Hotel Companies Look to UtilizeWireless Devices for Reservations

Hotel companies, increasingly drawing customers in through Web reservations, are now stepping into the wireless age.Bass Hotels & Resorts, the lodging unit of Bass PLC of London, is expected to announce as early as next week that customers can start making reservations on wireless devices such as the hand-held Palm VII or on Web-enabled cellular phones by the end of January. Customers of Bass hotel brands, which include Holiday Inn, Inter-Continental and Crowne Plaza, will also be able to search for hotel properties on cellphones that currently support digital text messaging but can`t connect to the Internet.
The announcement follows a move last October by Choice Hotels International Inc., whose brands include Quality and Comfort, to offer reservations systems on the Palm VII. Other hotel companies, including Hilton Hotels Corp., Marriott International Inc. and Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc., say they are exploring options for accepting reservations through wireless devices. Hilton says it plans to roll out a booking system on the Palm VII within the next two to four weeks.
Eric Pearson, vice president of e-commerce for Bass, says the company wanted to add this new way of making reservations because “we want to be first and foremost in the minds of consumers whenever and wherever they want to shop.”
Henry Harteveldt, senior analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass., says customers are more likely to use wireless devices to look up hotel information and directions before they progress to making full-fledged bookings.
In two separate consumer surveys conducted last year in the U.S. and Canada, one of 90,000 households and the other of 9,000 households, 30% of potential Web-enabled cellphone users and 35% of prospective personal hand-held device holders said they were interested in obtaining travel information through wireless connections.
“Initially, people thought booking hotel rooms on the Internet was a gimmick,” says Steven Kent, lodging analyst at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. “But now, anywhere from 4% to 6% of the rooms are being booked through the Internet.”
Mr. Pearson adds that he expects the adoption of wireless booking to move at least as fast as interest in the Internet, because customers are more accustomed to using technology now.
Bass is working with Atlanta`s Air2Web Inc. to enable guests to download applications from Bass`s Web sites to their Palm VIIs and to “bookmark” a link to the Bass site on Internet-enabled cellphones. Mr. Pearson says Air2Web has tailored links to 260 different devices, based on manufacturer specifications such as screen size. Bass paid Air2Web an upfront development fee of less than $500,000 and will pay the company fees based on each page view accessed by a customer through a wireless device.
Only members of Priority Club, Bass`s rewards program for frequent travelers, can make reservations on wireless devices. (All customers can look up hotel locations or directions without registering for Priority Club.) Mr. Pearson says that will ensure that guests already have their names, room preferences and credit-card numbers registered on Bass`s Web site and will shorten the time and number of buttons a customer has to press to make a booking.
Still clunky technology is one of the reasons Starwood isn`t rushing to launch a reservation system for wireless devices. “The ability to use the keypad on a cellphone to do the tasks required to make a reservation is clumsy,” says Danny Hudson, vice president for property technology at Starwood. Adds Starwood Executive Vice President Steve Hankin: “We won`t commit to something until the functionality [of wireless devices] is improved.” Because many wireless users still have trouble reliably connecting to the Net, he says, it is still faster for most guests just to dial up the company`s toll-free reservation number on their mobile phones.
To be sure, Bass isn`t expecting to get a significant near-term boost in bookings from the wireless reservation systems. At Choice, the company says it is getting only about five reservations a day from customers using the Palm VII application, which was launched in October. Part of the reason, says Gary Thomson, chief information officer at Choice, is because the Palm VII itself is so new.
Indeed, says Bass`s Mr. Pearson, “as consumers ... begin using more devices to access information, we anticipate growth commensurate with the Internet.” He says that in the fiscal year ended September 2000, just under 4% of all reservations throughout Bass`s 3,000-hotel network came through the company`s branded Web sites, up from less than 3% the previous year.