Interview: technology innovation at Hilton

21 Dec 2016 by Jenny Southan
Hilton Digital Key

Since summer 2014, when Hilton began rolling out digital check-in and room selection, technology has become central to how it is personalising stays for guests. Geraldine Calpin, chief marketing officer at Hilton, discusses.

What motivated you to create digital check-in?

We believe that making guests’ life easier is really important. People are really busy today, they want to control their life from the palm of their hand. We started with check-in because 100 per cent of our guests have to do it 100 per cent of the time. It’s also a point of friction – a lot of people arrive at the same time to check-in [so there can be long queues]. The easiest way to do it is via mobile.

Hilton also lets people choose their own hotel room via mobile – what have been the challenges?

We knew that one of the things that every traveller does before they get on a flight is look at the seat map and choose their seat. So we thought that we’d replicate that for rooms by presenting guests with digital floor plans. This wasn’t terribly easy, though, because unlike a flight, where an airline has about 20 different types of aircraft, with us, every single hotel is different and sometimes the layout on each floor is different.

The second complication we had was that not everybody checks out every day, like they do on a flight – everyone gets off when the plane lands. We have people who stay one day, two days, three days. But we thought it would be important to do it and do it well. You get to check-in the day before your arrival from 6pm. At the same time you can also request things to be in your room when you get there –additional towels, a bottle of wine, a cheese platter etc.

How have you improved the room selection process since 2014?

We have now finished rolling that out internationally across every one of our brands, and more than 4,700 hotels. You can see where the elevators are, where the emergency exits are, and the layout of the individual rooms. You can also click on the room and see a photo of that room type. (Not the specific room number you are looking at, but the room type.)

This year (2016) we enhanced the floor plans in partnership with Google, whereby we overlaid floor plans on to Google Maps so you can see whether your room is over looking Park Lane, for example.

Hilton digital room selection

Tell us about the Hilton Digital Key which was introduced in summer 2015.

The Digital Key can now be used at more than 600 hotels across the US, Canada and Singapore. We will be rolling it out internationally in 2017 with 40 or 50 hotels a week across all the brands. Since December, the Digital Key allows you to pin your favourite room so that the next time you stay at the hotel, you will have a little love heart on the floor plan for those that you’ve favourited. You will also get push notifications when your room is ready for you to check-in.

When you are in range of your hotel room door, the key will go green; press it, and when you arrive at the door, it will already be open. This also means that because it’s a bit like a remote control it means that if you order room service you can be sitting at your desk or on your bed and when the delivery comes you can just press your phone and the door will unlock. You don’t have to get up and open it.

Who can use it?

The Digital Key is a complimentary feature for all of our Hilton HHonors members. They just need to download the app. We see about 50 per cent of our HHonors members using it on a repeat basis, and its satisfaction score is over 90 per cent. The people that use it love it.

Our roadmap is all about how can we use technology to make the travel experience even easier and even better. Our app has thumb-print activation, you can use it to make a reservation in two clicks and even order an Uber.

Why is empowering travellers through technology important?

People expect a personal experience – they don’t want to be treated like everybody else, and we are working very hard on that. As we look forwards, being able to personalise rooms in terms of temperature, knowing whether you like sparkling water or Diet Coke, your preferred TV channels and being able to load the content on your device seamlessly on to your TV screen are all things we want to deliver.

How are you employing artificial intelligence?

In March 2016, Hilton launched a collaboration with IBM to pilot “Connie” – the first Watson-enabled robot concierge in the hospitality industry. Connie was designed to enhance our guests’ experiences by providing information on local tourist attractions, dining recommendations and hotel features and amenities, and is just one example of the 30-plus innovations we’re beta-testing at our flagship property, Hilton McLean Tysons Corner, next to our corporate headquarters.

I’m quite cautious around that whole thing, though – I do think that we are in the business of hospitality and a warm smile is essential. I don’t think robots are going to be as pervasive in our industry as they might be in some others.

We want to see how our customers interact with robots and if there is a use for them, but I wouldn’t predict that we’re going to see robots all over the hotels, certainly not in ours, until we figure out if customers want them.


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