Redefining hospitality tech and scaling up to deliver the 'Complete Connected Community'

Laurence Parkes and Mark Liversidge
Laurence Parkes, CEO at Rufus Leonard and Mark Liversidge, chief digital, technology and experience officer at The Student Hotel

The Student Hotel took the hospitality world by storm with their distinctive hybrid co-living and working proposition for Gen Z. But they needed to translate this experience across their entire digital ecosystem, so they embarked on a digital transformation journey to put technology at the heart of their customer experience with agency partner, Rufus Leonard.

Laurence Parkes, CEO at Rufus Leonard and Mark Liversidge, chief digital, technology and experience officer at The Student Hotel shared their learnings at the Annual Hotel Conference that took place on 22-23 November in Manchester. Hospitality Insights caught up with Laurence Parkes and Mark Liversidge to talk about creating a future-proof digital experience for Gen Z that mobilises the power of community and drives direct bookings, seamless integration of hospitality products and operational efficiency and scalability.

Tell us a bit about the Student Hotel and your overall vision

Mark: The Student Hotel was founded in 2012 on the belief that students deserved better. Today, that vision has not only become a reality but has expanded to encompass all guests with a Student Spirit. We welcome people from across the globe to our community within our ever-expanding portfolio of urban campuses across Europe.  
We’ve become an urban regenerator, partnering with cities, development agencies, academic institutions to bring vibrant new communities into the heart of cities, often in districts in need of renewal. Our multi-use campuses blend guests, businesses and locals by activating them through impact-driven programming and events with partners in education, social change and entrepreneurship. 
In 2018, we identified the need to revolutionise our technology use, moving away from conventional theory and practice in the hospitality sector. So we defined for the first time a strategy that put technology at the heart of the customer experience and business operating model. 

And what changes or challenges inspired this digital overhaul? 

Mark: As a truly customer-centric company, it was clear digital experience must be a driver of the change. In order to fulfil the needs of our complex community and our vision of service, we needed to redefine our digital experience and overhaul front-end infrastructure to enterprise-standard solutions. 
A key challenge of our vision was the nascent business model we’d created with a complex multi-product mix. This had occurred organically but led to a diverse set of operations and patched together processes and systems. No two locations had the same layout or infrastructure, nor did they operate with the same systems, tools or hardware. As a result, our customer experience was fragmented, transactional, manual and reactive.
We were heavily reliant upon third-party distribution and have a wide range of products across accommodation, workspaces, events, education and lifestyle services, all fluidly allocated and even overlayed. To deliver this with fluid space x time utility and maximise the use and revenue generation of every space, we needed the future digital ecosystem to allow a customer to easily purchase and use any single or multiple products with variable factors.


What were the key principles of your new strategy? 

Mark: A key principle of our new strategy was to deliver lifelong customer engagement and participation, feeding into our “Complete Connected Community”. That means a guest that has a single engagement with our services becomes a perpetual participant of our global community, creating advocacy, influence and a deepening pool of future product users.
Since each product’s customer journeys, purchase pathways, service support, regulatory compliance, technology use and operational models all varied, we identified a core operations management system to create a lifelong customer profile and moderate operational process. 
A proprietary front-end digital experience needed to engage customers in a digitally-driven journey that would move all administration tasks into self-serve digital platforms, releasing our team members to engage in enriching and proactive conversation with customers. 

At the heart of this was a headless architecture – decoupling content and functionality from the customer touchpoints. We know it provides freedom, accelerates innovation, it’s flexible and fast. But how did this approach solve challenges and enable success for TSH?

Laurence: The headless single page application (SPA), enabled by React, allows TSH to serve the content stored in the Optimizely CMS to any number of front-end channels: website, apps, voice interfaces, hotel lobby screens, in-room TVs – you name it. This future-proofed solution, built by Rufus Leonard, can integrate easily with new technology and innovations. Built on Microsoft Azure, the website can also automatically scale with ease as it handles higher numbers of visitors – crucial as TSH expand across more territories.  
As well as providing centralised and complete control over how and where the content appears, the platform also facilitates easy and secure third-party integrations.


In what ways do you now feel you’re set up for long-term success? 

Mark: Well, working with Rufus Leonard, we’re now built on future-focused foundations, uniquely building in Optimizely DXP and React – and we’re the first transactional website to do so.
The result of these next-generation techniques is a lightning-fast and efficient website, SEO optimised, and able to serve content to the TSH community no matter their device. Through this new enterprise website, we’ve delivered the first milestone in The Student Hotel’s digital experience ecosystem with, alongside it, a strategy to enable the success of platforms to come.
The solution delivers more than an enhanced brand experience, including significant operational efficiency, scalability and – critical in these times – speed to market to capture all revenue generation opportunities.

What advice would you give to an organisation considering changing their architecture to be composable, headless and API-first? 

Laurence: It is not a question of if, but when to make this change. Given almost all businesses are resetting their models at present, I would strongly direct that they firstly document their future customer journeys, identifying the interaction, transaction and data capture points. Then identify how to deliver these points in the most efficient manner for the operating model and most intuitive way for the customer that underpins the commercial value to them. Then you have the template for your future platform, and it becomes a process of timing decisions on investing to deliver these. You evaluate the opportunity cost of staying on your architecture versus moving to headless – and see when the optimal window is to switch. Like any digital transformation, it’s about weighing up the short-term costs with the long-term benefit. 

Want to learn more about using digital to differentiate? 

Download Rufus Leonard’s free whitepaper “How to differentiate with digital”. It’s full of insights, resources, and tools to help you challenge your own customer experience, align as an organisation around your customers, and push change through to deliver competitive advantage and sustained growth. 
Download it for free here.