Hilton CIO Ready For Upturn

Harvey leads IT investments meant to wow guests and improve operations.
Compared with his hotel-industry peers, Tim Harvey, senior VP and CIO of Hilton Hotels Corp., is in an enviable position. While many hotel operators kept investments in operations to a minimum during the poor economy, Hilton's executive leadership defied the downturn and gave Harvey the resources he needed to build what could be one of the most efficient IT environments in the industry.

Harvey is expecting those investments to result in returns this year. "Our CEO [Stephen Bollenbach] had the vision to continue our commitment to investing in the business so we'd be in a stronger position when things started to improve," he says.

Tim Harvey -- Photo by Jack Kenner

Harvey is in the enviable spot of having what he needs to prepare for better times.

Photo of Tim Harvey by Jack Kenner
One of Hilton's most ambitious projects was the $50 million OnQ system, a technology platform that provides every one of the 2,100 Hilton hotels worldwide with identical views of business information and customer data. OnQ, which went live last year, tracks business functions like hotel front-desk transactions and reservations and was designed to simplify the plan to add more than 100 hotels a year to Hilton's portfolio, which also includes the brands Conrad Hotels, DoubleTree, Embassy Suites, Hampton Inn, and Homewood Suites. Recent investments leave Hilton better equipped to handle staff scheduling, credit-card processing, and housekeeping management, Harvey says. Hilton also is in the position to do a better job of providing consistent information to customers regardless of whether they communicate through Web sites, call centers, or directly with hotel staff.

Harvey's focus for 2004 is clear: extracting value from Hilton's myriad IT investments while helping the company build market share. And for the first time in recent memory, Harvey is confident the economy will help Hilton meet its goals. "We're seeing some positive signs," he says. "It will be slow, but, by the end of the year, we'll see some significant expansion."

Business travel cuts, the airline industry's troubles, and other pressures that hotel operators have faced will ease this year, Harvey predicts. One contributor to reduced business travel--the rise in use of communications tools that let workers collaborate more effectively over long distances without leaving their desks--he pegs as a recession phenomenon that will slow down once companies feel more comfortable spending money to have people meet in person. He cites historical evidence to make his case, arguing that over the last 80 years, travel-cycle fluctuations have been linked more closely to the availability of money than the availability of communications technologies like the telephone, teleconferencing, or E-mail. "When people have a little more money, they'll still want to go see other people," Harvey says.

Harvey has a long list of IT priorities, much of which he'll try to tackle or at least investigate this year. He'll be on the lookout for new customer-relationship-management technologies as well as business-intelligence tools that will let Hilton stay on top of pricing in a hotly competitive market. He's also considering options on the wireless front, which he says present huge opportunities to improve customer service. The possibilities include using mobile devices to check guests in before they enter the hotel, coordinate housekeeping and maintenance personnel to speed up the turnaround of rooms, and provide wireless Internet access in lobbies and guest rooms. Harvey also is closely watching what's happening with Linux, as the potential to shave significant licensing costs by migrating to Linux from Microsoft's Windows NT on the desktop is too attractive to ignore. He expects to have a clearer idea of what such a switch will cost within the next few months, and, in the meantime, Hilton is researching how Linux servers would affect the OnQ environment, which currently runs on SQL and Unix server platforms.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Harvey is convinced IT has a strong future. He takes time to visit high schools in Memphis, Tenn., where he's based, to persuade students that IT is a good career. A technology education can be applied to any business role that requires logical thinking, he tells them, and will be more in demand as companies become even more reliant on the Internet. He points to Hilton's vision to know who its customers are and what they want, a huge goal to execute across 200,000 employees, 2,100 hotels, and five call centers. "That's an awfully big three-by-five card," he jokes, adding that there's no way Hilton could do that without wise investments in technology.

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