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Marriott Has 16 Reservation Centers Around the World; the Omaha Center
 Is "the Mother Church", Achieving 50% Conversion Rate

By Virgil Larson, Omaha World-Herald, Neb.McClatchy-Tribune Business News

Aug. 17, 2006 - Agents at the Marriott Worldwide Reservation Center in Omaha left their phones Wednesday to lunch on hamburgers and corn on the cob in the parking lot with the hotel chain's chief executive.

No calls were missed and no reservations went unmade, a testament to modern call center technology. The network routing operation in the Marriott center at 90th and Blondo Streets automatically switched the calls to some of the 15 other reservation offices around the world.

J.W. Marriott, in Omaha to mark the 35th anniversary of operations here, left no doubt about the importance of the Omaha center to keeping Marriott operations running smoothly.

"We have 16 reservation centers around the world," the chairman and chief executive told the lunch crowd in a brief talk, "but this is the mother church."

The mother church sets the standards for the rest of the system, Marriott said. And the standard is an "absolutely fantastic" 50 percent "conversion rate," he said, which means Omaha agents turn half the incoming calls into reservations. The industry average, Marriott said later in an interview, is 30 percent.

After the lunch, he and son David, senior vice president of global sales at Marriott International Inc. in Washington, toured the center. Central to the operation is the routing center, which in a split second can locate an available agent among the call centers and send that person an incoming call.

The Omaha center also houses agents who deal with customers on the Internet, those who deal specifically with Rewards club members, frequent business travelers and other high-volume customers, national and global sales and back-office support. The other call centers in the system are run from Omaha.

About half of Omaha's 1,200 employees are reservations agents. And almost half of the 2,500 employees in the 16 centers are in Omaha. Some of the reservation offices employ only a handful of people.

Employment in Marriott's reservations arm has remained stable despite the growth of the hotel chain and probably will not grow much, J.W. Marriott said in an interview. Call-center technology such as the routing system increases efficiency, allowing more calls to be handled with little or no increase in workforce.

Marriott, with 2,800 hotels under 16 brands in more than 60 countries, has 80,000 new rooms "in the pipeline," Marriott said, with 25,000 to open this year and 30,000 next year. About 25 percent of the new rooms will be outside the United States, he said.

China and India are hot markets. Marriott said the company has 32 hotels in China, with 16 more under construction, and "seven or eight" in India, with a like number in the works.

Sub-Saharan Africa is an empty area for Marriott, but a hotel is planned for Lagos, Nigeria, and the company is looking hard at South Africa, he said.

Behind the expansion is a market in which demand is growing faster than the supply of available rooms, he said.

Whatever expansion in reservations workforce is necessary will be met partly with the use of home agents, contract employees who work from home rather than a call center. Other call-center operators, notably West Corp. of Omaha, are increasingly using home agents.

Kaye Dengel, a Marriott senior vice president in Omaha, said she expects to hire 100 home agents in Utah next year.

Among the things reservations and customer-care agents monitor are customers' comments about Marriott.

Dengel said one thing that has gotten an "overwhelmingly positive" response is the chain's recent decision to make all its hotels in North America smoke-free.

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Copyright (c) 2006, Omaha World-Herald, Neb.

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