Hilton chain looks to self-service

Self-service kiosks have been around since the mid-1980s and the technology certainly isn’t new, but after a previous failed attempt at implementing kiosks, the Hilton Hotel chain has decided to embrace the self-service methodology once again.

While the chain will begin with its U.S. locations, it will offer self service at its hotels in Canada by 2005.

“Customers don’t like lineups and their expectations are growing,” said Robert Machen, vice-president, customer-facing technology at Hilton Hotels. “As a hospitality industry we are trying to look forward….We want to give our guests a choice.”

The hotel kiosks, which were developed in cooperation with IBM Canada Ltd. and the Toronto-based Innovation Centre, are to be used by customers to check in and out of the hotel without having to interact with a service agent at the front counter.

“The kiosks are about a mix of hardware, software and services to provide better access,” said Rob Ranieri, practice leader, IBM e-access team at IBM Canada.

The Hilton’s kiosks are targeted at hotel guests who are looking for a quick option to check in or out of their rooms, who usually travel more frequently and who don’t have complicated requirements. For example, the kiosk can be used for single room reservations, will provide keys, will print a receipt and will also provide the guest the opportunity to pick his or her own room, Machen said.

Back in 1997, when Hilton Hotels first deployed a few test kiosks in the U.S., Machen said the machines weren’t successful simply because they weren’t used by guests — likely because the guests weren’t familiar with the technology.

Other issues to the slow adoption rate included reliability issues such as key encoder failures. Also, they were gigantic machines that took up a lot of space in the hotel lobby. The kiosks were removed and nearly seven years has elapsed, but earlier this year, at its New York and Chicago locations, Hilton implemented nine kiosks for another attempt at self-serve options.

Just this week, the company added two more self service kiosks to its Boston location and currently has a total of 11 in operation. The long term goal is to have 100 kiosks in 45 hotels, including in Canada and Mexico.

The response by hotel guests, according to Machen, has been impressive. Machen said that by making the machines wireless the kiosks are easier to locate within the hotel. Since the first project, the kiosks have become more user friendly and this time around Hilton has educated its staff on the new service.

“From the hotel standpoint, this service drives loyalty for customers — that’s the benefit,” Machen explained. The Hilton is offering kiosk service agents (KSAs), who are positioned beside the kiosk area and can help guests with the process and make sure there aren’t any problems. The kiosk cannot provide a mini-bar key, for exaple, but the KSA can offer help to the guests with this.

Since IBM became involved with the self service vehicles in 1987, the look of them has changed and will continue to change, Ranieri explained. There is a variety of shapes and sizes depending upon the industry and the use of the kiosk.

Kiosks have been available in various industries in Canada for several years including the retail industry, such as the Hudson Bay Co.’s gift registry stations, for example. As well, the Ontario government’s ServiceOntario program provides vehicle registration and validation sticker dispensing for the Ministry of Transportation, parking fine payment and change of address through its kiosks.

The travel industry has experienced the highest growth rate with self-service technology, with things such as online travel agents and check-in kiosks at the airport for airlines such as Air Canada or at the the train station with VIA Canada.

As self service on the Internet becomes more prevalent within the next few years, IBM’s Ranieri said the balance between the kiosks and online access will start to widen a little more, adding that kiosks themselves will always have a role to play.

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