For a generation of Americans, the Holiday Inn sign was iconic, beckoning travelers to a clean, convenient and comfortably consistent roadside hotel. Popping up along the newly emerging interstate highway system, Holiday Inn grew rapidly, auguring in an era of family-friendly chain hotels. Fifty years later, the company is once again poised to lead a new era in the hospitality industry.
Holiday Inn was not the first hotel brand, but it was the first to recognize the needs and desires of that pivotal generation of travelers. The "Greatest Generation," as Tom Brokaw termed it, was raised during the Great Depression and fought World War II. Following the war, this generation was flush with optimism and wealth, and thanks to the automobile and the rapidly growing interstate highways system, they were taking to the road for leisure and business trips in record numbers.
Kemmons Wilson, a former popcorn salesman and jukebox distributor, supposedly founded Holiday Inn following a frustrating family trip to Washington, D.C. While his story is well known in the lodging industry, some elements bare repeating. WilsonÃ.‚¬s true genius was in designing a brand with hotel rooms that delivered the essentials and delivered with consistency. Author Tom Lewis argues that Holiday Inn succeeded in large part because it was so successful at "catering to speed and modernity." At its height, a new Holiday Inn was opened every three days, and its sign "retained the lean-out-and-grab-Ã.‚¬Ëœem attitude of the fifties," notes Phil Patton in Open Road.
A new generation
More than fifty years later, the Holiday Inn sign is gone and the grandchildren of the original Holiday Inn guests are now the focus. According to research by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, travelers born since the mid 1960sÃ.‚¬"Generation X travelersÃ.‚¬"are poised to pass Baby Boomers as the largest travel segment in the industry.
More importantly, Gen-X travelers spend more and travel more per capita than Baby Boomers. In its 2005 Lodging Industry Briefing, PriceWaterhouse Coopers notes that Gen-X travelers exceed Baby Boomers in respect to Annual Room Nights per Capita and Leisure Trip Spending per Capita. Moreover, Gen-X is expected to pass Baby Boomers as the leading business travel cohort shortly as well. In fact, much of the positive outlook for the lodging industry is built around rising expectations for Gen-X travel demands.
This shift is significant to consider. For the better part of two decades, hotels have been focused on the Baby Boom generationÃ.‚¬"the children of the travelers first attracted to Holiday Inn. Baby Boom travelers have dominated the travel market by the shear size on the cohort.
The shift is forcing hotel companies to rethink their approach to a group of guests with fundamentally different priorities and interests, and not insignificantly a much different approach to technology. "Gen-X grew up with the PC," suggests Laila Rach associate dean at the Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management at New York University.
"When hotels try to attract that age group, they have to realize that technology is an expectation in all aspects of the cycle. Using technology is a positive statement to that generation that you understand them," Rach adds.
Holiday Inn feels it understands and can attract Gen-X guests. A major element of its strategy for younger travelers is the development of its eHost solution. Holiday Inn recently expanded its original pilot to include 14 locations and is preparing to ramp up the system to potentially its entire family of nearly 1500 properties.
On the menu
While many hotel brands have embraced the do-it-yourself ethic, the eHost system takes it a significant step further down the road. Built for a tablet-sized interface, eHost is designed as a virtual concierge, for ordering food (room service or from within the restaurant itself), local information, as well as other features, like electronic postcards and games.
"We knew that to just create a new building for customers wouldnÃ.‚¬t be enough; Holiday Inn represents much more than that," explains Mark Snyder, senior vice president, brand management for Holiday Inn Hotels and Resorts Ã.‚¬" Americas. "Traditionally we were serving the boomers and they had distinct tastes about what they wanted. But Gen-XÃ.‚¬ers are very technology savvy."
The essential point of the eHost solution is to give more control to Holiday Inn guests to shape their own travel experience. "Travelers today want the choice of when to have human interaction in their experience," argues Snyder.
As Holiday Inn rolls out eHost, Snyder readily admits itÃ.‚¬s too early to determine whether the technology is having any impact. "We think the biggest potential is enhancing and evolving the brand experience," Snyder insists. "We do believe there will be an increased stay. We do believe that people will begin to look for eHost wherever they go because they know that is the way they can get room service fast, they can send ePostcards, they can navigate the community."
Still, as Rach cautions, rolling out a new technology may not succeed in attracting Generation X guests. "It is how you use that technology," she argues. "Is it window dressing, is there a deliverable?" Ultimately, success for Holiday Inn and eHost will probably come down to whether or not guests receive better service. "It has nothing to do with a wow factor," she warns.
Speaking in tongues
Speaking to Snyder, it is clear that Holiday Inn put a great deal of thought and consideration into the development of the eHost platform. Working closely with Ameranth Wireless (ameranth.com), the eHost platform was designed as a purely hosted solution to reduce the financial cost on the properties. "We arenÃ.‚¬t asking hotels to invest thousands in hardware," explains Snyder. "It is a great turnkey solution that has a lot of positive benefits and a low associated cost. ROI isnÃ.‚¬t a really big concern for us."
One of the chief technological hurdles with the system is getting a single platform to speak to a multitude of point-of-sale systems for the food ordering capability. Holiday Inn and Ameranth resolved this hurdle by bypassing direct integration altogether. Rather, when a guest orders through the systemÃ.‚¬"whether in the restaurant or the guestroomÃ.‚¬"orders are translated into email, fax, instant message, a manual telephone call or an automated telephone call that is routed to the kitchen. While this system seemingly adds an additional step to the process, it allows eHost orders to follow procedures already in place for room-service orders. Furthermore, by bypassing ordering, the eHost can potentially offer off-site ordering capabilities to local restaurants with no additional associated costs and can easily translate orders into multiple languages.
While a number of quick-service restaurants have experimented with self-service, fewer table-service restaurants have done so. Gaylord Palms briefly offered room service ordering with its iConnect in-room system, but discontinued it after concluding that food ordering was too complicated with too many variables. Still Snyder and Holiday Inn remain undeterred. "This is a more traditional style restaurant setting so we thought eMenu was a revolutionary direction for us to take ordering," he adds.
The other key technological step has been the ability to have extremely customized content for each individual property. "Gen XÃ.‚¬ers want to understand the community they are staying in," offers Snyder. "The eHost can link guests directly with what is going on in that town. That functionality is in eHost today and it is all provided with Yahoo content and it does a great job of bringing it all home for you. We thought it would resonate well."
Holiday Inn also hopes that eHost applications, like the ePostcard, will help tie together the brandÃ.‚¬s history with its future. Hearkening back to the 60s and 70s when Holiday Inn offered free postcards in the room that guests could mail home, Holiday Inn has updated the concept. "ePostcard represents the brand personality and spirit of Holiday Inn which is a great thing to promote and a fun way to communicate with a friend or family member," Snyder notes.
"What is different about our strategy is that Holiday Inn is giving guests enabling technologies," Snyder concludes. "It goes into guestsÃ.‚¬ hands instead of in our hands so that they can do what they came to doÃ.‚¬"have a productive business trip." More than fifty years ago, Holiday Inn gave guests a new and different choice with dramatic results. Now the company has a new target.