In April 2013, private equity group, ECI Partners, acquired a controlling stake in Great Rail Journeys. With an eye for adding value, they sought to unleash the capabilities of the business through the power of robust, trusted management information.
The answer replaced several disparate legacy systems with a new business-wide Management Information System (MIS), using Microsoft Analysis Services and Power BI together with a Microsoft Azure data warehouse.
Simply no single version of the truth
As the new CEO of Great Rail Journeys, Peter Liney soon realised that there was simply no single version of the truth; he found there were six different uses of a ‘year’ and twenty-two variants of a ‘booking’and the opportunity for error was clear. The inevitable consequences hampered the smooth running of the business – time wasted debating which department had the correct numbers; less confidence in decisions made; less transparency of outcomes; and limited ability to analyse in depth in order to understand variances from plan and then agree the appropriate response.
As CEO, Peter’s own requirements were for high level commercial information drawing together data for marketing demand, sales conversion and commercial profit, plus an ability to ask and answer questions of it quickly. Finally, he needed it delivered in a format that could be accessed by everyone in the business, without generating additional layers of administration.
Sales, Costs and Margins : Phase One
When Peter first sought ‘a single version of the truth’, the ensuing project proved challenging for what, in hindsight, proved all too understandable reasons. With motivated senior managers highly capable of driving their area of the business forward, seeing the benefits inherent in a single version of the truth was easy; but agreeing the definitions of key terms and metrics was not. The project benefited from a robust change management process driving that decision making process. With that fundamental shift in approach, the impossible became merely difficult.
This first phase delivered full visibility of the profitability of each rail tour, be that the number of bookings at any point in time (as at); the number of existing customers that had booked versus the number of new customers; the headline revenue, costs and margins of each tour and the comparison versus any chosen time this year versus last year for the same tour. All of this is available to the business every day and all can be analysed at any level and by any perspective (dimension). This pulled data from six unique data sources providing a much needed coherent architecture.
“I think one of the biggest benefits that I have got is being able to trust the reports that I’m getting. You can believe what you're reading and actually ask further sensible questions of that data. Equally others in my team can go away, dig deeper, and come back very quickly with answers which used to take far too long; if they were possible at all. ”Martin Johnson, - Finance Director
Campaigns, Enquiries and Spend : Phase Two
Great Rail Journeys’ marketing had always performed well but its ability to move forward was compromised by how their data was siloed. Phase 2 was more challenging purely because of the amount of work needed to curate the data to define common definitions, common processes and agree the measures and KPIs.
Marketing now operates with a far higher level of personalisation; customers can be spoken to about potential holidays based on their own history. Not only is this more effective, it is less wasteful and therefore lower cost.
Detailed interrogation of real-time data has enabled the team to be more responsive to events as they occur and take the decisions to improve performance. The end result has been a marked improvement in marketing conversion rates – a core goal for all digital marketing teams.
“The data in its current format and the way in which we access it has allowed us to think differently about customers based on their position within the customer journey. We’re able to build MI around those individual customer cohorts and with that MI, cast marketing campaigns that are specific to them.”Alex Roberts Marketing & Sales Director
Operations - From frustration to happiness: Phase Three
When a Great Rail Journeys’ customer requests a variation to an aspect of their travel package it creates a real moment of truth for the business. The ability to request a hotel room variation; an additional excursion; or a flight upgrade may be a key aspect of any customer’s holiday experience.
At the most basic level, cost and time taken are the two ways in which that experience is judged by the customer. Great Rail Journeys did not have the information on hand to manage both, generating customer complaints and a potential loss of business.
Following the implementation of phase 3, that situation was completely reversed. A team passionate about customer service was finally able to set about delivering on the promise – they now have full visibility of the status of every customer requested variation resulting in fewer complaints and higher ancillary sales.
Knowing that a customer is dissatisfied quickly enough to do something about it, helps turn potential bad experiences and loss of business into great experiences and brand promoters.
“the information that we now have will most definitely change and revolutionise the operations department”Noeleen Pritchard - Operations Director
Dealing with the owners - no surprises.
As owners of Great Rail Journeys, ECI has a simple goal: to improve the business for the short and long term. To make progress towards that goal, ECI managers actually have an uncomplicated reporting need. They like to know what is happening, good or bad and they don’t like surprises, so a single version of the truth matters.
With the MIS in place, Great Rail Journeys is sharing the same data that they actually use to run the business. ECI can see the key trends of margin and profitability becoming more accurate. This gives confidence – about the business and the ability to derive future value.
KPIs - accuracy with timeliness [As at]
Performance versus last year is a common measure of progress; getting it in detail and right up to date is more of a challenge. MIS incorporates an ‘as at’ level of functionality that allows just that: the performance ‘as at’ close of business yesterday versus the exact same period in the previous year, that is always up to date, for any attribute, segment, product, or division.
Timeliness is no longer compromised for accuracy. Over and underperformance are rapidly identified, allowing the business to respond accordingly. It has created a common way of thinking, using a common language across the business.
“What the MIS system we’ve got can do is deliver that ‘As at’ reporting on any data we want and deliver results very very quickly. To give us that visibility about what was happening in the market to our business on any day in any week of any prior year and that’s hugely important and valuable to us.”Martin Johnson Finance Director
Platform stability provides a flexible delivery
IT Director, Mark Taylor, was clear that the data warehouse layer was of primary importance – a clean data layer first. The software used to analyse the data, and serve it up to the various departmental users could come afterwards, potentially even using third party agencies. In fact, a planned spend to procure Business Intelligence software was shelved as the power of Microsoft Analysis Services (SSAS) and PowerBI built upon the SQL Server data warehouse was realised.
Hosting was a key issue and on-premise, albeit with its accompanying hardware capital investment requirements, remained an early option. However, sizing it to scope the costs was difficult, given the unknowns in the early stages. Cloud, in the form of Microsoft Azure was the other option, allowing the company to get moving very quickly.
“Azure allowed us to go live with the project immediately. It allowed us to test it and find out and mitigate some of the concerns that we had regarding the bandwidth coming into the building, how it would really work for us. And if it didn’t work we could always go back to on-premise and purchase it at that point but we didn’t have that upfront cost.”Mark Taylor IT Director
Releasing the power of IT
Great Rail Journeys’ IT department now delivers for the business in a very different way. Using Microsoft Azure means that all the IT processing takes place outside of the business, directly reducing the IT maintenance and performance management burden.
As for supporting the decision-making processes of the company, the days of hourly requests to create SQL queries as a mainstay of IT activities are long gone. The key focus today is delivering an international web-based trading system that enables the company to do business around the world in multiple currencies.
“...they are frankly far more valuable to me now than they were three years ago, because they are doing development of IT solutions for the business which really help us trade.”Peter Liney - CEO
Every departments' daily, weekly, monthly and annual reports all agree with each other
- The board and owners use the same reports and dashboards that are used to run the business
- Marketing spend is producing lower cost per sales conversion
- More satisfied customers, as Operations can respond effectively to customer requested variations
- IT resources deployed on building customer facing capabilities, not writing reports
- More leverage in supplier negotiations, driven by aggregated spend analysis