INTERACTIVE;'NET HELPS FIND ROOM AT THE INN

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A mere 15 minutes after e-mailing a reservation request to Hilton Hotels Corp.'s World Wide Web site (http://www.hilton.com/hilton), a customer service agent calls, confirming that a room at the New York Hilton is available.

"The BounceBack Weekend rate is $169 at that hotel," he says. "Can I go ahead and confirm it for you?"

At rival Holiday Inn Worldwide's site, which opened last week (http://www.holiday-inn.com), making a reservation necessitates wading through several layers of forms and choices. But there's one big difference from the Hilton offering: No other human being is involved.

The request goes directly into the hotel chain's reservations system. In seconds, a credit-card-guaranteed reservation is made.

Such are the hotel industry's baby steps toward electronic booking via the Internet. In its first iteration, however, the transaction process is more like a frenetic business trip than a relaxing vacation.

"We have no idea, quite honestly, how many reservations we'll get in the next month, in the next year," said Debra Semans, Holiday Inn VP-new market development and research. "If this becomes a major reservations channel, then we're going to have to modify our strategy."

Holiday Inn is the first hotel chain to link its in-house reservations system with the Internet. Other hotels on the Web-including Embassy Suites (http://promus.com/embassy.html), Westin Hotels & Resorts (http://www.westin.com) and Hyatt Corp. (http://www.travelweb.com/hyatt.html)-direct users to an 800-number for now.

All say online bookings are where the industry is headed.

"Is every reservation going to be booked this way? No," said John C. McCarthy, a research director at Forrester Research, Cambridge, Mass. "Over time, this will become bigger."

Travel directories and bulletin boards already are some of the most popular sites on the Web and commercial online services, catering to consumers' desire to do their own information-gathering.

Holiday Inn's site will include several other advanced Web techniques, including virtual reality tours of its Crowne Plaza properties (via Apple Computer's QuickTime VR software) and an interactive version of the popular Travel Buff board game. Franchisees will be able to construct their own electronic brochures.

Hilton, for now, is choosing to straddle the online booking fence. Web users must e-mail their telephone number and reservation request and wait for a customer service agent to call them back. The company said it has taken hundreds of reservations since it went online in March.

TravelWeb (http://www.travelweb.com), online home of several hotel chains, plans to test online booking with clients Best Western International and Hyatt later this summer, but has yet to commit to a rollout of the process.

"We have already been tracking the number of accesses on our site and the number of phone calls and bookings that result," said Mary Swenson, Best Western's managing director-worldwide reservations and marketing distribution. "Based on that, we absolutely believe transactions are the next step."

Like ordering pizza online, the current process probably consumes more time than it saves. Hotels hope it eventually becomes as natural as picking up the phone.

"Travel is strenuous at best," Forrester's Mr. McCarthy said. "The more you can make it one phone call or one log-on .....the better off you're going to be."

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