Before computers opened the door for O.R.

By E. Andrew Boyd

“Efficiency is the watchword at HILCRON,” reads the 1956 issue of Hotel Monthly. HILCRON represented the latest and greatest technology of the day: the first central reservations office in the hotel industry. Instead of checking with individual hotels, travel agents could book a room at any Hilton hotel with a call to one central location.


To accomplish this feat reservations agents at HILCRON needed to know which hotels had rooms available and which didn’t. This was achieved with the help of a 30-foot wide mahogany board covered with felt. For each hotel, a calendar was maintained on the board, with dates running three months into the future. The color of each date, updated by a reservations agent on a ladder, told the status of a hotel. Five different colors represented five different states of affairs:

  • White. Any type of reservation accepted
  • Pink. No rooms available
  • Yellow. No suites available
  • Green. Limitations associated with events like conventions
  • Blue. No sample rooms (sample rooms were display rooms used by traveling salesmen that were popular for a period)

Female reservations agents sat at one of eight reservations desks facing the board, each equipped with a 20-line switchboard. If space was available, reservations were written out in triplicate, with one copy mailed to the caller, one to the hotel and one filed at HILCRON. The efficiency of the system allowed the office to handle inquiries at a “snappy pace of more than 20,000 incoming calls per month.”

Years later, information on the board would eventually find its way on to computers (in 1956 the integrated circuit had yet to be invented). Internet websites would largely supplant travel agents and phone calls; triplicate forms would yield to e-mail. Today’s largest global distribution systems now handle upwards of 20,000 inquiries in about four seconds.

For operations researchers, computers would make it possible to accumulate data that could be used to improve hotel planning and operations. They would also open the door for the use of revenue management, whereby hotels wouldn’t simply post room availability, but make real-time decisions on when rooms should be made available and at what price. That’s something the mahogany board just wasn’t up to.

Andrew Boyd (e.a.boyd@earthlink.net), an executive and chief scientist at an analytics firm for many years, is the INFORMS VP of Marketing, Communications and Outreach and a columnist (“Profit Center”) for Analytics magazine (www.analytics-magazine.org).

Notes and References

  1. Special thanks to Mark Young, curator of the Massad Family Research Center and Hospitality Industry Archives, part of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management at the University of Houston.
  2. Boyd, E. A., 2007, “The Future of Pricing: How Airline Ticket Pricing Has Inspired a Revolution,” New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  3. “Hilton Reservations Worldwide Marks 50 Years,” from the ehotelier website: http://ehotelier.com/hospitality-news/item.php?id=A4839_0_11_0_M. Accessed May 18.
  4. “The Sample Rooms,” from the “Forgotten Detroit” website: www.forgottendetroit.com/statler/sample.html. Accessed May 1.