During early planning sessions for the 2010 Hilton Worldwide Global Partnership Conference, organizers knew they wanted to make a statement. Everyone understood it would be a unique event: the first time in the history of the company that owners from every brand and every location—from a Hampton Inn in Omaha to the Waldorf Astoria in London—would be invited to the same place, at the same time.

Josh Weiss, Hilton Worldwide’s vice president of guest services, was in on the discussions. The question, he says, was, “How can we drive home that we are innovative, that we are different? Not just innovative in a flashy way, but innovative in a way that brings real, tangible value to the people who do business with us.”

Few things in mid-2010 said “innovation” like an Apple iPad. So, with just three months to go before the October conference, Hilton executives made a strategic decision: They would give iPads—preloaded with two custom-built apps: a meeting guide and a virtual concierge system—to all 2,000 owners who had registered for the conference.

Two priorities quickly emerged: The company needed to contract with mobile app developers, and it had to upgrade the connectivity at the host properties, the Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek and the Waldorf Astoria Orlando.

Because the iPad was intended as a core feature of the conference, Weiss said, organizers had to consider the potential for bandwidth bottlenecks if hundreds of attendees tried to stream conference videos at the same time. “That’s the kind of problem that even Steve Jobs has struggled with at Mac developer conferences, so we wanted to make sure that didn’t happen to us,” Weiss says. Hilton worked with partner ATT to expand the hotels’ Wi-Fi networks to accommodate up to 2,000 simultaneous users of high-bandwidth applications. The resort now has “hundreds of access points, inside and out; hundreds of megs of bandwidth flowing to those circuits; and incredibly sophisticated control units to manage all that infrastructure,” he explains.

Customized Apps

By early September, a Vancouver, B.C.–based mobile meeting guide developer, QuickMobile, was at work on the conference app, which would give attendees the meeting schedule, a personal agenda-builder (pop-up messages reminded attendees if they were scheduled for a breakout), an attendee roster with instant messaging, property maps, speaker bios, downloadable handouts, meal and entertainment information, satisfaction surveys, and daily conference photos and videos.

The conference app also included a searchable list and interactive map for the 100-plus business partners—from linen providers to technology companies—who participated in an expo on the first full day of the conference.

QuickMobile has created mobile guides for more than 40 meetings and events, but this was among the first it designed for an iPad. While buying iPads for an entire group is extraordinary, says QuickMobile CEO Patrick Payne, he sees an uptick in the number of corporations renting iPads and iPod Touch devices in bulk in order to offer every attendee an equivalent mobile experience. And the iPad, Payne comments, brings a new level of interactivity to a meeting, especially in terms of taking notes and messaging (since it allows users to type conventionally).

The second custom application was a virtual concierge system designed by Orlando-based Intelity. “Part of the goal,” explains Weiss, “was to make owners more familiar with emerging technologies that have an impact on hospitality.” One concierge app was created for guests staying at the Hilton and another for those at the Waldorf, and each included all the things you’d find on a printed compendium in the guest room desk drawer, such as room-service menus (plus the ability to order food), spa and fitness information (plus the ability to book appointments), transportation, maps, and valet-parking information. “If somebody wanted dinner, they could navigate to the menu portion of the app, look at images of the food, add it to their cart, click “check out,” and it would arrive at their room just as if they’d picked up the phone and ordered it,” Weiss says. With a few changes, the concierge apps are expected to relaunch for the public in early 2011.

Provisioning Station

With so much effort being put into the applications, attendee adoption also needed to be carefully considered. “It wasn’t just, ‘Here’s a piece of hardware. Have fun,’” Weiss says. “We provided the hardware, a custom suite of applications, and a provisioning and support experience that was completely thought through.”

For the “provisioning,” organizers took over a bar near the door where attendees arrived. “We actually created an entire pop-up retail experience,” says Weiss, explaining that the room was outfitted with everything needed to get attendees up and running on a new iPad. “We scanned a bar code on the attendee’s badge, and while one person retrieved the iPad (preconfigured for that attendee) from a secure back shelf, another person at the same checkout station took the attendee’s picture. So one quick refresh of the conference app and the attendee’s picture was in the system,” Weiss says. A team of experts from Apple, Hilton, QuickMobile, and other partners were on hand to teach users how to navigate the iPad, set up e-mail through the device, and explain the various applications.

In addition to the conference and concierge apps, Hilton preloaded several other applications on every iPad. One was a link to the company’s intranet. “Obviously a big objective is communicating and keeping our stakeholders engaged after conferences, and so we premiered a new version of our corporate intranet and made it accessible from an app icon on the desktop of their iPads,” explains Weiss. Each iPad was also outfitted with a “printer on” application, which connected the device to a network of printers throughout the resort, making it easy for attendees to print, if necessary.

Hilton also took advantage of Apple’s free iBooks application that creates a virtual bookshelf on the iPad. “We had a wonderful list of speakers—[British entrepreneur] Richard Branson, [MSNBC television news journalist] Mika Brzezinski, A.G. Lafley [former chairman, president, and CEO of Procter & Gamble], and we had excerpts from each of their books preloaded on the bookshelf,” Weiss says.

Worth the Effort?

Hilton offset the cost of the iPads and applications with sponsor support. Platinum sponsors such as ATT and IBM were allowed to add an app on each iPad. Sponsors didn’t put traditional advertising in the app, Weiss said, but rather provided Hilton owners with an overview of their businesses and relationship with Hilton.

“The fact that we have companies like ATT, IBM, Micro- soft, and Apple as partners certainly helped us to pull this off,” Weiss says. But while the costs can be significant, “these types of developments should be [under] consideration for any type of event,” says Weiss. “Think about the costs of some traditional ways of doing meetings—the paper, the printing, the cost of slightly lesser engagement perhaps,” Weiss says.

“To do it right, [creating an iPad experience] takes a lot of time, effort, communication, and collaboration. It is not something you can put together in even a month’s time. You really need to get behind it and treat it like a development project.” But the payoff was worth it, he says. “It was great to see how all the pieces came together.”

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