Adapting Consumer Technologies to the Hospitality Industry

Date: Jun 30 ’11
Region: North America

CCT Network: How has your CCT degree prepared you for your position as Manager of Technology Solutions at Hilton Worldwide? 

Jami (Valt) Messinger: This question makes perfect sense, but the answer is kind of ironic. My first job with Hilton out of graduate school was managing Y2K compliance, which of course turned out to be no big deal. I transitioned into in-room entertainment, which ended up being directly related to CCT’s technology/business/telecom coursework, even though the industry has changed a lot in the past decade and a half. The ironic part is that in CCT, I focused almost exclusively on cultural studies and avoided business cases and telecom policy except for core classes. As it turns out, having a historical context for the cable industry is useful, and the convergence we theorized about is unfolding in front of us. Now we’re working on making these technologies affordable to implement in hospitality!

CCT Network: What technology challenges do you address in your position with Hilton Worldwide?

Jami (Valt) Messinger: One of the challenges we address is simply related to infrastructure. As we bring HDTV into the guestrooms and add internet-based services (e.g., guests wanting to access Netflix and Hulu), we are constantly challenged by existing hotel wiring (the cable plant) and the need for a really big data pipe (expensive!).

Another set of challenges relates to adapting consumer technologies to hospitality. We have been hindered by digital rights management issues, and it’s tough to get consumer-focused companies to adapt their services for this environment. Some of the cost models don’t translate well: owners who pay $80 a month for cable programming at home don’t want to pay more than $10 per room per month in the hotel. And services like DVR or customized channel lineups require intricate interfaces with our property management systems and toe the line of privacy (figuring out how to wipe the slate clean after each guest checks out).

CCT Network:  How are new communications technology tools such as social media impacting the hospitality industry?

Jami (Valt) Messinger: Well, social media sites are great for travelers who want to research hotels or gripe about past stays. (We actually look at them to see what guests are saying about our hotels.) A lot of the developments on the horizon revolve around mobile devices – using them for services including keyless guestroom entry, concierge apps, or even being able to stream guestroom TV content anywhere on property via the hotel’s wireless network.

CCT Network: Describe the experience in developing and launching the $1B high-definition (HD) TV strategy for Hilton?

Jami (Valt) Messinger: The bulk of the expense in our new strategy is in purchasing HDTVs for all our hotels worldwide. Even though LCD’s have dropped dramatically in cost since we started implementing them in 2006/2007, they are still much more expensive than our owners are accustomed to, and the HD channel equipment is more costly as well. It’s been an incredible education process. My team learned a lot about this moving technology target, and we educate and persuade our brand teams, hotel teams, owners, and management companies. I spend as much time on communication strategies as I do on research, negotiating contracts, or vendor management, even now that HDTV is in the vernacular! (Thank goodness for the first C in CCT.)

We’ve done a few key things well: we started slowly, set conservative goals for what technologies the hotels would implement and by when, and adjusted the dates to allow for more adoption time when it proved necessary. The economic downturn had a huge impact on owners’ desire and ability to spend money on a perceived luxury item, and our compliance deadlines were extended more than once, but we are on par with our key competitors. We also conducted research that was critical to our strategy development. Not only did we examine what guests say they want (using direct questions as well as more complex methodologies like trade-off analysis), but we compared that to their actual in-room behavior to round out the picture. We have a very keen sense of what guests want, are willing to pay for, and actually use, and we are using this information to try to advance guestroom technology to a place that’s commensurate with the home experience.

CCT Network: You have led quite a few innovative projects for Hilton, including the guest kiosk for check-in and printing airline boarding passes. What is the process of developing an innovative idea into a successful service?

Jami (Valt) Messinger: In-room entertainment is a top level initiative for Hilton Worldwide, so it has a lot of visibility with our senior management team. This is great, because there’s a lot of support for the work we do, but it also can mean being under the microscope! Some of our projects are based on gauging consumer and hospitality trends and adapting technology to this very specific environment. Sometimes, it’s trial and error: we see a potential fit for technology, we work through fairly traditional IT project management methodology, and if the project is approved at all checkpoints, it’s beta tested and/or implemented. It’s funny that you mention check-in kiosks and printing airline boarding passes. While the concept for self-service check-in was based largely on the airline model, and it’s still desirable to a certain segment of guests (particularly road warriors with no need to stop at the front desk), that particular form factor didn’t pan out well. We are still focused on offering choice, convenience, and control to guests via technology, but we’re looking at other ways to manage self-service check-in, like the keyless entry on mobile devices I talked about earlier.

CCT Network:  What do you see as the biggest trend now for technology solutions? 

Jami (Valt) Messinger: Mobile devices. Connectivity. Access to my content, where I want it, when I want it, at the right speed and price point. The more tech-savvy our guests become, the higher their expectations for what they can accomplish from their guestrooms. High-speed internet is the first priority, followed closely by HD content. My team’s stated goal is to provide a cost-effective, global in-room entertainment experience that closes the entertainment gap between home and hotel.