Dakota Hotels is a collection of 5 luxury boutique hotels in the UK. In this case study, Katie Forrest, Head of Engagement, Learning, and Development for the company, shares her experience upgrading their technology with Shiji Group.
Katie Forrest has been with Dakota Hotels for nine years and worked across a variety of departments throughout her career there. “Something I’ve always loved about the company is the energy they put into growing our talent,” she said. “There’s a big focus on internal promotions, and making sure that we have the talent pipeline we need.”
Recently, Katie moved into a role focusing on talent at the company, and in this role looks after all learning and development, as well as internal and external engagement.
“You could say I’m an influencer for Dakota!” she shared with a laugh. This involves her spending a lot of time talking about what it’s like to work at the company.
“I’m very much people-focused in my role, which is why I want to be involved in our technology projects. I wanted to make sure our teams felt very involved from the start. It’s really important to get buy-in for any change, and especially important for big technology projects.”
The Dakota difference
“What first attracted me to Dakota Hotels was the air of mystery the brand had about it,” Katie said.
The brand achieves this with striking interior design that feels like an escape as soon as you walk through the door. “In one of our properties, you might feel like you are in Manchester or Manhattan, but when you put one foot outside you know you’re definitely in Manchester! Guests can come into one of our properties and not worry about anything that’s going on outside.”
“When I joined the company, we only had two properties and didn’t do any marketing. What stood out was the way we operated, and that’s something I noticed has stayed a part of the culture of the company from the beginning.”
The people the company attracts to work there is also something that sets the brand apart, Katie says. “We have brilliant people working for us who really, really care about what they do and enjoy working here. That comes through in the way they serve our guests.”
“What has never changed for us is our desire to be guest-focused. That starts with traditional ways of showing hospitality, such as making sure we have the best wine, serving it at the right temperature, and providing a warm welcome as soon as someone walks in the door.”
Designing for surprise and delight
“We want to know everything about our guests, whether they have stayed with us 100 times or they are new to Dakota Hotels and this is their first stay. When technology can help us do this, it makes our lives easier.”
The Dakota team’s goal with technology was to cultivate loyal and profitable guests by saving information to the guest profile to enable moments of “surprise and delight.”
“We had one guest put in their pre-reservation note they wanted a photo of a celebrity in their room and the GM said of course we can do that! This is the sort of energy we want to have at Dakota.”
“You can ask for anything and we’ll make it happen. But even more powerful is the ability to track this information for future stays to surprise and delight guests. I want to know if someone who dined with us four years ago and really enjoyed something on the menu – and then try to have that available on a special menu for them when they come back. Or I want to know that a guest’s kids came in for a birthday and had a favorite animal, so we could have a balloon in the bedroom that is shaped like that animal. Those kinds of things were so hard to track before.”
Katie and the Dakota team believe that care, creativity, and engaging with guests are fundamentally human things that technology won’t take away. Rather, the technology works behind the scenes to support this level of hospitality by providing the right information to the right people at the right time.
Pursuing excellence required the best technology
“We want to do the best at everything we do,“ Katie told us. “Technology is moving quickly and while large hotel companies have more resources, technology can provide smaller brands like us an opportunity to differentiate and provide great service to both our teams and our guests.”
“We had been focusing on other areas of our business and noticed one day we were operating with technology that was behind – and that caused challenges in the way that we operated. In hindsight, there were so many inefficiencies.”
“I think what we had forgotten was that a huge element of hospitality is the processes that we have in place and making sure things are as efficient as they possibly can be. Nobody can be good at everything themselves, so we wanted to look for a technology provider who could support our operations.”
“Our desire is to be an industry leader. We want to be that across all aspects of our business. If we spend so much time attracting the best talent, supplying the best products, and having the best design, why would we stop there? Why would we not have a holistic approach to excellence that includes technology?”
Using the right technology was also so important because of the company’s growth plans for the years ahead. “It was critical we have the right infrastructure in place that would support the sort of growth that we wanted to achieve. That wasn’t going to be possible with the substandard product that we have been using previously.”
Evaluating technology through understanding the experience of others
With the goal of creating a technology that allowed people-first service, the Dakota team began the process of exploring their options.
“We went to visit quite a lot of people who are using various technologies across different properties across the UK because we wanted to see how we could integrate it into what we are doing. We also wanted to hear other hoteliers’ experiences directly from them.”
Katie advises others considering new technologies to speak with their industry colleagues.
“There’s never any shame in saying we want to be better, and ask others to show you what they’re doing in a certain area. We would go to their properties and ask to shadow them and show us how they do different tasks using their technology.”
In doing this, one clear leader emerged for the Dakota team.
Why Dakota Hotels choose Shiji technology
After speaking with many across the industry, and observing the available PMS and POS options first-hand, Dakota Hotels found Shiji technology was the best fit for their operations, and decided to move forward with them.
“What we saw time and again was that Shiji was the market leader, in terms of ease of use and the ability to support what we wanted to achieve – and those were the biggest criteria for us. Particularly in food and beverage, I don’t know why other providers make it so complicated.”
“Over the past years, we’ve changed our PMS provider twice, and our POS provider three times. We are a fast-moving, agile business, and the others had a very complex way of interacting with the technology. Simple things like adding a new menu seem straightforward but always took way too long in other systems. Ease of use in Shiji systems was a big selling point for us.”
“From an analytical reporting side of things, our Finance Director was a big part of the project and saw Shiji’s products provided reporting and analytics above and beyond other providers out there. It really delivered what we needed.”
“We also found ourselves aligned well with Shiji in a consistent desire to improve our product. We both want to have the optimum systems for providing fantastic hospitality, and that requires using the best products.”
The onboarding and implementation process
Once Dakota Hotels decided to work with Shiji, they formed a team to focus on implementation.
“The team represented experts across various functional areas of the business, and taking them off their normal responsibilities represented a big investment for us, but was important to make sure that we build the right infrastructure with the right points of view.
“We wanted this to be a really successful integration with our day-to-day operation, so we needed to bring the expertise of these people into the setup process. We wanted them to consume as much information as possible from Shiji’s experts, and make the systems as user-friendly for operational teams as possible.”
According to Katie, spending time with both colleagues across the company as well as Shiji experts was a bonding experience.
“I feel like we’re really good friends now. We spent a lot of time together through this process and away from our home sites. We’d have dinners together and get to know each other, and I think that’s been very enjoyable for everyone involved.”
Building a cross-functional team has also developed internal expertise around the technology. “It’s allowed us to make sure processes are built in the best possible way, and provides points of contact within the organization for those learning how to use the systems,” Katie said.
Building a cross-functional team also helped with the speed and accuracy of setup. “We had such momentum behind it. We were pushing and pushing to get our first hotel set up and got some great feedback on that process. The next hotel went live a few weeks later, and the next one even faster. The momentum built like a snowball really quickly. I really recommend that anyone doing something similar is approaching it, as we did because we took learnings from each implementation to make the setup faster and more effective at each subsequent hotel.
“Our last hotel was the biggest implementation, but it actually ended up being the easiest because we have learned so much in the process of setting up previous systems. I’m so happy with how it ended up.”
Lessons in change management
For Katie, the lessons she and the organization learned through the pandemic were useful in how they operate today and navigated this technological change.
“I feel like we became so agile over the past couple of years. One of my big learnings is that communication is the number one thing for any type of change. We talk all the time and have meetings to run people through any change in advance. It allowed the team to relax a bit because they knew what was going on. They knew the people they could speak with if we had questions or if something went wrong.
“Shiji also provided us with strong support and did everything they could to make our lives easier. I really appreciated that they were talking with us all the time and preparing us for what was next. Without their support, the change wouldn’t have been as smooth as possible. It showed me it’s really critical you choose the right partner for navigating change.”
How Dakota Hotels is using Shiji Enterprise Platform today
Today, Shiji Enterprise Platform is the backend for all of Dakota Hotels’ operations.
“We’re using it across all areas of our business,” Katie shared. “We’re focused on making sure we’re in constant communication with our guests and removing as many manual processes as we can for our staff.”
“An area we’re really excited about further developing is building profiles of our VIP guests. That’s going to be game-changing for us. We’ve always had some version of that function, but with Shiji we can do it so much better. We can track a guest’s entire journey and make sure that we understand things that are important to them and allow us to focus on making sure the guest has the best experience.
“With Shiji’s Enterprise Platform, we can make sure that our team is spending less time doing things systems can do themselves – something that definitely slowed us down in the past.”
The reservation check process is an example of efficiencies created. “This involves understanding all the information and journey that we need to take a guest from the moment they arrive at the desk with us to their check out and post-stay experience. We need to be tracking all the touch points along the process properly and add things that will trigger alerts for providing better service by centralizing all of these touch points. People from all of our teams can get different updates throughout the guest day as needed.
“Now that I see this all in action, we’re all wondering why we weren’t able to do this forever! It’s game-changing for us and allows us to focus on what we really want to do, which is spending time with our guests and making sure that we can have as many positive interactions with them as possible.”
Saving time and improving guest experience with Shiji technology
Now with the systems activated, things are working as they hoped they would, Katie says.
Dakota Hotels is saving time. “I’d estimate we’re saving at least a third of the time in our food and beverage teams. An interaction that took five minutes is probably taking three and a half now.”
The guest experience is improved. “The way that we collect and are able to retrieve information about our guests to improve their stay is much faster and more efficient as well. It’s been a big focus for us doing this change and I’m very happy with the results that we have achieved so far.”
One of Dakota’s core brand values is doing the simple things brilliantly, and with Shiji technology, there’s an opportunity to speed up and elevate even the smallest transactions or interactions and provide thoughtful hospitality. “With Shiji technology we can do more than we ever have before.”
“The Shiji team has been fantastic at making sure at every stage we felt like we had the support we need. They’ve given us confidence at every step of our journey in using technology to engage our teams and serve our guests. I don’t see that from a lot of other providers, and I really value that we share our desire to be the best in what we do.”
About Shiji Group
Shiji Group is a multinational technology company that provides software solutions and services for enterprise companies in the hospitality, food service, retail, and entertainment industries, ranging from hospitality technology platforms, hotel management solutions, food and beverage, and retail systems, payment gateways, data management, online distribution and more. Founded in 1998 as a network solutions provider for hotels, Shiji Group today comprises over 5,000 employees in 80+ subsidiaries and brands in over 31 countries, serving more than 97,000 hotels, 200,000 restaurants, and 600,000 retail outlets.
About Dakota Hotels
Dakota Hotels is a luxury lifestyle brand, synonymous with style and impeccable service. Sophisticated yet cool, with timeless style, each of Dakota’s five hotel destinations across the UK surprises and delights in unexpected ways.