Home grown travel services provider, House of Travel, is focused on delivering great experiences to all Kiwis. The company has always considered ICT as a critical part of the tools necessary to provide great travel experiences to customers.
“The business is split into retail stores, corporate or wholesale sales, the online e-commerce element and the main holdings company. We have got around 1150 people spread across 80 sites. The 40 full-time IT staff support all of these channels, all the users and the infrastructure related to them. We also support 400 people in Australia,” says House of Travel CIO Dave Veronese.
A large portion of the IT staff work out of Christchurch, with some placed in Wellington and Nelson. The company has two data centres hosted by Revera in Auckland and Christchurch, and most of its systems are centralised.
“This month we have got some new packaged sales systems that went live. We are migrating our Australian wholesale-corporate users to that system. We are doing a website refresh as well. There are always projects going on,” says Veronese.
PleX Travel Suite is one of the major back-end apps run by the firm. House of Travel also uses Amadeus global distribution system, which is hosted out of a data centre in Germany.
Making the move
Earlier this year, the company moved all NZ users to Office 365 for email and SharePoint. Between July and September this year, the group also moved its users off the existing Windows XP environment to Windows 8 and Office 2013.
“We are a Microsoft shop. Our 1050 PCs were running XP, and we had around 200 laptops that were working on Windows 7. We have a five-year hardware refresh cycle, and 2013 was the fifth year in that cycle. The period between July to September was when we did the refresh. We wouldn’t have updated the OS without upgrading the hardware,” says Veronese.
As part of the refresh, the firm switched over to new PCs, got in around 100 new switches, and installed around half a dozen servers, mostly for local phone systems – all provided by Dell. The refresh was conducted over a 10-week period, starting with beta or pilot sites, leading onto rollouts that had the team moving two stores every weekday night.
Bigger sites, including offices in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, were moved over weekends. This was the time the firm shifted its users to the new desktop environment as well.
“In the past, whenever we needed new PCs to be added, we chose to downgrade them to the Windows XP platform for the last five years. This is so we could keep the same image across the group and ensure system compatibility. It also helped us lower the maintenance cost and keep training to a minimum.
“Though we do a refresh every five years, we do a consideration of our systems every three-and-a-half years. We knew that Windows 8 was coming out at that point and we made a conscious decision that we would like to have it on our systems when the five years came around,” says Veronese.
Veronese says that the main reason for choosing Windows 8 was because the IT team wanted to make sure that the company and its users would be able to take advantage of any apps and advances that came out in the years after the deployment.
“We felt it was the best platform for future apps, especially with its touch facility and integration with Metro. We felt it would be a more secure platform, and I was personally happy with my interactions on that desktop,” says Veronese.
Though the IT team was convinced, they had a hard-time getting the management to sign off on Windows 8, primarily because of the bad press surrounding the platform, and some experiences that board members had with other companies.
However, they did sign off on the project, and the IT team was able to implement the transition.
Getting it right
“There were a couple of things that we did with the platform to make it more user-friendly. First, we effectively told everyone that they should hit the window key whenever they got into any trouble. We said ‘just hit that key and it will take you to the start menu’.
“The second thing we did was we customised the home screen for the users and set up groups. There were some key apps that was grouped under support, through which they could get information as well as log jobs. Then there was another group that led to simple computer tools like logging in and shutting down. Things like that.
“The third thing we did was change file associations. We made sure that if anyone clicked on an image, say, it would open in a Windows app and not in the Metro one. Opening files in the Windows version of the apps ensured a certain level of familiarity for our users who had been working on XP all along,” says Veronese.
All of this was enabled and communicated to users before and during the upgrade process.
“As part of training we provided single-page cheat sheets that they could quickly read to do simple stuff – a one-pager lifeline. Then we produced videos and manuals for those who preferred to watch or read. We ran Lync sessions and encouraged people to dial-in at specific times. It was all optional for the users, so they could do it in advance or look through it later,” says Veronese.
The training modules were made available for a month before the team started the actual rollout. Additionally, the IT team set up Windows 8 desktops at the company’s annual awards function early in the year – an event that brought together the majority of employees – so users could have a look-and-play session on the environment.
According to Veronese, the firm did not face computability issues with the apps at the back end, since they had worked to solve those issues for the laptops already in circulation which were working on the Windows 7 platform.
The end result?
“They love it – we have got such amazing feedback. We made an effort to make all of it as easy to use as possible, but what we found was that users started using the modern apps on their own. They also started sharing information on new things they had done or tried on the platform, so others in the company could pick it up. We did not encourage that, they just did it by themselves.”
According to Veronese, besides a happy workforce, the Windows 8 platform also ensures the company has faster log-in times and has helped in performance gains and productivity for staff across remote locations.
Currently, the company is in the process of moving its stores to the Lync platform. According to Veronese, the firm is making progress with it and hopes to have around 400 people on it by the end of the year, and all of New Zealand users in the next two years’ time.
The company, whose IT budgets follow an annual cycle linked to its financial year, is planning “a large program of work around innovating, growing and optimising the business” in 2014.
“Our budget and capital expenditure is similar next year as it was to this year. We are still investing heavily in technology,” says Veronese.