We have never gone down the cookie-cutter approach. They look good on a spreadsheet but don't meet the customer's needs.
So says Mark Thompson, CIO for travel operator Palatinate Group. Having distinct online offerings has allowed the London headquartered operator of golf, spa, and cycling vacations to tailor trips for its clients — as well as respond to the biggest disruption the travel and tourism sector has ever been through.
Founded in 2005, Palatinate Group specializes in bespoke vacations for enthusiasts of golf, horse racing and cycling, as well as LGBT and spa break holidaymakers. In the office of one subsidiary, staff at YourGolfTravel.com are dressed as if they are about to walk out onto the course, and it becomes clear from listening to the conversation with customers that their enthusiasm is as deep as the passion of the caller. This is typical of each part of the business, says Thompson:
We have kept the brands separate, although we are now beginning to see the cross-over opportunities in golf and spa holidays, for example.
CIO Thompson is a travel and tourism veteran. He joined Palatinate Group in mid-2019 from Travelopia where he spent two years on the leadership team that sold the division to KKR from industry giants TUI, where he had spent the prior 11 years leading technology. It's a sector the CIO is passionate about, as he says, everyone has a travel memory or story or dream.
The bespoke theme is carried through into Thompson's technology strategy. He explains:
The smaller brands need to be nimble and move quickly, so all of the brands work with a framework. If we develop a technology solution for Spabreaks.com we always develop it in a way that can be ported across to the other brands. But what we haven't done is build big customer-facing systems across the Group.
Thompson has an in-house development team that uses software development houses for increased capacity, but code and technology ownership always remains with Palatinate Group. He says:
If it touches the customer, we own it. But if it requires a lot of heavy lifting, then we get a preferred partner, and then we take on the IP.
Adaptability is crucial, and Thompson says that feeds the entrepreneurial nature of a business that has become a significant player in the specialist holidays market in 16 years. He explains:
The customer wants something distinct, as they are all different. The business lines have commonality at the core, but each has a different business model or customer journey, and are at different points on the growth curve. For example, Spabreaks.com and Racingbreaks.com source inventory from very fragmented markets, and personalize it to meet customer needs, supported by the expertise that resides within each business.
For more complex or high-value bookings, customers still need the reassurance of dealing with industry experts. So the role of technology is to digitize the predictable and humanize the experiential. This is how technology supports the customer experience.
Grounded but not out
Travel and hospitality have been one of the hardest-hit commercial sectors during the pandemic, with overseas travel witnessing the greatest impact. Thompson says:
It has been one of the hardest times for the travel industry. Demand, though, did not stop. People were not physically able to do what they wanted to do, but the desire remained.
The Palatinate Group has a strong UK offering in golf, cycling, spa and horse racing, and the business remained open — from employees' homes. The CIO says it was important to keep communication channels open. This led to the deployment of RingCentral, cloud based telecommunications to replace an inherited self-built platform that Thompson was planning to replace due to the need for constant upgrades. He adds:
The first thing we did when lockdown hit was go to our software vendors and renegotiate our deals. Every partner came back with a concession, either cheaper deals for longer, free use for three months or a drop in cost.
Thompson says the external technology community was largely supportive of his business and the sector as a whole.
The ones that were the most difficult to deal with had scale or where we were not an important customer to them.
Thompson and diginomica met before the Omnicron variant of COVID-19 had spread worldwide and began to disrupt travel and tourism once again. However, as Thompson reveals, COVID-19 will have a lasting impact on the travel sector and will continue to disturb golf games, bike rides and spa breaks.
It is like long-COVID for the economy, and it has been underestimated in areas like the time it takes to resource a hotel or restaurant with staff. It has become a real challenge for example, as customers have been deprived of this, and their expectations are so high, so if the chef is having to self-isolate, it becomes an issue for the customer. We see unprecedented demand in certain areas and a more limited supply. This is where having personal expertise on hand for the customer becomes critical.
The disruption to the travel sector had an impact closer to home for the CIO too, as technology team members considered different horizons. He explains:
Because of the uncertainty in travel, that affected the technology department. The sector experienced people knew that the industry is robust and resilient and when it comes back there will be a tidal wave of demand. For less experienced team members or those that saw themselves as technology workers rather than travel sector workers, they didn't want to deal with the uncertainty. It is a dilemma, do you work in technology or travel? COVID made that a very binary choice for some.
We have retained the core of the technology team, and have brought in newer skills to compliment the solid tech expertise already in place.
Thompson is now looking to recruit talent in a highly competitive market. He says:
I haven't seen the same challenge in recruitment and retention at any time in the last 30 years. We are competing with every other London- and Brighton-based firm for the key people in the technology team, and we are doing all the right things in career development.
Now that everyone is remote, it has opened up the pool of available candidates, but that also means you are competing with firms in Manchester or the USA, amongst others. Having an experienced specialist team, a bespoke modern technology stack, and a great team ethic transcending multiple geographies, has meant we have attracted exciting new talent in the department.
With a set of products aimed at delivering personal and high-value service to the customer, Thompson believes it is important to have an internal team close to the product, brand, and wider team.
Thompson told me a few years back that he moved into the travel sector as everyone has a travel story; this remains his motivation to continue in the sector he first joined in 2001. Despite the sector's COVID struggles, in September 2021 Palatinate Group had one of its most successful days of travel bookings. The pandemic may be dragging on, but as that day in September shows, the longer we have to stay at home, the more we want to travel.