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9/8/2010
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InformationWeek 500: Search, Mobility, BI Keys To Chain's Growth

Job one for InterContinental Hotels Group: Build customer loyalty.

All that Tom Conophy needs to do to show off the IT innovations of InterContinental Hotels Group is to take visitors next door. Beside the company's U.S. headquarters in Atlanta is one of IHG's Crowne Plaza properties, which serves as a technology test bed. The hotel's lobby has an airline flight board similar to those in airports, as well as touch-screen PCs that let guests do everything from check flights to search for nearby restaurants. Business travelers can take advantage of a smart whiteboard in the hotel's conference area.

Conophy, IHG's CIO, encourages IT staffers at the company to experiment with new technologies because, he says, "I don't know where the next big innovation is." IHG's IT lab, with an open floor plan and free soft drinks, resembles what you might find in Silicon Valley. "As long as they don't burn down a hotel or electrocute a guest, those are the only two rules that really apply," Conophy jokes. "We don't want to curtail their thinking."

IHG, which owns seven hotel chains, including Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn, and InterContinental Hotels, opened 439 hotels around the world last year, with plans for another 1,302 hotels and 197,431 rooms. Revenue per available room--a key industry metric--is on the upswing again after declining during the global recession.

Conophy talks about making hotel guests "the center of our universe," and customer loyalty is vital to growth in the hospitality industry. To keep guests coming back, IHG is investing in business intelligence. A Teradata database, 25 TB and growing, holds 200 million guest profiles, including detailed information on 43 million loyalty plan members. Every time a customer books a room, checks into a hotel, watches a movie, or uses the minibar, the database gets updated, and IHG uses that data to, among other things, run targeted marketing campaigns, look at what rate plans have the highest uptake, analyze leisure and business trends, and even slice and dice trends by, say, the company for which a subset of guests work. Other dashboards track IHG's performance on Expedia and other third-party travel sites.

Souped-Up Search

Interncontinental CIO Tom Conophy
(click image to go to InformationWeek 500 Top 10 slideshow)
Hotel guests "want powerful computing in their hands, and for it to be intuitive and rapid."
-- CIO Tom Conophy
A reflection of the company's growing business, IHG's reservation system now gets about 30 million availability requests a day. To support the workload, the company developed its own patent-pending search technology, the Bottom-Up Optimum Search Strategy. BOSS, as it's called, is a Java application that runs on an Oracle RAC database. It uses complex algorithms and business rules to optimize requests and queries, and caching technology to speed up responses.

When processing a query, BOSS gathers a swath of information on relevant hotels, allowing for filters to be applied to the data. For example, a rewards club member could search for a hotel in Atlanta in May for one to three nights, and the system would do one call to the back-end system that would return appropriate matches. The same request in another hotel operator's system might require multiple searches and hundreds of database calls.

The most robust BOSS usage is currently limited to IHG employees, though the system has been integrated with Google, so the company can publish ads to the Web that show its lowest room rate in a given market when someone searches for a hotel. "Search is the killer app for us," Conophy says, adding that when BOSS is made available to the public on IHG's Web site and on travel sites, it will include GPS support and voice search. By the end of this year, 30% of all IHG hotel room searches will be moved to BOSS, and 100% by the end of next year.

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