Cracking the hospitality code
Julie Grieve has just flown back into Edinburgh from London where her travel technology business had been exhibiting at a trade show and conference. It was an important event, helping to raise the company’s profile ahead of what promises to be another year of transition.
She is due at another meeting in the Codebase building but has time to chat about the Criton Group and how someone with no training in computers managed to develop one of Scotland’s fastest growing software businesses.
We sit at a tiny table in the incubator’s bustling ground floor cafe-come-workspace which reverberates to the ping-pong beat of a nearby table tennis table. Surrounding us are a couple of dozen mainly young things bent over laptops and cups of coffee, talking the sort of language now familiar to the former business centre manager who is steering the hospitality sector down a new path.
Since launching the business she has become a tech convert. Her conversation is peppered with phrases such as “progressive web apps”, “native functionality” and “geo fencing”. They go with the territory but, more importantly, they describe the future development of an app which is capturing the attention of an industry now looking increasingly at technology to improve the visitor experience.
Criton’s software allows hotels to turn their guest directory into an app, thereby giving them greater control over content, the ability to update information without the need to re-print brochures, and the opportunity to tailor services to suit guest requirements such as online check-in, special accessibility, even the choice of room.
Grieve has built Criton from scratch, defying the general assumption that girls don’t do technology and, in the process, pulling off one of the biggest capital funding rounds by a start-up this year: £5 million from a private overseas investor who has requested anonymity.
“It should take us to break even in a couple of years,” says Grieve. “Most of our costs are in staff, sales and product development and we are looking to sales and marketing overseas.”
Her immediate plans are to move the strategy from one focused on single locations to groups of hotels. It will mean targeting the chains at home and abroad.
“We should launch [into this market] in the first quarter of 2018. We have customers lined up,” she says. Criton is also developing an app that by-passes the need to download through the Apple app store.
‘I told my employer they needed a website and I got the job of building it’
“Small businesses may not want to go through Apple’s stringent requirements and we have something which provides a similar functionality.”
Criton began when Grieve was running a serviced apartment business in Edinburgh for Chris Stewart Group called Lateral City which was behind the Old Town Chambers development.
“I was writing the guest directory and it was not a very technical process. I looked for an app that would help me digitise the information, and it was very expensive – £8,500. I looked for an app builder without success and we created Criton.”
She had made a bit of a money from her share of the sale proceeds of Abbey Business Centres and she and her husband sold their house in Corstorphine. They also received some funding from Scottish Enterprise.
She did not train as a technologist so there was a lot to learn. “I am not a coder, though one of my first jobs out of university was to build a website for my employer, the Institute of Chartered Foresters,” she explains.
“I told them they needed a website and I got the job of building it. I did it by reading HTML for Dummies. It seemed to work.”
That introduction to elementary web-building laid the foundations for her future venture. Criton quickly took off as independent small hotels began to see they could use the app to help guests in a way that only seemed available to the big chains.
Criton is now on a growth path and Grieve has been recruiting for a sales office in London. By March the current 13 staff should hit 20 and by next November she expects to have 30 on the payroll.
“I happen to like technology. I like what it can do for people,” she says. “It may still be unusual for girls to do it but we have to take the message into the schools about coding and ensure it’s not just something seen as a job for guys.”
Education: High School in Stirling; Napier University, Edinburgh (Business Studies)
Career Highlights: Institute of Offshore Engineering (finance); Institute of Chartered Foresters (admin); Citibase (Centre Manager); Abbey Business Centres (managing director); Lateral City; founder and CEO of Criton Group
Describe your job
I’m CEO and a sort of product manager. I tell the coders what I want and they build it. I don’t have the patience to write code.
Why is the company called Criton Group?
It came from the JM Barrie book, The Admirable Crichton, about a butler. It seemed quite appropriate for the sort of business we are running. Some people didn’t know how to pronounce it so I shortened it.
What happened when you sold the house in Corstorphine?
We moved to a second home we have in Elie. We’re still there. I enjoy walking the dogs on the beach.
If you could meet three people past or present who would they be, and why?
Billy Connolly, who always makes me laugh and reminds me of my father.
Helen Mirren, a strong woman who has taken on breakthrough roles
Bill Gates, because of the number of iterations of his company which is so much a part of our society