September 10, 2008
GET A ROOM
Use of the Web for browsing hotel details and reserving rooms has skyrocketed more than 30% annually in recent years, putting pressure on Hilton's back-end Web servers and databases.
To deal with that problem, Hilton separated a small version of its Unix reservation system into a bank of Red Hat Linux servers, creating the Distributed Availability Engine to handle shopping requests. The engine multithreads requests to handle more at once. Peak volume is 1,200 transactions per second, three times what it was a few years ago. Response times for shoppers have decreased by almost half.
Another big project is overhauling and consolidating Hilton's Web sites with a single content management system. An Indian company develops and administers Hilton's international sites, tuning them to local content, style, and language. But the system requires a time-consuming process to add hotels, and the sites look substantially different from the company's North American site, which isn't flexible enough to go international. The two have separate Interwoven content management systems, complicating management.
A multiyear project, Pangea, has more than 50 people combining the two management systems. With Pangea, Hilton's Web sites will be able to let would-be guests use a rich search capability to hunt for rooms within a price range and geographic area; self-manage reservations, including downloading them to Outlook; book multiple rooms at once; see local weather information; and use technologies like push-to-talk and click-for-callback to connect with customer service.
It was Hilton's drive to make sites more interactive that led to the Homewood Suites feature to choose a room by floor plan, like we can pick airline seats. Homewood, where guests typically stay longer, lagged in online and phone bookings. "People were doing research online, but they just weren't finding what they were looking for," says Scoggins.
At first, the idea seemed like a tall order: There were no digitized floor plans, and no one was sure the hotels could provide them. "We would talk about it like a fantasy," says Rebecca Wyatt, Homewood's senior VP of brand management.
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Wyatt went to Hilton's design and construction group, and the VP noted floor plans are posted on every door for fire safety. That data was put into interactive JPEG files, which were integrated into the OnQ-enabled online reservation and property systems to create Suite Selection. Without OnQ, Harvey says, Suite Selection would have cost millions rather than hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Suite Selection, unveiled last year, lets guests select rooms from floor diagrams, view photos of rooms, and reserve a specific room up to 36 hours before arrival. More than half of those polled by Hilton said Suite Selection improved their travel experience. Homewood now ranks among the top two Hilton properties for online check-ins, with 22% of guests doing so.
Hilton's other customer-facing IT projects include testing an in-room kiosk where travelers can print airline boarding passes and order room service, providing connectors for iPods and digital cameras, and letting guests watch recorded TV shows.
There are some far-out consumer-facing technologies that may not ever make it out of the labs. As part of the $5 million it spends annually on IT R&D, Hilton is looking into putting Microsoft Surface table-top multitouch computers in lobbies to let people play games and order food. And RFID-enabled cards eventually could let visitors check into rooms with little interaction with the front desk.
Whatever the future holds, Hilton can count on one thing: IT will be expected to play a central role in keeping customers happy and coming back.
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