Executive Conversations: Building Resiliency with Graham Donoghue, CEO, Sykes Holiday Cottages
Graham Donoghue, CEO of Sykes Holiday Cottages joins Joanna Todd, AWS’ Head of Worldwide Accommodations and Lodging, for a broad-ranging discussion about the recent disruption faced by travel and hospitality companies – and his company’s response to that disruption. Sykes is one of the largest vacation rental agents globally, managing over 20,000 properties across the UK and New Zealand.
This Executive Conversation is one of a series of discussions held with industry leaders, where we seek to learn more about their resiliency, tenacity and capacity for innovation. The series follows the publication of the AWS Travel & Hospitality E-book: “Building Resilience For The Long Run”. Filled with strategic observations, hints and tips, the E-book provides guidance for building a more resilient organization, potentially serving as a useful resource as travel and hospitality companies address both current challenges and those yet to come.
Joanna Todd: While your business is recognized publicly by many, what’s one unique characteristic or feature that is either lesser known or understood about your company?
Graham Donoghue: We act as an agent for holiday homeowners, but we go far beyond a marketing service provider to ensure we build an economic model that uses data to fully understand how we drive continuous improvement end to end for both customers and owners. Not all customers carry the same value and as you would expect not all properties or prospects are equal. Our business acts like a giant flywheel where the fuel is stock (properties) but we have to maximise the efficiencies via lead generation, detailed understanding of net margin, customer life time value (LTV) by source, price elasticity of both the property and customer, and the lists goes on. To do this, we focused our strategic model on our platform, along with best experience, brand, and our owners. By putting the platform front and centre, we were able to build a narrative about scale, efficiencies, capabilities, and most importantly, execution.
JT: Many companies across travel and hospitality have been managing through a period of unprecedented disruption. What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced during this recent period and how have you managed through them?
GD: I don’t ever want to repeat what my team has gone through since March. Trying to explain our role as an agent and the role of homeowners has been challenging without turning to legal definition. Doing the right thing is how we have always run the business, but at the same time, we had to try and protect the business given we had no new income but all the costs. The media noise across the travel industry was high with some sensational journalism. Over 500,000 customers were impacted and we had to move all the teams to remote working with some very new and untested tools. Luckily, it all worked, and the teams adapted much better than I could have anticipated. However, the volume of contacts increased by 300% and we just could not handle the scale. This led to service levels that kept me up at night. To add to the challenges, the government polices kept evolving. I have never seen so many updates and traffic to a FAQ page. Customers and owners were hungry for information and we had to move fast and often first as a market leader.
JT: As we all prepare for the next phase of traveler or guest demand, what are some of the changes your company has taken (or plans on taking) to adjust to the current operating environment?
GD: We are lucky in that we operate a domestic holiday model. Given the uncertainty in overseas travel, we have gone from no bookings to being sold out. We have had to adapt to new COVID-19 cleaning standards, new check-in and check-out times, and demand where we were taking a booking every 10 seconds. Scalability of Amazon OpenSearch Service (September 8, 2021: Amazon Elasticsearch Service has been renamed to Amazon OpenSearch Service) and our AWS environments helped us take advantage of record-breaking volume to scale on demand.
JT: In the face of the current disruption to the travel and hospitality industry, we’ve observed incredible innovations coming from across the industry. How has your company innovated through these challenging times and what are you most proud of?
GD: Many great lessons have come from new ways of working – nothing like a crisis to focus on the important tasks. Developments that should have taken months happened in weeks. We deployed new engagement tools so teams could collaborate. We adapted a laser focus on cost control and liquidity. The fear that productivity would significantly drop as a result of home working vanished. We also created a model for rapid decision making. All of these we will take forward into a new normal. I am most proud of the team resilience, regardless of what was thrown at them. We now need to ensure manual tasks are now automated, and the areas where we needed to develop new workflows are built into production models. We were in good shape with our data, but with the fear of another lockdown we have had to develop new tools to lock down regions of the country and automation of refunds or facilitation of booking chang
JT: The travel and hospitality industry is incredibly resilient. As you look toward recovery, what role does technology play for your company moving forward? How do you see technology enhancing the customer experience and improving operational efficiency?
GD: As we look to scale our business to 35,000 properties by 2023, we will use technology to improve operational performance. We are currently using our data science team to understand how we use AI to allow more self-service. We have also acquired 20 businesses over the last few years and successfully integrated these to create value. As we look to scale beyond the UK M&A, we will enhance our platform to accommodate. Data drives our thinking with thousands of A/B tests and we will look to continue to drive enhanced conversions across sources and devices. Personally, I am a big fan of voice search and we have tested voice interfaces across multiple devices including Alexa. Assistants will play an ever-increasing part of the holiday experience including in-property support. We will ensure teams are set up to test and learn.
JT: There’s much talk at the moment about how the travel experience has changed and there will be a “new normal” going forward. What does this “new normal” look like to you.
GD: Many reports talk about travel volume not returning to pre-COVID levels until 2023. I think domestic markets will continue to thrive for the foreseeable future. Businesses that will win must evolve and adapt the planning, searching, booking, and on-location experience. Too many sites have limited tools to allow choices to be made or just pile results low to high. We aim to bring people together to create lasting holiday moments. More and more customers want experiences and are looking for help and support in order to make the best possible choice for their needs. Adapting based on what you know, what has been done before, other guest feedback, what’s going on locally, and where to go for support when needed is critical. Bringing all of these together is a key focus for us to create memories. This leads to higher net promoter score, better occupancy, higher re-book, happy guests, and happy owners. Get this all flowing, and we have a successful and sustainable business built to last.
JT: What makes you excited for the future of travel and hospitality? As a traveler or guest, where are you looking forward to visiting next?
GD:: I love travel and I had to re-schedule four trips this year. I do love the UK but given I visit New Zealand four times per year, each time I discover something new and I could see myself spending more time, maybe in retirement. The team in NZ says, “find your happy place,” and maybe this is mine. I remain confident travel will emerge strong as to travel is built into our human compass. It will take time and we will see changes, but technology will help. All this excites me both as a CEO and as a traveller.
Learn more about the new Travel & Hospitality E-book: “Building Resilience For The Long Run”.
See more Executive Conversations and industry insights on the AWS Travel & Hospitality Blog.
Graham Donoghue has worked in digital for over 25 years and held executive positions at TUI Travel, the world’s largest tourism businesses and MoneySuperMarket Group, the leading price comparison business in the Europe. A passion for people and technology led Graham to join PE backed Sykes in 2016 as CEO.