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2015 Hotel Visionaries

Each year, Hospitality Technology presents a select group of lodging companies with its Hotel Visionary Awards. The awards, presented live at HT’s Hotel Technology Forum, acknowledge lodging companies that have embraced technology in new and innovative ways, and that have overcome challenges in operations or customer experience through technology.

HT solicits nominations for the awards via an online collection process. Nominations are made by both hotel companies (nominating themselves), or by technology partners (submitting on a hotel’s behalf), but only hotel companies are eligible to win. This year, awards were given in two categories: Customer-Facing Technology and Infrastructure Technology.

Editors eagerly wait for the pool of nominees to come in, showing off a collection ranging in size and scope, but always heavy on vision: big brands with industry firsts, and small firms with big wins. Consideration is given to a nominee’s size and resources to honor hotels from across the industry, ranging from big brands, to management firms, to independent operators.
This year, the winning companies are Hilton Worldwide, Fontainebleau Hotel, and SilverBirch Hotels & Resorts. Here are their stories.

Hilton Worldwide Gives Global Guests Mobile Control Over Travel Experience

When Hilton Worldwide ( conducted a survey of travelers across the United States, the research revealed that consumers have a growing appetite for mobile control over the travel experience. Hilton found that, over the past two years, 72% of business travelers had used a smartphone to select seats on an airline in advance, and 68% used the mobile device to choose a type of rental car. That same research revealed that 84% wanted control over the hotel room selection process. “There was clearly an appetite for self-selection and the ability to choose and influence how the travel experience would go,” reveals Rich DiStefano, senior director, mobile products, Hilton Worldwide.

With guests clamoring for more ways to engage with brands through smartphones, Hilton resolved to fill a digital gap in the hospitality industry through the development of a one-stop mobile solution that would extend this level of control over to room selection process. Hilton began to lay the groundwork for this initiative back in 2007 when the corporation invested $550 million in an IT overhaul that unified its complex system architecture of 13 disparate property management systems into one. “The intent was to develop and integrate services like mobile APIs and other back-end equipment that enabled us to quickly innovate at scale,” DiStefano explains.

Hilton developed, from the ground-up, an industry-first technology that leverages travelers’ desire for choice and mobility, allowing them to check-in and select their ideal room right from their smartphone. With Hilton’s digital check-in with room selection feature, guests have access to a fast and intuitive check-in experience across all properties. Through the Hilton HHonors app, loyalty guests can plan their trip, reserve and choose their room, order in-room items and check out. In effect, the smartphone becomes the remote control for consumers’ entire travel experience.

“Multiple systems have to come together to make something this complex come to life,” DiStefano says. “Hilton heavily invested in consolidating back-end systems to unify all the data that powers things like the mobile app. Now they are all laced together to allow guests to view floor plans and check-in on mobile devices.”

Hilton Worldwide teamed with Lokion’s ( technical and user experience group, who utilized Hilton’s existing floor maps to create mobile-friendly, vector-based interior maps for the digital check-in functionality. To ensure strong communication throughout the digitization process, Lokion also developed a workflow portal for Hilton’s corporate team to manage the maps for thousands of properties and hundreds of thousands of rooms.

Hilton began rolling out digital check-in and room selection in July 2014 across Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts, Conrad Hotels & Resorts, Hilton Hotels & Resorts, Hilton Garden Inn, Homewood Suites and Home2 Suites properties. In the fall of 2014 the initiative was offered at Doubletree by Hilton and Embassy Suites properties. By the end of 2014 it expanded globally, ultimately being deployed at 4,100 properties and 650,000 rooms.
The results of the initiative have already proven to be positive for Hilton. In August 2014 alone, Hilton saw a 176 percent and 183 percent increase in digital check-ins among Diamond and Gold HHonors members, respectively. Within four months of launching, one million Honors members had used the app for room selection capabilities and more than 90% said they were likely or extremely likely to use it again.

“I think it’s going to add guest loyalty to our brands by encouraging guests to engage with us throughout a larger window of time,” DiStefano says. “Guests are able to use these digital products and enjoy the power of being able to select their room. The ultimate benefit is that guests are more excited about using our mobile channels.”

DiStefano views this as the first step in Hilton’s strategy to give guests more choice and control over the hotel experience. Other features have already been added such as requests for food and beverage, or linen requests such as extra pillows. Next, Hilton will incorporate digital keys which will afford guests the option to completely bypass the front desk and access their rooms via their smartphones. “We look at it holistically, as one complete experience and ecosystem,” DiStefano describes. “We consider it from the perspective of how guests interact with our brand. We don’t want the consumer to think of it as an app or a website, we are powering the experience in a seamless way regardless of the end-point.”

Luxury Hotel Enhances Guest Experience & Adds Check-Out Revenue with Mobile Solution

Upon arrival to the Fontainebleau Miami Beach ( guests are welcomed with expansive views of the Atlantic Ocean. The main lobby is filled with energy and rich history. Until recently, that unique vista was interrupted by an all-too-familiar front desk check-in process, inclusive of long lines. “I saw an immediate opportunity to improve guests’ arrival,” John Garland, vice president of finance, admits. “We wanted to provide a grand arrival experience to allow guests to enjoy all of Fontainebleau’s offerings from their first step on property. We looked to today’s technology to create that seamless check-in.”

The task of finding a solution fell to senior business analyst Syneva Billiot who saw an opportunity to not only address the arrival experience, but to capitalize on guest communications pre-arrival and on-premises. Recognizing travelers’ desire for command and control of the experience from a mobile device, Fontainebleau saw an opportunity to leverage mobile devices to provide a branded experience for check-in/out, service requests and more.
“We wanted a platform that not only could solve those problems, but that we could expand upon so that we can reach out to guests and increase our bottom line,” she explains. The challenge was finding a technology provider that could deliver on all requirements, one that that had two-way integration with the core systems that ran the 1,504 room resort.

Billiot admits that the first requirement for a vendor partner was to be agile. It wasn’t necessary for one partner to be able to do it all, but that’s what she found with StayNTouch ( which delivers staff guest service mobility and guest smartphone engagement on one platform. In addition to front office mobility, StayNTouch offers a mobile solution for housekeeping to deliver real-time information from the PMS on any touch-enabled device.

Guests receive an email asking them to click on a check-in option and select arrival time. A message is sent to the PMS and two hours prior to the selected check-in, the guest’s room is put into the queue and housekeeping is notified. The same process is repeated for check-outs and an option to pay for a late checkout is included. In the first 30 days after roll-out, Fontainebleau saw 141% ROI from extended guest stays/late check-outs.

“By offering our guests a convenient way to purchase a late check-out, not only are we able to enhance the guest experience but we are capturing additional revenue as well,” Billiot says.

The charge is automatically posted to the guest folio in Opera (, removing the manual labor of checking rooms and inputting charges. “This eliminates disputes at the end of a guest’s stay because there is an electronic trail,” Garland states.

Because the system is all email-based, guests don’t have to take a proactive step, such as download an app, Garland continues. “The program enhances our ability to collect email addresses. Guests want back and forth communication with ease.”

In addition to integration requirements, Billiot wanted the selected vendor to be a collaborative partner. “I put in the RFP that we would want them to provide what they had ‘off the shelf,’ but then also work with us to improve the product; and then they could bring those improvements to market,” she says. “We verified that their interfaces were certified with various vendors and that they were willing to provide open APIs. After going live in September of 2014, we were able to implement some ideas, such as when rooms go into the queue so housekeeping knows when someone is arriving and can clean that room faster.”

Fontainebleau has an added complexity due to different facilities where guests might have to check-in. “We want to make sure we communicate that to guests to make their arrival more efficient and effective,” Garland says. “This benefits labor management as staff can prioritize and know where to deploy resources in an efficient manner.”

Since implementing StayNTouch, Fontainebleau has seen a decrease in guest complaints and an improved TripAdvisor status — jumping up the list from 33 to 24 out of the 205 hotels ranked in Miami Beach. “One of the comments I used to see reflected guests’ disappointment in having to leave the beautiful lobby for a check-in line around the corner,” Garland says. “I don’t see those comments any more. We’ve improved our status quite a bit and that sense of arrival, which was once a weak point, is now a strength, with positive feedback about the check-in option with views of the pool and ocean.”

Billiot is excited about potentially expanding the StayNTouch partnership to yield further improvements in engagement and efficiency. She hints at next steps that may include CRM and social media integration, wayfinding, and the use of beacons.  Garland emphasizes that ultimately the technology has to remain simple and seamless for the guest. “We want it to continue to do what it is supposed to do and enhance guest life rather than make it more complicated,” he says.

Infrastructure Overhaul Breaks Departmental Silos & Fosters Company-Wide Growth 

With 14 properties across Canada, the success of SilverBirch Hotels & Resorts ( has not come without challenges. Legacy technology stood in the way of an aggressive growth phase. The management company needed to develop and implement optimal back-office systems and processes with complementary technology to support them.

“The applications being used were either nonexistent, homegrown, out of support, or managers were simply using Excel with no databases behind them,” Walid Salem, vice president IT, explains. “With Excel there was the potential for staff to lose spreadsheets or be the only ones to know where the data the spreadsheets were compiling came from. We were getting ready to deploy in excess of $300 million in capital and there was a rudimentary tracking system, with limited reporting capabilities.”

To solve this, the company embarked on a major infrastructure upgrade and enterprise resource planning (ERP) project that became known as Project Fusion. The initiative had several key objectives: ensure that SilverBirch has access to data for informed decision making; create data transparency and accountability; deliver margin improvements; and foster operational efficiency.

“SilverBirch had a very siloed work environment at the time,” Salem admits. “There could be three different people all working off of different spreadsheets, due to the lack of communication, collaboration systems, and central document management.”

One of the first goals for Project Fusion was to replace SilverBirch’s outdated and disparate applications, and bring automation to manual tasks that slowed operations. Most SilverBirch hotels used manual time cards for employee time recording; time edits and approvals required back and forth communication between department units and central payroll. “Everything was manual and written on paper, so it was inefficient and prone to errors,” Salem recalls.

Using a multi-phased approach, Project Fusion laid the groundwork to establish SilverBirch as a process-driven, technologically sophisticated company dedicated to operational excellence. The first phase laid the infrastructure foundation. Telus Communications Company ( designed and implemented the network. Each hotel is set up the same way, allowing for the easy addition of new hotels as they open. SilverBirch deployed Microsoft ( System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM) allowing management to view all devices attached to the network and remotely deploy software updates across the organization. Citrix ( XenApp enables centralized delivery of Windows applications that are hosted on servers in the SilverBirch data center rather than installed on individual user workstations. Habanero Consulting Group ( designed and developed a SilverBirch-branded corporate communications intranet; Microsoft SharePoint is used as a centralized document management and project collaboration solution accessible across the company.

The second phase, which focused on implementing an integrated solution to update core business systems, started in January 2013, wrapping up in June 2014. SilverBirch’s Fusion Team selected Microsoft partner, Catapult ERP Services Inc., to implement Microsoft Dynamics NAV (NAV) and several third-party independent software vendors (ISV) were tapped to round out the core functionality. Catapult ERP also did custom development to the core NAV application, such as interfaces with the property management systems (PMS), electronic fund transfers (EFT), and Visa Payables Automation (VPA). Jet Reports ( Jet Essentials was implemented to support financial data reporting using its add-in macros with Microsoft Excel.

Using Scribe Software (, custom data ETLs integrations were developed between NAV and Micros Opera PMS, Hilton’s OnQ PMS, and Marriott’s Fosse PMS. “All of the data is cataloged and standardized in the system, so if an employee leaves, their replacement can come in and understand exactly how the data mapping works and be effective at supporting it,” Salem says.
Rounding out the suite of integrated solutions: Microsoft SQL Server Enterprise is used as a foundational database layer for all solutions, plus the infrastructure for a customized data warehouse; Avanti Software, Inc. ( is used for human resource management, time & attendance, scheduling and payroll; and Prophix Software,  Inc. ( Prophix Corporate Performance Management is used for corporate and hotel operational budgeting and forecasting, capital projects budgeting and daily hotel performance reporting.

With the availability and accuracy of information, SilverBirch has improved its speed to decision. “No one is waiting to get a report,” Salem explains. “A simple request that used to take a few days, now can be run in just a few minutes.”
From a dollars and cents perspective, SilverBirch benefited from taking three different payroll systems across the organization down to one. Prior to Project Fusion payroll processing costs at corporate alone were approximately $41,000. Now total costs are $11,750.

“Project Fusion has helped manage our labor component greatly,” Salem explains. “With proper systems in place, it’s not just about automating and speed – it’s about accuracy, decreasing operational errors, and achieving greater data visibility.”
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