Hilton Hotel Corp. gives self-serve kiosks a second chance

Hilton Hotel Corp. is taking another kick at the self-service can that will see Web-based kiosks deployed in 45 of its North American properties over the next year.

The hospitality company said the project will involve

100 machines co-designed with IBM Canada and follows a successful pilot project at two of its biggest hotels in New York and Chicago. The kiosks allow guests to check themselves in and out of a hotel, and include a message system, weather and news information, options to upgrade to executive-class rooms and promotions. Hilton’s Canadian hotels are to be included in the 2005 rollout. The company’s properties include not only the Hilton brand but Conrad, Doubletree, Embassy Suites and Hotels, Hampton Inn, Hilton Garden Inn and Homewood Estates by Hilton.

In a visit to Toronto Wednesday, Hilton Corp. vice-president of customer-facing technology Robert Machen said the project was part of a plan to make the company more competitive with other hotels and to meet expectations of customers who have grown used to self-service kiosks in retail and at airports. The company had developed a reputation for a long waiting line for check-ins, which was raising stress levels among guests and guest service agents, he said. Part of the problem was a corporate policy to extend a “”warm and friendly”” welcome to each guest.

“”What we learned was, customers did not want to wait in line to receive a warm and friendly moment,”” Machen said. “”When we told our operators about it, the first thing we heard was, ‘Oh, you’re going to introduce a lower level of service.'””

The attitude among guest service agents may be tied to a lackluster self-service project Hilton launched with the help of IBM and American Express seven years ago. The bulky kiosks were “”less than stellar,”” Machen said, experiencing a number of reliability issues and problems with room key encoding. Also, if a guest’s room wasn’t clean, they received a print out that would direct them back to the registration desk.

“”Guests weren’t really there (with the concept),”” Machen said. “”We like to say that we were ahead of our time.””

Hilton had let the kiosk initiative fizzle out by the time it acquired the Promus Hotel Corp. for US$3.7 billion in 1999, which Machen said brought a new level of IT expertise into the organization. This time around, the firm spent two months outlining specifications and design ideas with IBM, then spent another three months in testing and implementation.

Rob Ranieri, a practice leader with the e-access team at IBM Canada, said the company has been developing its self-service business since 1987, when it began creating kiosks for financial sector clients like RBC, CIBC, TD Bank and others. Kiosks run IBM’s Websphere Application Server, linking to an enterprise host system through a common application servlet. Applications can then be accessed through the kiosk through extensible markup language (XML).

Given its experience in retail (the Bay is a client) and government (IBM designed the ServiceOntario kiosks), the company has learned that every user is unique, Ranieri said.

“”We have designs we can reuse, but with each client we have to work to get the right look and feel for the products and services they want to offer,”” he said.

Since the pilot project, Machen said kiosks are being used by 10 to 12 per cent of guests upon check-in and eight to 10 per cent upon check-out. Some of the guest service agents have since been redeployed as “”kiosk service agents”” to encourage and teach guests to use the machines.

“”People are always asking me about ROI and headcount reduction. Not one calculation has been made to look at that,”” he said.

Some business processes at Hilton have changed as a result, Machen added. The kiosk only works, for example, if a guest’s room is ready, and staff have had to clean rooms more quickly. On the other hand, the company solved one of the problems that dogged its last self-service project — where to put the machines — by making the kiosks wireless. Now, when a group of guests are ready to leave after a convention, kiosks can be moved outside a meeting room’s doors.

Future enhancements to the Hilton self-service strategy may include room-ready notification via e-mail or pager, as well as Web-based check-in, Machen said.

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