In part one of an ongoing series on digital transformation, Matthew Dray, vice president of e-commerce, digital marketing, and guest engagement at the Peninsula Hotels group, explains why number-crunching is the future of luxury hospitality.

The business of hospitality is, by definition, centered on experiences—the tangible, sensory, IRL kind. To hear Matthew Dray tell it, however, a sophisticated digital operation is the foundation of every guest stay. Over the past three years, the Australia-born, Hong Kong-based vice president of e-commerce, digital marketing, and guest engagement at the Peninsula Hotels group has overseen a sweeping digital transformation that’s involved everything from uniting the disparate systems that once characterized the 10-property chain to implementing a digitally-savvy approach to data, to help understand—and predict—when, why, and where guests stay on their travels.

“It comes down to using behavioral triggers in what you’re interested in—what you book, when you book, how you book, where you’re from—that enables us to proactively recommend experiences on property,” Dray says. “We’re extremely good at doing that at the property level. But when you’re talking globally and digitally, it’s a little bit trickier. How do we take that knowledge, utilizing machine learning and behavior-based segmentation, to offer a little bit of insight to help our guest-facing teams deliver?”

Dray recently spoke to Luxury Society about how Peninsula Hotels’ digital I.Q. has evolved since he joined the company, what his global team of 30 people is working on now, and why it’s critical to understand that technology is a tool to aid human interactions, not replace them.

Matthew Dray, Vice President of E-Commerce, Digital Marketing & Guest Engagement at Peninsula Hotels

What, exactly, does your job entail? 

It’s really in two halves: One half is what you traditionally think of as an e-commerce business, where the focus is on managing our digital platform; our digital touch points across social, YouTube, etc.; and our online marketing: paid search, performance display, meta search. It’s making sure we’re present and capturing customers and driving them to our dot-com to book. And it’s managing our content pillar and video online. 

The other half, customer engagement, is diving into customer data and looking at segmentation and working on what we can do to grow the business. We’re looking at CRM and our luxury arcades, and looking after a group of our guests that are part of an invite-only program which is managed out of our corporate office.

How would you describe the group’s digital operations when you joined the group three years ago?

We had the basics covered in a way that was very brand appropriate with our presence online, but digging deeper, we really had to redo our foundations. We had our search, our social handles, but behind the scenes, none of the scripted analytics were in place. Each of these aspects weren’t really talking to each other; it wasn’t clearly articulated what role each would play in our customer marketing. So we’re redoing things from the ground up. I can’t stress the importance of making sure that you are present when people are showing the highest intent to book. 

We rebuilt our performance marketing with our search and display so not only were we front and center with people, but also capturing impressions with people who match our customer profiles. We did a lot of work with our performance marketing and our website; we re-platformed that to ensure a lot more flexibility in the future, with a much more robust module-driven approach that allows for personalization, and gives us the ability to react to our analytics, to make sure we’re capturing people.

The first year was really focused on performance marketing and setting up a two-year goal and digital roadmap. The second year was when we re-platformed the site, which involved a lot of platform migration in seven different languages. It gave us an opportunity to redesign and make it mobile responsive (approaching 60 percent of our users are now accessing our site on mobile). We had a separate mobile site, but it wasn’t like for like. It did the job but we wanted to elevate it further. 

Lastly, I had to set the digital strategy and goals and playbook for how we execute everything online, from social to performance marketing. It had to be done in a way that makes sense.

And what is the group’s digital presence like now?

Before, we weren’t digitally immature. We were just a bit fractured. “Digital adolescence” is probably the best way to describe it. We were aligning our disparate data sources from our guests and business, and things were quite siloed in different parts. We’ve been able to combine that in a big data lake. For the first time, we can answer the questions: Who is our average customer? Who is our ideal customer? How are they different across properties? We’re able to look at this information now that it’s available. We do this descriptive analysis, and it informs our digital roadmap going forward, and improves our predictive analysis.

How far along are your competitors on this front? Do you get the sense that the hospitality industry is lagging behind other categories on the digital scene?

It’s definitely a priority for all of us to be focusing on. But a lot of this is behind the scenes. Getting your data-driven transformation right is not immediately obvious to the guest. I know we’re in a much better place than a lot of competitors, because we only have 10 properties and because we’re an owner/operator, it gives us a lot of flexibility. It gave us a lot of resources to be able to get over legacy infrastructure issues and move forward. We utilize benchmarking services like L2inc, which has been helpful in monitoring our own progress. And it’s showing an impact in the marketplace.

What has the biggest challenge been?

Hospitality is an interesting industry because some of the legacy systems are challenging; each property would be separate from the others. But culturally there was support for a change. From that cultural support, we had a large appetite to get things done so it came down to prioritization. It speaks to how powerful our brand is that people think we’re a lot bigger than we are. We only have 10 properties, we don’t have a huge head office. When you’re trying to fix your digital presence, it comes down to priorities. What do we do first? And being patient as well. It might be a two-, three-, five-year plan. Fortunately we’ve been getting through it. That’s where we are now.

One of our main priorities at Peninsula, and what sets us apart, is our personalized service on property: how we anticipate the needs of our guests at each stage of their travel journey. And making sure we connect them to the culture of the location they’re in—that level of service is what sets us apart. And being able to translate that to our digital touchpoints is hugely important. How can we introduce that to our website, our one-to-one communications with our guests, and our in-room technology as well. One of the main reasons we’re investing in these systems is so we can deliver that level of service to our guests. It’s not only being aware of our customer preferences and what content we surface to them, but recognizing in realtime what their needs are. How do you be completely relevant by offering the right content for what they need? 

I’ve always been a big believer in data—but it’s not just focusing on numbers at the expense of everything else. Getting a foundation in analytics is a very important first step, so you can understand what is and isn’t working across an e-commerce business. We’ve applied this to the entire business so we can analyze who are guests are. 

The best way we describe this digital transformation is it’s done with a human touch. We’re not trying to replace people or the human interaction at the property level; it’s to empower our staff with information so they can improve guests’ experiences and help sales and marketing so they can offer the right message at that right time.

Will new technologies such as virtual and augmented reality, or AI, play a role in the group’s digital future?

Through our Technology Steering Committee, our company looks at many emerging technologies, such as robotics and automation for our back-of-house operations and virtual reality for our Projects team when designing new properties. For marketing, we are currently experimenting with machine learning to engage in a data-driven segmentation approach to our guest engagement. This is about looking at all available data points that are linked to behaviors and making sure we are being relevant to our guests at every touchpoint to give them the most appropriate next best action. 

Typically in the past, like most companies, we preferred to look at guest segments though lenses that were convenient to us as business operators: how they book, where they live, and what properties they stay at. When we do this, it is easy to assume that all guests in that segment are the same. But do the guests in these segments really behave the same just because they booked the same way or are there other behaviors and preferences that better tie them together? This opens a wide range of new service and personalization opportunities both in the communication we have with our guests and the experiences designed on premises.

That’s what we are working on now and implementing as we move into the next stage of the business. It’s important that we have these things in place with our new property launches, with London kicking off in 2021. We’re all working towards that milestone of having our digital presence in place.

Photo courtesy: Peninsula Hotels.


About the author

Victoria Gomelsky

Editor-in-Chief , JCK

Victoria Gomelsky is editor in chief of JCK, a 147-year-old jewelry trade publication based in New York City. Her freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, WSJ Magazine, Robb Report and The Hollywood Reporter. She divides her time between New York City and Los Angeles.