One of our trusted partners is Net Affinity, a technology and digital marketing company specialising in driving new business directly to a hotel’s website. We worked together with the Irish company in Tallinn and Ireland, and frequently share knowledge to improve ourselves. Today we interviewed Niall Lenihan, the Business Development Manager, asking him about his story, Net Affinity’s background and how the company is trying to take the hospitality industry to the next level.
Q: Tell us about how you got into the hospitality industry
Niall: I’ve been working in the hotel industry since I was 14. Firstly, it was just part-time work alongside school. I worked in the banqueting department at weekends and then restaurant & then into the bar and from there to reception. In college, I studied International Hotel Management at Shannon College of Hotel Management. In my second year, I was lucky enough to go to Geneva to work in the Hotel President Wilson. It was my first real exposure to a luxurious hotel – alot of celebrities and royalty stayed with us. We even had the king of Saudi Arabia.
After this, I worked in a number of different chains, such as the Doyle Collection and Dorchester Collection, and the IHG group in London. Back in Ireland, I worked for Orbitz Worldwide, one of the most well known OTAs globally. Then, I got a position at Availpro (now D-Edge). From there, I moved on to Net Affinity, where I’ve been for 3 years now.
I feel like my experiences are quite varied to date, there’s been plenty of learning curves!
Q: So, how do you put all of your knowledge to good use?
N: To me, the most important thing to be aware of is how to work well with different cultures. I think this is achieved by understanding that everyone likes to do business differently, and different cultures tend to place importance on different things.
I regularly speak with people from a variety of countries, and understandably, there’s often a language barrier. I tend to find that if I have a grasp on their culture and what they’re trying to achieve, it makes our relationship a lot better. I always bring in our partner network as well, perhaps suggesting a tech-stack of some sort, whether that includes an upselling tool or a channel management system for example.
Q: What is the story behind Net Affinity?
N: Our Founder and Managing Director, William Cotter, set up Net Affinity 19 years ago, originally as a marketing agency. A number of his clients were hotels who began asking him for help with different aspects of their businesses, and eventually, he developed and grew Net Affinity into a booking engine company. We are now a team of 44, with 14 different nationalities, so we’re quite international and diverse.
Q: What are the current issues in the hospitality industry that Net Affinity helps to solve?
N: The industry is always changing, and rapidly so. Hotels need to have a strong online presence that will help them to control their own guest relationship. Our goal is to grow the direct business of independent hotels by providing suitable software for them to do so. The industry is changing so much, especially when it comes to technology. We’re constantly updating and adapting our technology to ensure we’re offering the latest solutions to clients. Hoteliers tend to work with a lot of different solutions that may not sync up. We make sure our tech can communicate with systems from other providers, so the hotels we work with get the most out of what they’re using. It’s really this ‘tech-stack combination’ which is the biggest challenge in the industry at the moment, and a lot of providers are competing instead of communicating with each other.
Q: What are the gaps you are trying to fill with your product?
N: Legacy issues are the biggest ones out there. We need to approach hoteliers with transparent solutions, showing them that there is added value in a tech-stack (multiple programs, softwares etc). The solution is solid integrations. We want to have good synergies with like-minded companies, because we’re confident that our partners add value. William recently wrote an article about this very subject. We’re passionate about the added value Net Affinity provides alongside additional technological innovations from partners like GuestJoy.
We do need investment from the side of hoteliers, too – they need to be open to new solutions because IT is changing and can be a source of competitive advantage.
This is where our internal focus comes in. We ensure hoteliers know that their transition to Net Affinity will be smooth and easy. A stand out feature in our booking engine currently is our access to metasearch, especially to Google Hotel price ads. This is becoming the largest meta platform globally, so it’s the product’s star USP right now.
Q: What makes you unique compared to your competitors?
N: Competitors are good for us because they motivate us to do better each day. There’s always room for improvement, and our competitors can help to highlight aspects that we might need to refine further! We often find inspiration in them.
What makes us unique is that we develop our own technology based on the demands of the industry, so this allows us to have full control over our software. This is particularly helpful when a customer comes to us with feedback – we can immediately adapt and change the software according to their needs.
We’ve recently made changes to our booking process and it will be further simplified again as we continue to adapt and refine.
Moreover, we are putting strength and time into our mobile process and providing SaaS based solutions, because they are so effective and becoming more relevant. In addition to all of this, what distinguishes us most from our competitors is our team; 44 people of 14 nationalities, the majority of us with a hospitality background. It’s important that we hire industry experts because, at the end of the day, we are solely focused on hospitality.
Q: Why should hotels invest in technology?
N: The most important reason is that booker behaviour and the wider industry has changed so significantly. There is a certain type of hotelier who uses legacy programs, and they may not have not changed their booking processes for years. If this is you, my advice would be for you to look at what, and how, you can improve. This includes potentially bringing in additional partners who offer an upselling tool or a price comparison for example.
Hotels need to invest in technology, because today’s booker and their expectations are changing. They demand information immediately and they want easy access to it. Put yourselves in your guests shoes: they want a seamless experience. Invest in a tech-stack which communicates well together, and update your rates & availability.
What is your ultimate piece of advice to hotels?
Take a step back and look at your online business. Look at the percentage breakdown: what’s the difference between your brand’s website and your OTA? Why would guests prefer your website? What added value are they getting from it?
I like to visit different hotel websites and booking engines to test how easy they are to book on, check what their language availability is like, and how easy things are to understand from the customer’s point of view.
As a hotel, look at what you’re doing well, and where there’s room for improvement. For example, could you put your property on a new platform? Could you add an advanced purchase plan or become more flexible with your bookers? We can help you with this. For hotels with a strong OTA presence, we offer an OTA analysis where we access their figures and prepare a strategy for them to improve their own website.
My final piece of advice is this: it’s crucial that your revenue and marketing teams develop a clear line of communication with each other so your marketing team can replicate the online strategy that your revenue team is trying to achieve. More on this here!
Q: As a hospitality industry professional you must travel a lot. Can you tell us a story from your travels?
N: Travelling is definitely a privilege. I like to honour and respect the culture I’m experiencing and I love to try new things when I’m abroad. I think it’s important to submerge myself into the local culture to try and gain a deeper understanding of the people, especially if I’m trying to do business with them.
I’ve been very lucky to be able to travel for both work and leisure. A couple of years ago, I went on a sales trip to India. It was my first time there and I found it a real eye-opener, it was a truly valuable experience.
I also used to travel to Russia for business quite a lot. The culture is very different there, and fascinating!
I like to run in every city I go to; it’s a healthy habit, and it gives me a different perspective on the place. It’s usually six miles spent exploring, and a unique way of getting to know the city. I’ve done this in Paris, Tallinn, New York, Abu Dhabi and Berlin, to name but a few.
I like to travel with my wife. We love the US, Abu Dhabi and the Maldives. Last year, we visited the Maldives and were lucky enough to stay in a water villa where we had 8-10 feet sharks swimming below us every morning!