Salter Brothers Hotel Management Director of Innovation and Technology Nick Ellis talks to AccomNews about his storied career across both hospitality and technology.
Now in a role created especially for him, Nick reveals how he is using his tech skills to ‘solve the unsolvable’ problems that hoteliers face with hospitality technology.
Can you tell us about your career journey to date?
My story really starts all the way back in high school. I was in Year 10 and we had to do a week of work experience. My brother had done his work experience placement at a big hotel in the city and he would come home and tell me about how much fun he’d had.
So I ended up doing my work experience at the local country comfort in Pennant Hills. And I just had a ball, I couldn’t believe that this was an actual job. I’m a real people person so the industry immediately spoke to me.
And then, two years later when I finished school and started thinking about what I wanted to do, all I could think of was my time at the hotel and how much I had enjoyed it. So I rang up the hotel and they actually remembered me from work experience. I started the next night in room service.
Since then I’ve pretty much worked from the ground up in the operational stream. I started in room service and then moved into bartending which I loved, and then I moved to the front desk. And I guess in those days I was really lucky and I showed a bit of potential and landed some pretty good properties in Sydney.
I worked at some amazing brands and properties like Sofitel Sydney, Westin, and Intercontinental Sydney & Stamford Hotels. Each time I just took a bit of key learning and jumped up thechain.
I’ve worked for a wide range of properties across Australia from internationally branded to independently owned, from resorts to CBD locations. So a really big mixed bag and what I’ve loved is that I’ve taken little bits from all of these hotels and it’s placed me really well.
I went on to be global brand launch General manager for Accors Tribe Hotel brand and took on the pre-opening of Tribe Perth, as well as the re-launch of Ovolo Inchcolm when Ovolo entered the Queensland Market in 2018
Then a couple of years ago, I had an opportunity that really came out of the blue, but really appealed to me. I’ve always had an interest in technology to the point where I’d actually developed custom tech for some of the hotels I’ve worked at.
I was always looking at ways to make my job quicker, easier, faster, and I used to write my own programs to do that. I ended up getting approached to join a tech company, which was a European-based PMS that was looking to expand into Australia.
To be 100 percent honest, I turned the job down a bunch of times, but it was just one of those opportunities that I kept coming back to. So I jumped on board, but three months later COVID hit and they shut down Australian operations.
I had walked out on the number one hotel in Brisbane to chase my tech dream and then three months later it got crushed.
Thankfully, I landed on my feet pretty quickly and ended up taking a head of commercial and operations role for a local tech company.
I ended up working in the tech space for about two years and consulting with hotels, but honestly, I really missed the buzz of hospitality. You can take the boy out of hotels, but you can’t take hotels out of the boy!
I had been consulting with the Spicers Group for about a year at that point and when they found out that I was looking to get back into the industry, we had a meeting and created a role that could combine my love of hospitality with my passion for technology.
With that, you became the industry’s first Innovation manager, looking at business processes and solving problems?
Yes! Then, about a year ago, The Salter Brothers purchased the Spicers Group and that’s been an amazing opportunity to take what we have and look at how we can scale it, globalise, and share those amazing results and learnings that we’ve had along the way.
How has your experience in tech informed your work in hospitality?
The mid-career break I took to work in tech was amazing because it really opened my eyes to how other industries operate. Within a week of working in the tech industry, I learned so many things I wished I’d known when I was running hotels. Things that would have made a world of difference and solved some of the problems we had always had.
I started feeling drawn back to hotels, I was just desperate to get back into an industry that I love and to start solving some of those problems.
How can technology help the hospitality industry in the midst of a workforce shortage?
Unfortunately, the workforce issues aren’t going away and technology can really help fill those gaps and also meet current guest expectations.
Things like remote check-in is a perfect example, it removes the need for guests to check in or organise payments when they first arrive. Instead, they can go straight into enjoying their holiday.
AI is only going to grow and develop.
A lot of hotels have begun to use tools like ChatGPT to write emails or welcome notes for guests but its uses expand far beyond that. In our hotels, we use ChatGPT to operate our help desk. We have 1000 staff across the business. And we take inquiries from them whenever they have any kind of problem.
Basically, now when an internal inquiry comes in, that email is now read by ChatGPT and categorised. Then it creates an action item on a Trello board because we don’t work off email and it assigns that task to the correct person.
Previously, the process of raising a help request and getting it to the right person could take 24 hours. Now it’s instant and we don’t have to have an employee monitoring that inbox.
What advice do you have for your industry peers?
I think there is still an attitude of ‘it’s always been done that way’ and businesses keeping the same legacy programs or tech that they’ve always used, but the world has changed.
People are still apprehensive about using tools like AI, but it’s really not that difficult. If you can use an iPhone, you can connect to a PMS with an OpenAPI- so take advantage of it.
When you look at what tech to implement, always remember to come back to the core issue.
I always ask my team: “What is the problem we are trying to solve?” because it’s a really powerful question.
Sometimes you might think the problem is over there, but once you unpack it and explore it a bit further, you might find the problem is actually over here and has a really simple solution.
Sarah is a freelance journalist with experience across print, digital and audio. After working for Multimedia Publishing as a contributing writer, she has recently joined the team in a part-time capacity for School News AU and AccomNews.