ATLANTA—In April 1980, Melanie Buller—just out of college—was working as a front-desk manager at the Holiday Inn Monroe Civic Center in Monroe, Louisiana. Buller’s GM, who had just returned from a week of training on a new electronic system that was supposed to revolutionize the way the hotel was run, called Buller into her office. She dropped a shoe box full of index cards on her desk and asked Buller to enter all the information from the cards into the new system.
“It was complicated. I was just kind of thrown into it … but I learned quickly,” Buller said.
That system—already 15 years old in 1980 but still in its infancy—was Holiday Inn’s proprietary central reservations system, Holidex.
Today, as regional director of revenue management for Davidson Hotel Company, Buller works with the 47-year-old Holidex regularly. It’s a patched-up version—some of its functions are antiquated, some of its processes clunky—but it’s reliable, and it gets the job done.
It won’t be long before Buller and many other hoteliers bid adieu to Holidex. Forty-seven years old is ancient in technology standards. And Holiday Inn’s parent company, InterContinental Hotels Group, is in the beginning stages of a massive rollout of REVolution, a new replacement CRS that can handle more information requests, process ancillary reservations and speak in every world language, among other features. The first phase of the rollout, which will reportedly cost IHG more than $120 million, is underway, and pieces of REVolution are already present in the marketplace.
“It’s sad, really, for a lot of us who have grown up with Holidex,” Buller said. “It’s the heartiest of all machines—it never goes down—but it’s just impossible to update it anymore. They’ve tried adding Band-Aids, but it’s time to install something that will help hoteliers keep up with today’s generation of travelers.”
IHG declined comment for this article as the company is transitioning leadership in the technology department.
Mike Leven, president and COO of Las Vegas Sands Corporation and former president and COO of Holiday Inn Worldwide, discusses the impact Holidex had on the hotel industry.
The Holiday Inn hotel brand formed in the 1950s and almost immediately experienced exponential growth. Like many industries, the travel industry saw the need for a better booking process. In 1963, the Sabre global distribution system was invented for American Airlines; and two years later Holidex became the world’s first hotel reservations system. Holidex was beyond advanced for its time—before the Internet, before computers, even before fax machines. It was centrally located, state-of-the-art and industry-leading.
“The Holiday Inn company that Kemmons Wilson launched was one of the most innovative there was. Holidex was first of its kind,” said Bobby Bowers, who held a variety of positions at Holiday Inn from 1979 to 1994 before joining STR, parent company of HotelNewsNow.com. “(Wilson) really was just a brilliant guy in terms of his ideas; he was pretty down–to-Earth and a simple guy, just a really entrepreneurial and creative guy that had great ideas.”
Since its introduction, Holidex has been an icon in the industry.
“I can remember staying in a Holiday Inn in Great Bend, Kansas, on a road trip with my father in the mid-to-late 1960s,” said Ray Burger, who started his hospitality career in college working with Holiday Inn before going on to manage hotels for 20 years. “My father walked up to the front desk because he had to make a reservation for the Holiday Inn we were going to stay in the next night. That reservation was done on the Holidex machine.”
“I’m talking about the days when a single was $12, and you could get a double for $17,” continued Burger, who founded Pineapple Hospitality in 2005. “People didn’t have cell phones; if they wanted to stay at a hotel, they used a payphone or stopped in to the lobby. If the hotel was out of the rooms they’d rent you the coat closet, and if that was gone you had to go elsewhere.”
In the early stages, a Holidex terminal was installed at each hotel. A typical hotel had the front desk, the check-in terminal and then—in the back room—the Holidex terminal. The goal was to make managing reservations less chaotic, to have a better picture of who was coming to your hotel that night.
“There are three things anyone who ever worked in hotel management or on the front desk will recall: going to get the Holidex reservations, getting time and charges from the phone center and doing the board,” said Bob Habeeb, president and COO of First Hospitality Group. “Anybody who came into this business at that time will remember those things vividly.
“(Holidex) really was a marvel in its day, especially now when we look at having instant communication on the Web,” he said.
The Holidex terminals supplied reservations initially from other hotels and then soon after from a call center. When a reservation arrived, it would print from a large, dot-matrix-like printer onto oversized, perforated paper.
“We’d get several reservations per shift, and it was someone’s job to cut them into smaller pieces of paper that would fit onto a 3x5 (inch) index card and file that under the arrival date. We actually had file folders for the 12 months of the year and, within those, for the number of days in a month,” said Burger, recalling his days in management. “But before you did that, you had to go to the notebook with all 12 months and go to that day of the week and enter how many nights and whatever room type. The notebook had numbers representing the number of beds and you’d go to the day and mark through how many ever beds for how many ever days the reservation was for.
“It was automated as far as the guest could see,” Burger said.
Evolution of Holidex
Holidex would eventually digitize all of that manual processing. In 1965, the young CRS saw its first cutover. In the 1970s there were big changes again: Holidex began connecting to travel agencies, which enabled smoother distribution. In 1975, there were additional connections made. And in the 1980s more releases were made to the system, and it was moved onto the IBM operating system, which was built for speed.
Holidex grew in transaction volume and by that time was used by a number of players in travel. It was able to scale with Holiday Inn as the company needed it to.
“If you think back, five years ago there was no such thing as an iPhone. There was no iPad. And that was only five years ago. Today I hold more technology in my hand that was on the lunar module,” said Peter Marino, senior VP of Paramount Hotel Group. “To go back and think that there were these Telex machines and you got your reservations when you heard the clatter and then you had to rip off your reservation … it’s common today, but at that time it was genius.
“To be able to have someone in Cleveland call someone up in Memphis and say, ‘I’m looking for a hotel room in New Jersey, was genius,’” continued Marino, who first used Holidex when he was GM at the Holiday Inn Ft. Washington in Philadelphia from 1984 to 1986. “It was not shortly after then that everyone copied Holidex. In this industry there are few people that are innovators, but we are great copiers.”
In the late 1990s, Holidex Plus was implemented. There were new capabilities, of course, as well as the absorption of InterContinental Hotels & Resorts. Holidex also was the first system to support hotel Web bookings.
“Holidex, basically what generations lovingly saw as technology, has become less and less at the forefront because what a hotel cares about is how they get reservations. At one point it was wild technology—the first thing anyone had seen—but now technology is just so commonplace,” said Mark Carrier, senior VP of B. F. Saul Company’s hotel division. “You can get a stable and effective platform with any brand. What we care about is whether the transactions get delivered to us.”
Out with the old, in with the new
Even though Holidex has been a workhorse for IHG, the franchisor has decided it is time to move on.
IHG announced during its 2011 Americas Investors & Leadership Conference that REVolution would replace the old CRS and address a number of advancements. It gives IHG the ability to process inventory beyond sleeping rooms, and travelers will be able to book different components of their stay. Since IHG’s No. 2 growth market is China, and IHG expects to see significant growth out of China and Asia, REVolution is built on a more global platform and can “speak” different languages.
“Holidex was the leader. Even today it’s a great system that just really struggles with interfacing,” said Lara Latture, who spent a number of years as a GM in the IHG system before becoming executive VP and principal of The Hotel Group. “I give them total snaps for diving in head first. Standardizing the information is the goal; not having to re-enter or interpret the language.”
Still, Latture said there are many “old-school” hoteliers who will hate moving to a point-and-click (Windows-based) system and will prefer the old DOS-based command system of Holidex.
“You remember Holidex, and you remember your commands,” she said. “You had to literally be resourceful—learn, go to classes, review what you were going to have to index. Hoteliers had cheat sheets, and you would see 100 sticky notes taped all over the terminals.”
Habeeb is one of those old-school hoteliers.
“You can argue—and I’ve thought about this—you can argue that the ancient system was better than what we’re dealing with today. You always had to have a personal contact and on the phone you could upsell. Now so much happens on the Web,” he said. “Holidex was somewhat cumbersome to go in there and mess with your rates; today we mess with rates by the minute and the industry has bled off its profitability by acting too quickly and dropping rates. Back in the Holidex times, you changed your rates three or four times a year.
“The capabilities the Internet has created are incredible, and we haven’t understood how to utilize them best,” Habeeb continued. “You used to call direct or walk in; now there’s all these third-party sites selling our product, and we’re losing a lot of control. Our inventory is residing in any home in America right now in real time.
“It’s an exciting time,” he said, “but there were a lot of advantages back then.”
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