Hotel Chain Has No Reservations About Mobile Content

The Web group at the $14 billion Intercontinental Hotels Group switched software for its cell phone-based room reservation system and cut staff time by 90 percent.

Although the market for content for cell phones and PDAs is still in its infancy, the two applications that are expected to seize major market-share the fastest are reservations for airplane seats and hotel rooms.

Given that generally accepted fact, the people at the worlds largest hotel company, the $14 billion Intercontinental Hotels Group, were understandably concerned that it took almost half a year every time the chain needed to code and implement the mobile phone reservation system.

Intercontinental operates in about 100 countries/territories around the world using seven hotel chain brands: InterContinental, Crowne Plaza, Hotel Indigo, Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Staybridge Suites and Candlewood Suites.

All told, the chain controls about 3,600 hotels with about 538,000 rooms, which puts it far ahead of the Hilton chains worldwide.

The problem had been that the application had to be written and designed from start to finish twice: once for desktops and then again for smart phones, said Del Ross, who runs the mobile applications group as the companys vice president of distribution marketing/the Americas.

"That project may have taken eight to 12 weeks to code and implement. And wed then have to do it all over again for the wireless version," he said.

That all changed this month, when Rosss group made the cutover from a proprietary platform to a Sun Unix-based XML-compliant gateway.

"Its now a lot more efficient because it still uses the same plumbing," Ross said.

The 24 weeks that it used to take his group was slashed.

"Today, it only takes six to eight weeks and we only have to do it once. This eliminates the need to have to redo it," Ross said. "The wireless application had been a completely separate application. It had its own programming and its own code and it had its own infrastructure. Now its one application that you can access through the regular Web or through a wireless device."

At the simplest level, Intercontinental merely stopped reinventing the guts of the application twice for each rollout, opting to instead merely craft two separate GUIs and basic data entry changes, which both sat atop the same programming core.

"Programming an interface is relatively lightweight work compared with having to write the guts of the application, including business logic, the data transformation process and legacy system integration," Ross said.

"Its far more complex and time-consuming to develop [those elements] rather than the interface that accesses all of those things."

/zimages/2/28571.gifClick here to read about Googles plans for e-commerce.

Why didnt the company do that years ago, when they started offering this service on mobile phones? Ross said that two recent advancements have made the change possible.

The first changes are the improvements that cell phone manufacturers and cellular carriers have made on todays phone hybrids, including superior bandwidth, more RAM and faster CPUs.

The second change is with Intercontinentals internal software improvements that allow the company to more quickly and precisely identify what device the customer is using.

"The phones themselves have evolved and our ability to detect what type of device is much more sophisticated. That combination alone helps quite a bit," Ross said. "Today we can serve a very specific version of the application."

Even with those improvements and with additional improvements expected in the near future, the interfaces for desktop and handheld are still light years apart.

"The screens on wireless devices are very, very small and the functionality that these devices support is still very, very limited," Ross said. "Its not like youre serving up this application on a regular Web browser."

Next Page: The market is now ready for mobile apps.