When you have $5 million and a clean slate, what type of website would you build? And, what process would you undertake to deliver the ultimate Internet experience? These were some of the questions that I asked Robert Simon, Director of Web Development for Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts, following the launch of their revolutionary new site.
Implemented just a few weeks ago, Four Seasons once again has set a new standard in web design, replacing a site that had served this luxury chain for the past seven years. Undaunted by the task, Robert is the leader of a team that at times reached 100 members at its peak to meet this requirement. Of note, the team is now down to 42 members, with approximately 80% of this staff compliment outsourced.
Robert’s background is totally non-hospitality. Prior experience managing Home Depot’s Canadian web presence as well as a stint with the Canadian arm of London-based Isobar Interactive helped usher Robert into a 14-hour interview session that ultimately resulted in the job offer at Four Seasons.
Whereas the task at hand might seem daunting, Robert explained his approach in this way. “I was impressed with the existing website platform, as it had served the chain well, averaging 3 million unique visitors per month and representing a non-insignificant 12% of total chain wide revenue. Where the site fell down was that it did not have an open architecture, and thus, the technology of the site was hampering the ability of the site to respond to the growing needs of the Internet consumer.”
The 12-month process that spawned the site’s development was classically Four Seasons. The philosophy focused on the user experience. This commenced with a three-month travel adventure, with Robert meeting with over 100 stakeholders (GMs and owners), interviewing each one to understand their desires and needs for future growth. With this initiative setting the goals, prototype designs were tested with past guests through a series of focus groups undertaken in three centers: Philadelphia, Shanghai and Doha.
Once the overall design elements were selected, imagine the process of collecting the appropriate materials for the 91 individual properties that comprise the site. For each individual property, the requirements of photography (both professional as well as guest-sourced through social networks such as Flickr), property facts, descriptive text and local activities all had to be incorporated into the build out. At the same time, social media considerations were paramount, with immediate integration of influencer comments from Twitter, Facebook and TripAdvisor.
To accomplish this rather massive undertaking, a new layer of staff, called producers, was created within the Four Seasons web team. Producers were assigned to each of the properties to assist the local teams in securing the necessary materials to complete the content requirements. Of note, the content management system of the site has the flexibility to allow local property staff to make updates, or alternately, these updates can be undertaken through the Four Seasons head office web team.
Robert offers this advice to those hoteliers interested in revitalizing of their own Internet presence. “It’s the people that we service. When the iPhone first came out it wasn’t the best phone on the market from a hardware perspective. But the one thing the iPhone did better than any other phone, is that it got better every day because of the new services you could layer on top of it. When thinking about your digital impact on the business, you’re really thinking about your services architecture between web, mobile and hotel. How you orchestrate those services and make them consumable for your consumers as well as your operations is how to innovate and win.”
Whereas the core site is fully launched and fully functional, Robert sees several critical tasks ahead of his team in the coming months. Social media integration will be expanded. Additional languages (French, Russian, Chinese and Spanish) are being considered where identified by the property teams and where past website data is essential. A superior ‘luxury tablet’ solution that can take full advantage of the unique imbedded capabilities of this technology platform is also under development, as is a mobile version.
I am confident that the exceptional work we have witnessed so far will be reflected in these expansion elements. If you have not yet experienced the Four Seasons site, you’re in for a treat. Give it a spin this evening and you’ll come away as impressed as I am.
(Article by Larry Mogelonsky, published on eHotelier on February 3, 2012)