How Atlas Hotels navigated a quickly-changing F&B environment with technology
Atlas Hotels is the largest franchisee of Holiday Inn Express hotels in the UK and Europe. The company dates back to 1996 when Somerston Hotels formed and opened its first hotel a year later. Its portfolio grew rapidly, and by 2005 became Europe’s largest franchisee of Holiday Inn Express Hotels. In 2014 the company rebranded as Atlas Hotels and today owns and operates 58 properties with more than 7,000 rooms in key business and leisure destinations throughout the UK.
We spoke with Cluster Operations Managers Erica Beckwith and Abs Linton about their journeys to operations leadership and how they have used technology to navigate a quickly-changing environment.
Abs Linton spent the last 20 years of his career in the hospitality industry, starting at reception and then working his way up through various departments within Atlas to his current leadership role with the company’s full-service properties.
“I always knew from a young age working in hospitality was something I wanted to do with my career,” he told us. “There’s a sense of purpose I get from helping and communicating with people. There is so much within this industry you can specialize in. It’s diverse, energetic, and challenging.”
For Abs, the ability to specialize presented an opportunity to manage food and beverage operations. “I’ve always had a keen interest in this, how it relates to technology, and how we can do things better and make life easier for our team members.”
Erica Beckwith got started in the hospitality business for similar reasons, first as a hotel receptionist because she liked working with people. From there, her career has included roles as a front office manager, working on the finance team, and as a general manager.
“I always say to people that if you work in a limited service hotel, you’ll learn everything about hospitality much faster than if you work in a full-service hotel because there isn’t just one department that you work in. You do it all and that fast-tracks your knowledge and skill set.”
Today, Erica is a cluster operations manager overseeing four hotels in the Atlas portfolio. While her focus has always been on providing a great experience for guests, she is now also taking on more responsibility for taking care of employees, and this has been very rewarding. “I love seeing people succeed in their careers and being a part of helping them along their journey.”
During the pandemic, Atlas launched a development course for its operations managers called Evolve, which supported work on projects that would change the shape of the company in the years ahead.
Abs and Erica decided to focus their efforts on food and beverage because of their passion for this area of hospitality and their shared interest in identifying new opportunities to improve efficiency. “I’m always curious how we can do things better and make life easier for our team members,” Abs said. “Participating in Evolve put us in a strategic mindset, and we knew there was an opportunity to improve both efficiency and consistency.”
The experience Abs and Erica had gathered by working in frontline operations and then leading operations teams made it clear a few things were holding them back when it came to their food and beverage technology.
Menu updates were time-consuming. Any changes required going through a planning process with data and purchasing teams to present a forecast of what they thought the changes would produce for the company. Meetings and data analysis were taking a long time and holding them back from operating at the speed they needed to.
Menu consistency was a challenge. “Our previous system couldn’t make updates centrally. For any menu addition or price change, we had to log onto 50 servers to update each of our 50 hotels individually,” Erica recalled. This process was not only laborious but risked errors. “If someone happened to enter incorrect VAT information at one property, for example, it might go unnoticed for days.”
The fact that the Atlas portfolio is made up of the same brand meant consistency was an important part of the brand experience. “We can’t have someone paying £5 for their pint and then going to another hotel and finding another price.”
The pandemic only heightened these challenges. They would work out agreements with suppliers and then hear last minute that due to supply chain issues a product was no longer available. Responding to these situations was complicated. They had to communicate with the data team and the data team needed to upload the change to every single POS individually. With more than 50 hotels, it was a big headache.
The Atlas team needed the agility to navigate an environment where product availability rapidly changed and needed to be rolled out to the properties, quickly.
A final challenge was central controls and management. “We needed to manage users and login information centrally with appropriate permissions - and that wasn’t possible before,” Erica said.
Knowing a change was needed to the technology that powered their food and beverage program, Erica and Abs began working with their commercial director and data and IT teams to identify their needs, then began searching for the best solution on the market that would meet these requirements.
Infrasys quickly emerged as a leading contender. Besides meeting the needs described above, the Atlas team developed confidence in the ability to have a long-term partnership with Shiji.
“We want to make sure that our partners are a future fit for whatever our brand chooses to do both now and in the long term,” Abs said.
The Atlas team decided to move ahead and switch to Infrasys Cloud Point of Sale.
While some believe that when you buy technology you can just flip a switch and get the benefits, savvy operators know coordination is key for onboarding and implementation.
For Atlas, this process was a partnership between the operations team, data teams, IT - and the providers of their other technology solutions such as the property management system. The Atlas team had several pre-launch meetings with the Shiji team to get to know each other and identify all of the requirements for a successful implementation.
Preparation and collaboration with property managers on project plans and internal communication were key. “It helps coordination between our teams when we can all operate off of a short checklist to align everyone and who will be doing what.”
Once pre-installation checklists were completed and returned, a Shiji trainer went from hotel to hotel for product activation.
The preparation paid off. While they initially planned three days for the installation, the Atlas teams were able to do it in just two days on average, including technical training and answering any questions the teams had.
Erica and Abs participated in the first installations but didn’t have to join every one for the entire portfolio. “Because it was all was running so smoothly, we were eventually able to let the Infrasys team make contact, do the pre-installation testing, and then do the activation without us needing to be in there. By building a thoughtful system in partnership with Shiji, and gathering all of the required data needed, onboarding went rapidly across the portfolio of hotels.”
Using the same installer across the portfolio hotels made a big difference. “It’s a lot easier to have the same person work on an installation like this across a large portfolio of hotels. That person can take the time to understand and learn our business and technology from different sites and share them with our other hotels. They can start to recognize patterns across the portfolio and what is causing things to happen.”
Recent research indicates more than 80% of hoteliers have experienced failed implementations. So what makes an implementation successful? The Atlas team believes it’s about the quality of your partners, the working relationship with them, and the time invested in building solutions.
“I’ve noticed Shiji invests more time and energy into every detail of their implementations,” Abs said. “Every Friday we get together to go through any issues that may have come up, how they were resolved, and how we can get better together.”
Another practice they’ve found helpful for implementations is regrouping after installations on what was learned and any adjustments that need to be made moving forward.
For Atlas, these things have made is a big difference as compared with other platforms they have worked with.
Upgrading its F&B technology has made the Atlas team more efficient, consistent, and innovative. Today, the rollout of menu changes across all of their hotels happens with a click of a button. “It’s taken away so much pain and made life so much easier.”
Abs shared an example of introducing new products to their hotel bars and then customizing the menu where needed. Infrasys allows them to create products and quickly attach them to each hotel based on their location and guest demographics.
“We’re now using logic and data to make better decisions rather than spending time going back-and-forth with different teams.”
True data-driven decision-making is now possible for Atlas. “I can easily log into Infrasys and take a look at reports on what products are our top sellers. We can set up daily reports to be sent to ourselves or anyone on our team. We didn’t have that before.”
For Erica and Abs, being able to understand which items are selling well and which items are selling poorly means they can now reallocate product inventory between hotels and adjust menus to increase overall sales and revenue. They were also able to run incentive programs on product sales much easier than before.
“One of our company values is using data to make decisions, and we’ve added a technology and a data team to show we’re serious about this,” Abs noted.
Making data easy to collect and analyze enables more transparency, which has been a key focus for Atlas according to Abs. “Making data and reporting available to all - not just the senior executives - is the only way to operate as a truly data-driven company. It allows junior management in various members of our operations team to get the information they need to do their jobs better. They can look at product sales for themselves and use that information to have conversations with us about ways we can improve.”
“Without Infrasys we wouldn’t be able to know what was selling or not selling as quickly – it just took us a lot more time to get the data we needed,” Erica added.
There are other specific benefits across the business as a result of using Infrasys, and preventing food waste is an example. “Preventing waste has always been a priority for us at Atlas. We offer breakfast for free, and Infrasys has allowed us to record what products are being wasted.”
This data then is consolidated and reviewed to understand trends across the company. “We are now able to decide which products should be discontinued because they’re not resonating with our guests.”
Training new staff is another benefit Atlas is now seeing, and one that is especially important as the industry faces a labor shortage.
New staff are finding the Infrasys user interface simple and intuitive, and the platform is now configured with in-app training. As an example, Atlas built a training process called “Perfect Pour” which provides guidance on the best way to serve a drink or certain foods.
“We can communicate instructions on the till as a visual, and team members who are very inexperienced can create these consistently well.”
Working on this project has made Erica and Abs excited about the future.
“Just two years ago I was becoming a support operations manager, and I feel like there’s still so much for me to learn and do,” said Erica. “I found I love researching, analyzing, and rolling out new initiatives that help us keep improving.”
For Abs it’s all about progression as well, both personally and for the organization. “I love developing myself and those around me and believe that if we continue to make smarter decisions around the tools and ways that we operate, it will help us do that.”
Working with Shiji has made their team excited about rolling out more innovation at scale. “Working with them has really opened the door for us and for our teams.” And the time saved with technology gives them time to think about ways they can improve even further.
“The message I want other hoteliers and young people coming into the industry to hear is that working with great partners can have a huge impact. We started out on the front lines of our business and years later are able to work on these high-impact projects. It’s something I really enjoy and look forward to continuing to do,” Abs said.
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 platform, 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 23 countries, serving more than 91,000 hotels, 200,000 restaurants, and 600,000 retail outlets.
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