If they know immediately how many rooms are available and at what price, they can make quick decisions to help them sell those rooms and avoid big vacancy rates. If they know immediately that a special or frequent guest has just entered the hotel, they can personally greet that guest to ensure he or she will return.
Carlson Hotels Worldwide - owner of 720 Regent International Hotels, Radisson Hotels & Resorts, Country Inns & Suites By Carlson, and Park Plaza and Inn Hotels in 64 countries - has developed a Pocket PC-based software system that runs on Compaq's iPaq personal digital assistants.
Dubbed the Mach-1, for Mobile Access for Carlson Hospitality, the 6-month-old application is designed to give hotel managers and field service representatives the timely information they need to improve sales and to save the Minneapolis company money.
"If you step back a year, you waited for a 30-day report to find out how you did," says Michael Murphy, Carlson's director of information system support services. "But the information is obsolete the day you get it. The time to take action was 30 days ago, when the information occurred. The Mach-1 lets you take action now, when it will have the most impact for my organization."
Carlson, which has deployed 150 iPaqs and expects to increase that to more than 1,000 by the end of the year, is among the first wave of companies to turn PDAs into worker productivity tools. When the first Palm PDAs came out, they were designed mainly as tools that individuals could use for calendars, address books and personal organization.
Aiming For The Enterprise
But Palm Inc. and Microsoft Corp. - maker of the Pocket PC operating system that hardware makers like Compaq are using - are now pushing their devices into the corporate market, where they must persuade large companies to buy and integrate them as enhancements to worker productivity.
"If you're looking at a growth market, you have to look toward the enterprise," says International Data Corp. (IDC) analyst Kevin Burden, who specializes in smart handheld devices with the Framingham, Mass. market research firm.
No one has to convince the IT folks at Carlson.
Chief information officer Scott Heintzeman says the hospitality company, which also owns Radisson Seven Seas Cruises, realized more than a year ago that PDAs could help it better manage its business.
He saw employees bringing their own PDAs to work and asking the IT department to support them. He heard from managers that they were overwhelmed with information that they couldn't process quickly. And he saw the convergence of wireless technology that allowed such information to be transferred wirelessly over a LAN or wireless device.
With those three issues converging, Heintzeman's team developed the Mach-1. The system gives users news and information from the company Intranet. But it goes further by sending personalized financial reports to hotel managers and field service representatives - and flags them with colored alerts to indicate when there's a problem.
With their PDAs, managers and sales representatives in the field can get the information any time, anywhere. They aren't tied to their PC to see how their hotel or cruise ship is doing financially.
James Callaghan, general manager of the Radisson Plaza Hotel in downtown Minneapolis, says he takes his iPaq to meetings throughout the day and is able to check reservations and room rates and adjust capacity levels accordingly.
"I have much more information at my fingertips," he says.
Unlike his laptop computer, Callaghan's iPaq doesn't need to be booted up and is easier to carry.
Toward The Bottom Line
Despite the early enthusiasm and apparent successes, however, it's still too early to assess the true impact on the hotel company's bottom line. The Mach-1 system was implemented at the end of a three-year, $21 million reservation overhaul. While Murphy estimates he's spent only $200,000 on the PDA system, it couldn't have been done without the preliminary work.
And there's still more to do. Carlson is piloting programs that more widely distribute the iPaqs to other hotel employees to improve integration between managers and those in charge of housekeeping and guest services. And the chain is also testing whether to use the devices to input guest information to facilitate wireless check-in and baggage routing.
Heintzeman says that within the next six months, when wireless transfer speeds increase from 14 kilobits per second to 56 kilobits per second, the functions will really improve. In a hotel industry hard hit by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Carlson executives see the Mach-1 as one more way to help them compete.
"Every hotel company is realizing that we have to manage our resources even more tightly than ever before," he says. "The opportunity to yield profits on thin margins is harder than ever. By having the Mach-1 invention in our pocket, it helps us become better managers than you thought you needed to be prior to 9/11."
Freelance writer Cynthia Flash covers business and technology from Bellevue, Wash. Reach her at email@example.com.