness training and just the ability to work alongside people. And I think Now people are looking for that very individualistic approach, particularly if you come and stay somewhere like us.

You're not one, you're not, you're choosing us because we're not corporate. We are a bit quirky. We are a bit sort of different. If you've got a dog with you, we'll probably know your dog's name. And it probably will get a lot of pats because that's who we are. That's, why we encourage our team to say hello to dogs.


They're saying but it's, and I think that's where people are now looking for that, that unique, different. experience in hotels, but only very, very different. Again, if you're, if you're travelling on business, you probably want to book a very, I'm going to call it safe corporate group style hotel. So it's horses, of course, it's different things for different people.

But yes, there's certainly an element of training that we have to do just to help a lot of our team to understand what five star is five star Cornwall, not formal, which is what we mean to our guests, but also to them and to each to each of them individually.


Ryan Haynes:

That's wonderful. Thank you very much for taking us on that journey to explain to us how you've adopted artificial intelligence and really engaged your team in it. It's been wonderful listening to that today.


Veryan Palmer:

Thank you so much for having me on.


Ryan Haynes:

Well, that is wonderful to have Varian back with me after our discussion at the Independent Hotel Show 2023, looking at artificial intelligence.

For more about our Hotelier's Voice Season 3, please check out travelmarket. life or visit us on LinkedIn where you'll get our latest updates. I'm your host, Ryan Haynes. Thanks for listening. Ciao for now.


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