Craig Ambler is Center Parcs’ first ever director of IT. He has repaid that expression of digital confidence by introducing customer identity management, account creation and data linked with analytics to create a truly responsive and proactive customer experience. The result has been significant uplift in mobile interactions and account transactions, and a reduction in the bounce rate from digital to offline channels. He has also leveraged the business’s WiFi strength by deploying Skype and Yammer, allowing the management teams in the leisure villages to collaborate without the need for extensive travel.
Director of IT
How are you influencing the products, customer experience and services your organisation offers to its customers?
Firstly, Center Parcs has a staggering success where it comes to the short breaks market, with fantastic experiences, products and services. This coupled with an unprecedented 83% of our guests booking their short break online and an impressive occupancy rate year in year out of over 95% makes Center Parcs a great place to influence new ways of engaging with our guests.
The creation of the director of IT within Center Parcs is a true recognition that this role is: a) a senior position, b) important to the organisation’s success, and c) a key role within the digital transformation of the organisation and its proposition, which is why I took on the role in the first place.
This has given an perfect segue into influencing how we deliver our products to our guests both on village and online. I am a key lead sponsor of our digital strategy, ensuring the key products now being delivered have really been challenged in the sentiment of ‘minimal viable product’, ensuring we focus the digital experience to the investment versus growth without affecting the guest experience and journey.
In addition data is a key ‘golden source’ to really understanding our guest and their party’s behaviour. Having a single source of the truth with the ability to be agile with the data and analytics is fundamental to offering proactive experiences. I and my team are driving this agenda heavily in the form of a rich data model fully aligned to campaign and operational strategies.
Define the key business outcomes that you have delivered over the last 12 months and their impact on your organisation’s performance
Within a majority of organisations, the main priorities for any CEO are growth, customer and workforce/employee.
For growth, as part of our digital roadmap and transformation, just before Christmas we launched a refreshed digital platform with the additions of customer identity management, account creation and the relevant tools, and data linked with analytics to really create a responsive and proactive customer experience. Although at the early stages of testing and learning on our Spa brand, the early signs are very promising, with significant uplift in mobile interactions, account transactions and a reduction in the bounce rate from digital to offline channels. This is a key foundation and platform to build significant growth, coupled with a richer experience for our guests both pre break visit and while in our villages.
In terms of workforce/employee engagement we have over 7,500 employees dispersed over five villages and a head office broken down into many departments supporting the guests in retail, leisure, food and beverage, hospitality and many more. With this diversity, keeping a team engaged in the most effective and efficient way is paramount.
All of our villages have fantastic strength in terms of Wi-Fi and the network (who would have thought it – a great Wi-FI service in the middle of a forest to compete with some services provisioned in the urban world!). This has given me a great opportunity to trial and deploy new communication modes, mainly Skype and Yammer. Now all the management teams across villages and into head office can have great interactive Skype video and messaging conversations, collaborating and sharing pieces of work without the need for heavy travel. With Yammer we are able to communicate in a style which is relevant, short and effective, and has created a ‘pea effect’, whereby when small groups engage, the rest of the teams follow, providing a higher employee engagement score as a result.
What has been your involvement with innovation at your organisation – in particular, with products, business model and technology – over the last 12 months?
Product innovation: Product innovation is always at the forefront of my mind and is something I have instilled as a culture within my digital IT organisation. The key is around knowledge of the commercial levers for an organisation, understanding the product and the guest, and using our digital and technology expertise to blend this into a different product innovation. This has resulted in innovations such as wristband door entry and locker technologies, wristband cashless areas within the village and virtual reality areas within villages.
Business model innovation: Although at an early stage, creating a digital ecosystem within Center Parcs has been a key focus. Having looked at and delivered collaborative organisations in previous companies, I have been involved in Center Parcs at the early stages of designing and transition services into a ‘run’ state, whereby teams that once worked in silos are starting to work in a collaborative ‘tribe’ approach, ensuring product agility and cohesive delivery of product enhancements on the digital platform.
Technology innovation: The IT organisation is going through a culture change at the moment. It used to enable business objectives and challenges, but is now starting to proactively drive new technologies and innovations. Examples of this include new ways of handling customers through the telephony channel using cloud-based innovations, and pushing innovative ways of utilising our app and the Wi-Fi to the villages.
How have you delivered cultural and behavioural change as a CIO within the IT department and/or more broadly across the organisation?
The director of IT was the first appointment within Center Parcs whereby IT was seen as a key senior position influencing how we delivery digital and technology for the benefit of our guests and internal colleagues. While the team I inherited have clearly delivered great services it was evident that the approach was still within the ‘technology and service provider’ space, awaiting the key areas of the business to engage.
I have therefore created a number of core principles for the team, aligned with a shift to becoming a ‘digital IT and service broker’, ensuring IP is retained and grown with the right focus on growth and value of my organisation, and leveraging technology partners to deliver continued and evolved services in other areas needed to support the business.
From a wider organisational perspective, repositioning my team to that of a digital IT organisation, creating a clear proactive engagement model and setting an ambitious digital goal have all enabled the start of a different behavioural engagement.
How have you worked with your CEO and/or board to communicate whatever ‘digital’ and IT means to your organisation/sector and improve digital literacy at the highest levels of the organisation?
The great news is that our CEO really understands and appreciates the importance of digital, especially as we have 83% of our guests booking their short breaks online. I have worked with the board members individually, including the CEO, to really align how IT needs a clear refocus to ensure IP is retained and morphed into a digital IT organisation driving digital innovation in true collaboration with other business areas, such as sales and marketing and operations.
In addition, introducing subtle new ways of working such as Skype for Business and Yammer has given the board insight into how digital can create a positive impact in all that we do. This is balanced with the fact that we must not lose the sentiment of the guests’ experience while in the village and the forests – ‘letting people’s imagination go wild’.
How have you worked with the technology and IT vendor market to achieve your business goals? How have you been able to influence IT suppliers and successfully manage your partnerships/relationships with large IT companies, SMEs and startups?
Coming in partway through a digital programme has meant engagement of key vendors and partners has been a main focus. I want to ensure our vendors are driving and delivering the right outcomes. Even though coming through partway through the programme, I have been able to influence our delivery approach and our designs from an architectural perspective, ultimately ensuring we have a true MVP approach for the programme of works driving the right growth triggers for the programme.
How have you tried to develop the diversity of your team?
I have teams located across five villages plus our head office providing various capabilities and diverse experiences. One element I noticed when I came to Center Parcs is that there was a lack of cross-team collaboration and communication. I have tackled this in a number of ways.
First, by ‘sipping our own champagne’ – by that I mean using Skype to engage with all my teams in one go and having the team consistently and collaboratively engaged in all aspects of digital IT and the value we are providing to our business and our guests.
Second, by creating innovative and new internal products, whereby a cross-functional team can work on a common outcome – ie roll-out of Skype across the organisation.
Describe how you organise and operate IT and how this aligns effectively with business strategy and operations
While still in a transitionary state, I am starting to organise the team into vertical product ‘centres of excellence’ with product technical leads, supported by solutions architects and security management to ensure a product evolution and secure delivery of services and innovations.
What strategic technology deals have you made in the last year and who are your main suppliers and IT partners?
We have delivered a number of strategic deals within the last 12 months, enabling our digital strategy around deep guest data insight, improved guest digital journeys including identity management, account creation and bookings, using suppliers that have extensive product ranges to support our true single customer view.
What are your key strategic aims for next year?
- continued growth within the digital channel both for guests and employees
- driving service innovation within the villages through technology innovation and efficiencies
- increasing employee engagement through digital collaborative channels.
How are you preparing for any impacts Brexit might have on your organisation?
While we are, like most people, looking at items such as GDPR, Brexit for the market we operate in at the moment seems to be unaffected. However, we will be keeping a close eye on events to ensure that agility in our service and products can be maintained.
When did you start your current role?
What is your reporting line?
CFO into CEO
Are you a member of the executive leadership?
Are you a member of the board of directors?
What other emerging roles does your organisation have and what is their relationship to you?
Enterprise architect, solutions architects in digital and identity, data and BI linking in with product owners for digital.
How often do you meet with your organisation’s CEO or equivalent?
How many people at your organisation does your function supply services to?
All of the organisation in some shape or form.
What is your annual IT budget, or your spend as a proportion of the organisation’s revenue?
What percentage of your budget is operational spend (ie keeping the lights on) and how much new development (ie innovation, R&D, exploratory IT)?
30% opex and 70% capex.
Rank the following sources of advice/information in order of importance:
- Analyst houses
- CIO peers
- Industry bodies
Has your organisation detected a cyber intrusion in the last 12 months?
Are you expecting an increase in budget specific to security in order to tackle the cyber threat?
Does your organisation have a designated security professional – CISO or otherwise – and what is their relationship to you?
CISO, who is a direct report of mine.
Are you finding it difficult to recruit the talent you need to drive transformation?
Has recruitment and retention risen up your agenda as a CIO?
Does your IT organisation operate an apprenticeship scheme?
How many employees are there in your IT team?
Are you increasing your headcount or planning to bring skills and the ability to react to needs in-house?
Which technologies or areas are you expecting to be investing in over the next year?
- data analytics/business intelligence
- devices (mobile)
Which technologies or areas are you expecting to be investing in over the next one to three years?
What emerging technologies are you investigating or expect to have a big impact on your sector or organisation?
IoT, AR and AI.
Does your organisation do a significant amount of trade with the EU?
Does your department include technology staff from the EU?
Are you or have you been looking to the EU to recruit key skills?