Hundreds of the travel industry’s most-forward-thinking executives will gather for our third annual Skift Forum Europe in London on April 30. In just a few years, Skift's Forums — the largest creative business gatherings in the global travel industry — have become what media, speakers, and attendees have called the “TED Talks of travel.”
Focusing on responsible travel practices and other key issues, Skift Forum Europe 2019 will take place at Tobacco Dock in London. The Forum will feature speakers, including CEOs and top executives from British Airways, IHG, Thomas Cook, Booking.com, TripAdvisor, Silversea, Uber, and many more.
The following is part of a series of posts highlighting some of the speakers and touching on issues of concern in Europe and beyond.
Technology vendors often tell hotel companies to outsource the tech work to them and instead focus on providing hospitality. But four years ago, Nordic Choice Hotels decided to become more hands-on with technology.
The hotel chain — with over 195 hotels in Norway and five other northern European countries — decided to build its own tech to engage with its consumers more often and take more control of the distribution of its inventory.
Petter Stordalen, the founder and owner of the 16,500-employee company, created a tech subsidiary, eBerry. He hired Lisa Farrar, who had been a managing director at online travel agency ebookers, to head both eBerry and the chain’s digital initiatives.
Farrar’s priorities as the chief digital officer of Nordic Choice Hotels and CEO of the now-185-employee eBerry have included testing reception-free check-ins, enabling guests to pick their room when booking through the company’s mobile app, and using artificial intelligence to help control heating systems.
Stordalen gave Farrar about $25 million to launch a mobile app that performs a variety of functions, such as serving as a mobile key for rooms.
New tools on the app are tested at select properties and then scaled up chain-wide. As of this month, for example, guests at Clarion Hotel Sign and the Clarion Hotel Stockholm can choose their hotel room when booking through the app.
In a partnership with startup Winding Tree, Nordic Choice Hotels tested offering room inventory for one of its properties, the Hobo Hotel, on a decentralized blockchain platform. Third parties can connect to it without having to go through aggregators or sign individual contracts.
Farrar will speak April 30 at Skift Forum Europe in London in what is a rare appearance onstage at a travel industry conference. Here’s a preview of the conversation.
Skift: You joined Nordic Choice four years ago. What intrigued you about the company?
Lisa Farrar: The company had and still has a strong belief in People/Planet/Profit, in that order, which is extremely refreshing. I also liked its ambition to set up an opportunity to diversify into other interests beyond hotels to touch our customers’ lives more often.
Skift: How did Nordic Choice Hotels become one of the most daring companies in the Nordics?
Farrar: We are slightly different from most chains, in that we are privately owned. We have a leader with an appetite for innovation and tolerance for calculated risks.
Skift: How come a traditional hotel company has started a tech company?
Farrar: Our vision is to build the world’s best journey. But hotel companies tend to be hierarchical. Creating a subsidiary has let us remove some of those hierarchies to test and learn.
Skift: What’s been the focus so far, and what do you see for 2019 and 2020?
Farrar: We’ll continue building a tech stack with machine learning and other tools to be able to deliver on our mission of being more directly connected to our customers.
In the next few months, we’ll enhance our loyalty program to reach way beyond offering points on nights spent in our hotels.
Skift: How adventurous are you in tech?
Farrar: We’re audacious! We look at ground-breaking technologies that may not change the lives of our customers today but that we believe will have an impact over time, such as blockchain and voice.
For example, we’ve been exploring blockchain’s potential to increase the chance that guests will return and book hotel rooms directly through Nordic Choice Hotels’ website and mobile app.
Since 2016 we’ve scaled up using Amazon Alexa as a concierge/butler service to most of our conference rooms as well as hotel rooms.
Skift: You claim several “world firsts.” How can a small Nordic company make claims like that?
Farrar: We broke a world record with guest usage of our mobile keys. We were first in use of voice and experiments with blockchain.
As a dominant player in a small market, we have a bit more freedom to experiment than some others might.
Skift: Can you see eBerry delivering to a broader audience in the future?
Farrar: Yes. One area is alternative accommodations.
Since November 2017, we’ve bought a few serviced apartments networks, and we intend to extend our services to those 3,000 units in Scandinavia in our Företagsbostäder subsidiary.
Co-working is another promising opportunity to deliver a fantastic hotel-style experience.
On a different point, the tech stack and services we’re building could be of interest to others on a licensed basis.