Getting Personal

By Abigail A. Lorden Editor | February 01, 2007

The sun rarely sets on the Hilton Empire. Between all of its brands, Hilton Hotels Corporation operates more than 2,800 hotels in 80-plus countries, employees 150,000 people world wide, and maintains nearly one half million hotel rooms. Somewhere, at any given moment, someone is tucking in or checking out at a Hilton-operated property.

Yet despite these innumerable figures, Hilton is launching ambitious new initiatives -- and bolstering ongoing ones -- that focus on the desires of each individual guest.

At Homewood Suites, Mr. and Mrs. Smith can view a schematic of the entire property, select from available rooms, and check in, all while online. Across the country, a thrill seeker and HHonors member (Hilton's loyalty program) can use rewards points to strap on a parachute and go skydiving. And the front desk clerk at any Hilton property across the globe can view the preferences of each guest, no matter where in the world the guest stays with a Hilton brand.

Hilton's size certainly plays a role in its ability to carry out these initiatives -- and is also its double edged sword. With such strength and buying power behind its brand, Hilton can demand the best from suppliers and technology partners, and has a dedicated team to design and oversee systems. But size is also its greatest challenge:

"We have a continued focus on education and training so that each team member knows how to use the systems, tools and information we provide, and can deliver on it in the appropriate way," explains Tim Harvey, chief information officer and senior vice president. "But the hotel industry has always had high turnover, particularly across the front desk, so we have to work hard to keep new team members energized." To make it happen, Harvey collaborates with a team of techno-innovators and relies on input from executives across the enterprise.

For this HT interview, he is joined by Robert Machen, vice president of customer and brand solutions. Together, the enthusiasm with which they speak about Hilton's new initiatives is infectious. But despite their zeal, the vastness of the Hilton Empire, when coupled with its 22 million customers, creates a scenario where immediate, accurate intelligence is a prerequisite to guest satisfaction.

Enter OnQ, which launched in 2003 with transformative effects and is now the brain power behind these new initiatives. OnQ is Hilton's proprietary technology platform -- built on Microsoft's Windows NT ( www.micro soft.com) -- that integrates multiple capabilities onto one system. It supports hotel reservations and sales, guest services, operations, and business intelligence-gathering activities. It provides guest information to Hilton staff on demand, prompting them to act on cue to guest preferences and service delivery problems. Essentially, OnQ is Hilton's central nervous system, supersized. And it's the only platform that Hilton runs, installed in 2,500 properties.

"At every single place where we touch a customer, every team member can see exactly the same customer information," explains Harvey. "Our belief is in taking care of customers, differentiating and delivering on expectations. That is why we spent $90 million worth of cost" to create and launch OnQ.

Evolution of OnQ
When OnQ first launched, it started by recording guests' basic room preferences: smoking or non-, one bed or two, high or low floors, etc. The platform has expanded to include pre- and post-stay communications, loyalty points tracking preferences and service delivery issues.

An e-mail is now sent to a guest to welcome him or her to the hotel: "By the way, the weather is going to be 75 degrees and sunny. Oh, and can we help you with directions?" the email asks. OnQ also tracks guests' travel reasons to determine if they'd like, for example, a pamper package or an exercise package, or what amenities they'd like in their rooms. It allows guests to elect how they'd like to earn points in the MyWay program, the Hilton-family-wide program that allows Diamond and Gold VIP HHonors members to choose amenities preferences, such as Pepperidge Farm Milano Cookies and two bottles of water or 500 bonus points.

The OnQ platform now also tracks service delivery problems. "No company is perfect. When a customer has a complaint, our team can see what it is and make sure they handle that guest in the appropriate way," says Harvey. "The whole reason that we have OnQ is to deliver against customer expectations."

With the recent acquisition of Hilton International, OnQ is going global and will be deployed in roughly 270 additional properties by Q1 2009. The platform will be personalized to address the foreign properties' needs, including overcoming language barriers. "None of our other competitors have done that," notes Harvey. "They've used standard, off the shelf systems."

Personalized picking
Going beyond knowing its guests, the next step in Hilton's personalization passion is to empower guests to take control over their stay. This is being accomplished on several fronts.

Currently in all hotels, guests that are Diamond or Gold HHonors members can go online and select a room number, as well as check in, up to 24 hours in advance. "We're continuing to find ways to expand the [OnQ] platform to enable guests to do whatever they want to do," explains Machen.

One example of this is the launch of Suite Selection this year at Homewood Suites by Hilton, the international brand of upscale, all-suite, residential-style hotels. Suite Selection is the industry's first interactive room selection tool -- it allows Hilton HHonors guests to view a floor plan of the property via the Web site and select an exact suite based on their personal preferences, be it floor elevation, near an exit, away from the elevator, by the lobby, close to the pool, and so on.

The tool will also offer photographs and descriptions of every room type in the nearly 200 hotels throughout the U.S., as well as hotels in Canada and Mexico. By end of 2007, Homewood anticipates making this tool available to anyone with an HHonors profile.

In the same personalization vein, the Hilton Family launched a new rewards category -- Experience Rewards -- for HHonors members. Via several partnerships, the program is able to offer a diverse range of extreme and lifestyle activities that can be redeemed with HHonors points -- rewards that are a departure from those currently offered by Hilton, or anyone else in the industry, for that matter.

Through a partnership with Signature Days ( www.signaturedays.com ), an online provider of experience gifts, rewards points can be used for sky diving, hot-air balloon rides, private yoga lessons, wine tastings and more. Meanwhile, partnerships with extreme vehicle renter EagleRider and Intrawest Destination Resorts offer the ability to rent motorcycles, ATVs, snowmobiles, watercrafts and similar vehicles, or obtain lift tickets at nine of Intrawest's mountain resorts in the U.S. and Canada.

In the room
After check-in, a Hilton hotel guest opens the door to his or her room -- perhaps already chocked full of personalized amenity preferences. Once inside, the commitment to personalization continues.

"When you think about the customer, it really does naturally draw you into the room," explains Harvey. High-speed Internet access is a given. "We saw HSIA move from novelty status just six years ago to now being one of the most important amenities we offer," notes Machen.

Looking forward, connectivity at Hilton means far more than offering HSIA. "We need to enable connectivity in the guest room," Machen goes on. "We want to enable guests, when they walk into the guest room, to be able to plug in their devices and get connectivity," whether it be a laptop computer, an iPOD, a portable DVD player or otherwise.

Harvey points again to OnQ and its ability to communicate with guests while they're in their rooms, further personalizing their stay. "Our guests, especially if they're in a new environment, will have a number of questions. We've got to use OnQ to proactively recommend restaurants, activities and area entertainment." Hilton currently has the ability to provide guests messages using OnQ, and can send them all the way down to the television set in the guest room via LodgeNet ( www.lodgenet.com ), Hilton's television content provider.

For the self-servists
Will these new technologies dilute the face-to-face experience gets receive? Not according to Harvey, who believes that in many ways technology should be invisible to the guest. "There is a segment of guests who want more choice and control, but for the largest segment, we want to make technology hidden so that our front desk can deliver 'wows' that they didn't expect -- suite upgrades, gift baskets in the room, and so on."

For guests that are more comfortable controlling transactions themselves, Hilton has expanded select check-in/check-out kiosks to offer the ability to print boarding passes for most major airlines. The kiosks, a combination of IBM ( www.ibm.com ) hardware and OnQ software, interface with 18 major airlines. Hotel guests, using the airlines' own Web pages, can check in for their flight, change seats, request upgrades and print their boarding passes from the kiosks, all at no charge.

The core thread through Hilton's new initiatives continues to be a commitment to meeting guest expectations, which in many cases means providing personalized service. "Meeting and exceeding guest expectations is about delivering on the promises you make, and doing so in such a way that it's customized to how they do business with you, and is convenient as well." For now, the Empire appears to be right on track.

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