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Going Mobile on a Global Scale

In July, Hilton Worldwide ( announced an industry-first: the wide-scale deployment of mobile-enabled check-in and room selection for its loyalty program members. By the end of this year, Hilton’s HHonors members will have the ability to check-in and choose their exact room from digital floor plans via mobile devices, tablets and computers across 4,000 properties, spanning 11 Hilton brands in more than 80 countries.

The functionality is available via mobile app, mobile website, and desktop browsers. Currently, guests using the service can begin the check-in process at 6 a.m. the day before a booked stay. Once on property, the guest proceeds to the HHonors desk for expedited key retrieval without the need to provide a credit card or ID. Next year, the company has committed to equip hotel rooms with mobile key entry, whereby guests will use their smartphones to unlock guestroom doors, allowing for true “bypass the front desk” capabilities.
In an exclusive interview, HT spoke to Geraldine Calpin, senior vice president & global head of digital, and Bill Murphy, CIO, for Hilton Worldwide, to get insight into the strategy and collaboration behind the project. Plus, Calpin and Murphy offer insight into Hilton’s future plans for mobile devices, an opportunity that Calpin calls, “the remote control to the world.”

There’s no shortage of high-priority technology projects for hotels today. Why did Hilton choose to prioritize this effort around mobile devices?
GC: We started with this because our digital agenda isn’t about going from left to right, but about right to left — in other words, what do we think the customer wants or needs, or will need in the future, that we don’t have today. We know airlines have offered seat maps for some time and the vast majority of travelers use them. We started to consider if a similar type of guest choice could be a medium for us.

The other part of our digital agenda is that we’ll do it at scale, across a brand, region, or in this case enterprise-wide. At the end of the day 100 percent of our guests have to check-in 100 percent of the time. There are a ton of things you can run after. Which do you go after first? We chose to go after one that would be used and loved by guests, not just at check-in but also in choosing the room, right down to the room number.

No one in this industry from a chain-scale perspective is offering this sort of choose-your-room functionality. We know that the vast majority of customers want it and that’s why we’ve gone after it at scale.

Does the new mobile solution offer any value-add for those guests that aren’t a part of the HHonors loyalty program?
We’re offering this benefit only to our HHonors guests—all HHonors members at all tiers. Gold and Diamond members have an additional member benefit of room upgrade upon availability.

Can you talk a bit about the collaboration that was required between technology and digital teams for this project?
This project has been delivered at scale, in a very short span of time, on time and on budget. When we form these programs, Bill and I align to agree on what we’re going to do. Looking at IT and digital, the teams aren’t different teams; it’s a singular team from the get-go.

That collaboration exists not just with leadership from the top, but all the way through the project. It’s not, “this is the IT team and this is a business team.” It’s, “we’re the room selection team, or the 22-languages team.” It’s truly a team spirit. We meet daily and/or weekly at some level. That rapid cadence has enabled us to do this.

BM: I don’t think of it in terms of who works for what organization. It’s very seamless. That evolution started about two years ago. Hilton is a large company with key business stakeholders, so as a team, we’re very well aligned across the entire enterprise. That was an organizational re-design that had an enterprise-wide agenda.

When we pull together to form an agile team today, the roles are seamless. There might be people from my team, Geraldine’s team, or other parts of the organization. There’s not a whole lot of time to worry about what team someone is from.

Geraldine, can you talk a bit about your transition into the role of “global head of digital” for Hilton, and how this transition is helping enable rapid innovation?
My recent background was in e-commerce, focusing on how we drive revenue through the channel. Our agenda was a little dispersed across different functions. Understanding the importance of digital, at the end of last year and early 2014, we determined that we’d bring everything digital together.
Guests don’t think about departments or parts of the journey. Their mobile phone is the remote control to the world, and they’ll use it to book a room, check-in, or order room service. We determined that the whole of their activity had to be accessible on one platform, and with that my role expanded from being revenue-focused to guest-focused. If we offer digital tools that guests love, the revenue will follow.

BM: Here’s another way to think about it. Hilton, like most hospitality companies, typically refers to its channels when it thinks about the reservation process: call centers, online travel agents, brick-and-mortar travel agents, the website, and most recently mobile devices. That’s the way we traditionally looked at it. Those channels were a way for the customer to shop our product and purchase it. The world of digital has evolved. Today it’s more than a channel. It’s a digital business, and we’ve aligned our teams to support that.

Hilton announced that it has invested more than $500-million on technology upgrades over the past seven years with the goal to increase customer loyalty and attract new customers, especially younger travelers.

Can you share some insight around Hilton’s philosophy on loyalty, and in particular its strategy to capture the Millennial traveler?
The school of thought is that Millennials aren’t loyal and don’t like to be called Millennials. As I think about mobile, everyone we know is on the phone; it’s not a phenomenon of a certain generation. Today everyone is connected and “always on,” and we want to be connected to them.

Guest loyalty can be driven by points or by brand affinity. Others might say they love it and don’t know why. With our digital agenda, loyalty in the future, regardless of the generation, is having our guests love us because they can’t help it. We want to make it really functional and give them things you can’t get anywhere else. You can’t choose your room in any other hotel company in the world today.

BM: The way I view it, it’s all about ease-of-use. The first smartphone came out in about 2008. Within several months it went from a way to play Angry Birds and get your email to the development of real applications. What person doesn’t use it today as a map, a GPS, a camera, a social media tool, a web browser, and a way to manage a variety of personal accounts? In the hospitality industry, we need to follow that cue and provide all the things we provide in the hotel today to people who want to control it through their mobile device.

Looking ahead, what are you exploring for other uses of mobile?
Right now we’re attacking pre-arrival, and we’ll look at components of that for an opportunity to scale and expand. We don’t want to do 100 things in a few hotels. We want to do three or four things that matter in all of our hotels, and then do little niche projects here or there. We want to do what’s important to guests, even if it’s not all self-contained within the hotel, for example ordering room service delivery from an area restaurant.

Some of what we’ll focus on will be about offering choices, including options outside the hotel such as other restaurants, bars, or great places to visit. We need to think differently than saying, “We only want to talk to guests about what we have in this building,” even if that means we’re sending them down the street.

Do you see the guests’ own mobile device ultimately becoming the central tool that they use to control their on-property experience, including the primary room-control device?

We not only have that ambition, but in some cases it’s already an actuality. The Conrad Concierge app offers room service via the mobile app, for example. Our ambition is that we’ll enable and prioritize personalization; if we know you like your room at 71 degrees, we’ll set your room once you’ve checked-in to the temperature you prefer. We’ll ensure that things you’ve requested upon your arrival, be that frozen strawberries or fresh Diet Cokes, will be in your room.

Anything that you might speak to someone to ask for, we’ll enable through a mobile device. Clearly those things need to be prioritized, and not every guest wants everything. We’ll still give them the choice to go the front desk, or pick up the phone; but ultimately it also needs to be enabled via mobile device.

BM: We’re also focused on convergence between mobile device and television, plus all the hotel services that you typically can do at the front desk, for example spa bookings, restaurant reservations, or room service. It’s also about providing web access from that same platform to be able to book a car or a local restaurant. All of that needs to be an option via mobile, and if people still want to go to the front desk, they need to be able to do that, too.

GC: As we think through “what’s next” with digital, ultimately the phone is the remote control to the world and the hotel experience. There are many amenities and services that we’ll want to offer digitally to all our guests; and our HHonors members will continue to receive an elevated level of service in the real and digital worlds even still.

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