The five minute CIO: Alan Rafferty, Avvio

15 Aug 2014

Alan Rafferty, COO at Avvio

“Like Apple, we feel simplicity is more than just removing clutter,” says Alan Rafferty, chief operations officer at Avvio.

“We aim to create experiences that are simpler and products that are more useful to the people that use them.”

Founded in 2002, Dublin-headquartered Avvio’s technology and services allow hotels and hospitality businesses to maximise occupancy and profitability. The company employs more than 70 people and serves more than 1,000 hotels worldwide.

Avvio has applied a scientific approach to conversion and usability; constantly pushing the boundaries of hotel booking engine technology to increase revenues for clients via the primary, most cost-effective channel – the hotel’s own website.

According to Rafferty, hotels are paying more and more commissions in an industry dominated by online travel agents and other intermediaries. These intermediaries simply pass on bookings and considerable costs.

He argues they do not truly market any specific hotel, nor do they partner with them in a meaningful way. They seem to simply market their platform and so not appear to be overly concerned about where the customer stays or what they experience.

“We partner with our client hotels and provide the tools they need to attract and grow the volume of bookings through their own websites and to develop real relationships with their customers, all the while avoiding significant commission costs.

“Avvio is able to deliver this valuable direct business thanks to the simplicity and strength of our systems, our strong consultancy and design supports, and our unrelenting focus on making it all work. We are so passionate and confident about what we do that we guarantee any hotel’s direct year-on-year booking revenue will grow after joining Avvio.”

Can you outline the breadth and scope of the technology rollout across your organisation and what improvements it will bring to the company?

We’ve always been a technology-enabled company. We’ve recently partnered with some big players, such as Microsoft, and the big message is the cloud-first, mobile-first strategy, and using IT services that are real productivity tools rather than being a necessary evil. Our hybrid cloud allows us to connect everyone in the company together no matter where they are working – significantly improving collaboration and productivity.

What are the main points of your companys IT strategy?

Our company and IT strategy is focused around simplicity and doing more for less: less cost, less disruption, less overhead, less time. Like Apple, we feel simplicity is more than just removing clutter – we aim to create experiences that are simpler and products that are more useful to the people that use them. Giving people the right things, in the right way, and when they need them, simplifies the complexity of the booking process for guests and helps us bring order to the complexity of our clients’ business. 

We get more bookings for less for our customers. More direct bookings equals more profit for them and better experiences for their customers. The competition seems to think that people will fall though a sales funnel, and the force of gravity will result in some success. We disagree; we think people must climb up though a sales process, each step needs to be simple and the value proposition needs to be enforced at each step, to give a person a reason to proceed. We make our clients’ lives easy by making it easy for their consumers to do business with them. When a guest logs onto the systems we build for our clients and already knows how to do the things they need and want to do, that’s the proof of complexity made simple.

Can you give a snapshot of how extensive your IT infrastructure is?

Avvio supports hundred of hotels, serviced apartment properties, resorts and other hospitality companies across the globe, as well as our offices and partners in Europe, America and Asia. Our systems reflect the diversity and scale of our customers and offices.

In terms of managing IT budgets, what are your key thoughts on how CIOs/heads of technology should achieve their goals?

Every leader should be mindful of the challenges and opportunities their teams and customers face when considering how best to deploy technology resources. We make sure we view opportunities through the eyes of our, and our clients’, front offices. We help marketing, sales and service managers working directly with customers to solve problems and improve processes. Never forget the customer – they pay your wages.

How complex is the infrastructure, are you taking steps to simplify it?

Right from the beginning, Avvio has had a strong architectural vision and thanks to that we’ve ensured our systems have been scalable since the early days. Frank, one of our founders, and several of our early hires come from Sun Microsystems (now Oracle), and the long-term architectural view encouraged by that grounding remains today. Our systems are no more complex then they need to be. Our focus today is on continuous improvement and making sure we are using the technological resources available to us to serve our customers. We’re working with traditional IT and cloud-based partners to do just that.

Do you have a large in-house IT team, or do you look to strategically outsource where possible?

We have a dedicated team of professionals internally and look to partnerships and strategic outsourcing as and when the need arises.

What are some of the main responsibilities of your own role, and how much of it is spent on deep technical issues compared to the management and business side?

Frank Reeves (our CEO) and I focus on the fundamentals: new lines of business, mergers and acquisitions, partnerships expansion plans, etc. The management team is responsible for driving incremental improvements to our systems and processes. Both of us, but especially Frank, find the right people, get them to the right position in the company and let them get on with it. We focus on fostering decision-making and leadership in that team and I have a co-ordinating role. I personally try to tease out the things that aren’t being discussed; if something is a problem and it’s not being tackled, it’s clearly holding us back. I find out why and what we can do about that.

What are the big trends and challenges in your sector, and how do you plan to use IT to address them?

When we started the march towards measurable marketing and sales analytics with Google, it was new and exciting, but it did start a bit of a technology arms race. Ever since people and our competitors have been racing to get more channels, more data – just more – they didn’t always stop to think about what they were trying to achieve. Now they’re swamped with channels, technology and data.

The human side of marketing has sometimes been forgotten or lost. People have become so focused on the click, that they’ve lost sight of the person: their customer. We’re focusing on helping our customers get back to where marketing was prior to the rush for technology, to understand what customers want and need. People in the hospitality sector want to make sure their customers have a great experience when they stay with them. We have the same focus: our clients stay with us. So instead of the hotels trying to stitch hundreds of different channels together to try to make some sense of it all, we help our customers build towards an integrated Avvio platform, where they can develop a real understanding of their customers.

While we’re simplifying our customers’ experience, removing the complexity of technology for them, the market also demands ever more connectivity. For this reason, Avvio puts considerable effort into maintaining and expanding our certified integration partnerships with PMS providers, revenue management tools, Google, marketing platforms and increasingly into ancillary areas of hotel operations, such as restaurant and spa booking platforms.

Similarly, we make great efforts to identify and work with the right middleware providers to handle the growing volume of business passing through meta search services, such as Trivago and TripAdvisor, allowing our clients to access business from these channels.

What metrics or measurement tools do you use to gauge how well IT is performing?

We’ve built our own measuring and management system, Avvio Insight, and integrate it with our and our clients’ systems to ensure they are performing. In terms of that performance we apply ITIL and Cobit-influenced frameworks to help define what performance means to our customers and us. It’s no good focusing on uptime if your systems take minutes instead of seconds to perform a transaction and have no capacity to store data or scale. Systems need to be ready and able to process transaction; they need to be able to support the customer as their demands increase. That is to say they need to be available. Our tools constantly monitor the availability of our systems to ensure that we have a record that is comparable with our cloud service partners. Our focus on what is important and our support team’s ability to support our customers is a differentiator.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years