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Umi Labs

Umi Labs: Creating an internal innovation department at Umi Digital

02 August 2021


The need for innovation in hospitality marketing

It’s long been a dream of mine to run a business that truly blends service and product. Umi has grown to where it is today through a fairly traditional service model. We build custom websites and software for our clients and support them over time through our marketing packages. Time is money and that is what we bill for.

While all of this is happening, we are also consuming or implementing close to 100 different 3rd party pieces of software, from booking engines, programmatic advertising tools, tracking tools and more. While doing so, we run into so many different pitfalls, gaps and problems with current tech solutions that, as a purely service business, we can’t really do anything about.

A phrase that resonated with me quite strongly a number of years ago came from Alan Kay, who famously said “People who are really serious about software should build their own hardware.” While we are on a different plane here, there are elements of this that echo in our industry as well. We could easily say “People who are serious about websites don’t use page builders”, or, “those serious about refining their booking journey don’t use an off-the-shelf booking engine.”

Extrapolating this out, I believe that if you’re really serious about delivering the best website and marketing deliverables, you need to be prepared to fill the gaps in functionality with your own product.

I genuinely don’t believe that there is a good enough booking engine out there to deliver what customers will need in 2022, I don’t think we are close to capitalising on integrating guest behaviour into marketing and I don’t think there is nearly enough deep technical understanding on staff in operators’ businesses to maximize the potential of technology in hospitality. As a service business, these are all just accepted phenomena and we’ll simply service what we are able to as the environment changes around us.

Harry’s Vision

I want to solve these challenges, not by pivoting to become a product business, but by creating a space for my team to create and learn, to test new innovations on real-world businesses, and to complement our service offering. As hospitality tech evolves, it is becoming easier and easier to build micro-products.

Lockdown has shown we can do it, and do it very well. We have delivered voucher technology, created Alexa skills, delivered a progressive web app for super-fast digital menus, developed new integrations for SaaS providers like Revinate and ResDiary among other things. I really don’t want this to be a lockdown-only practice and I want to strive to embed it deeply into our ongoing processes.

I want to create a value proposition where hotels are not simply commissioning a service from Umi but are instead buying into a business that is constantly innovating on their behalf, bolstering service with excellent micro-products and solutions.

Where do the ideas come from?

We have the luxury of talking with some of the best hotels every hour of every day. Our daily conversations span leading hostel groups like Safestay, the exclusive luxury of The Stafford and The Landmark, and incredible organisations such as The Good Hotel Guide. Almost all these conversations revolve around solving problems. Every one of these problems is documented and reviewed, with the most pressing and important solutions being implemented.

By following a Growth Driven Design (GDD) process, we are able to see patterns of recurring problems and common frustrations that occur across the industry. Our internal innovation process subsequently becomes the process of analysing and prioritising these problems and collectively coming up with solutions.

Who works on the ideas?

We make sure that every member of the team has time in their week to innovate and learn. Interestingly, Gmail was created by a Google employee in their ‘20% time’ and we think that giving space to people in order to be creative is essential for business and individual growth.

Different team members have different time requirements throughout the month, going from high-intensity, deadline focussed work to off-peak time between projects. In this off-peak period, it is so important to reflect and take time to grow. It’s so easy to look back at an 18 month period and not see progress if you don’t take these steps to map your progress and develop skills between the normal client work.

Ideas and innovations need to come from everyone as well, it’s not just a top-down delegation. If innovation is top-down, you’ll never maximise the intellectual power of your team. Since lockdown, we have actually incentivised non-job-related creativity at all levels of the business so that we all have the drive to create across design, development, account management, marketing, and management.

How do we test the ideas?

While we are not the largest agency, we have some very long-standing relationships. I attribute that to the wonderful people that we have, the value that we offer, and the trust we have built over many years. This trust allows us to approach client marketing with an exploratory mentality and are very comfortable suggesting different tests and experiments to hotels in order to refine the innovations that we develop in-house.

What is Umi Labs?

Umi Labs is something we set up to provide a showcase for these innovations. Not necessarily as our front-line product suite but more of a collection of interesting partially tested ideas that we think could have legs in the world of hospitality.

If we can constantly top up this showcase with new tools and projects then we steadily develop a people-led offering that is both genuine and world-tested. The team feels strong ownership of these solutions and enjoys seeing them come to life in our partnered hotels.

I think lockdown has shown us that there is a huge opportunity in carving out some time from the regular work to innovate. Realistically, by mixing up the day and week by amalgamating client work with innovation, we keep people feeling fresh while also benefiting from incredible ideas and concepts that will fuel our product-service blend for years to come.

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