One-on-one with Hilton’s Noelle Eder

exterior hotel
Hilton Norfolk The Main in Virginia is one of nearly 6,000 Hilton properties. Photo credit: Hilton

Until March 2018, Noelle Eder had never worked in hotels. A frequent traveler for work, she’d played the part of the guest plenty of times, but her career up to then largely had been roles in customer care at software and technology companies.

Then, last year, Eder joined Hilton as EVP/chief information and digital officer. Though she had entered a new industry, she found herself applying the same methodologies and digital know-how she learned over her career, only for a new set of customer needs.

“In my prior roles we very much went through the same kind of technology modernization that we’re going through here,” Eder said. “So the lessons around decomposing big monolithic backend systems very much apply from one environment to the next, whether you’re talking about Intuit to Capital One or Capital One to Hilton.”

A Background in Technology

Eder, a graduate of Boston University, first entered the job market during the jobless recovery after the ’91 recession. A Chicago native, she returned to the city to work for an adjunct facility of the University of Chicago hospitals. “I really give a lot of credit to the academia because they’ll take people without a lot of experience and train them, and that’s essentially what happened to me,” Eder said. There, she made her “entrée into technology” as a private-branch-exchange switch system administrator, programming telephony and voicemail. “From there I went into networking and from networking into software, software into product management and customer-experience work,” she explained.

In 2005, Eder began a nine-year stint at Intuit, starting out as director of professional services, taking on several different VP roles and rising to SVP and chief customer care officer. In 2014 and until she joined Hilton, Eder worked at Capital One, where she served as EVP of customer experience and operations and then EVP and chief card customer experience officer. “Most of my career has been about digital engagement with customers and increasingly it’s been about every touchpoint that a consumer has to interact with a company,” she said.

When she moved to hotels, those touchpoints naturally changed. "How you interact with guests in an environment where they show up physically is a little bit different than when you're in a direct-to-consumer business and your experimentation and testing happens primarily through the Internet," she said. But that difference has provided an opportunity to apply a set of practices she learned from experience outside of hospitality to her time at Hilton. As part of a longstanding company practice, Hilton's leaders spends several days a week in hotels, observing them, finding what works and what doesn’t. “It also enables you to give some color and understand nuances in your data because the data will tell you a certain set of things and then the experimentation and the work with customers and the rapid iteration with customers allows you to see that in a more colorful way,” she said.

One of the broad lessons Eder attributed to her career before Hilton has been in what she called “the art of transformation using technology.” More than historically, Eder said the advances in technology of the past 20 years have changed the game in terms of what a company is a capable of and what the guest has come to expect.

Hilton at 100

Hilton, now in its 100th year, has nearly 6,000 properties in 113 countries. While some might hear those numbers and see the company as too old and large to adapt to rapid changes in technology, Eder sees potential. “There’s this unbelievable opportunity in my mind for a hospitality company with the kind of know-how that Hilton has around people serving people with advanced technology at scale to change the way people think about travel,” Eder said. To her, the key for any company that hopes to innovate is to combine “sophistication in the art of your practice” and to stay agile.

Customers nowadays expect speed and ease in their interactions with any company. What Eder does now, she said, revolves around providing guests with quick and simple service automatically. She gave an example of a traveler who’s plans are interrupted by a storm. “The technology needs to help us both recognize that and create appropriate next stops and pathways for the consumer, for the guest, so that they can continue to sort of reach the end state they had originally planned,” she said.

Primarily a franchise company, Hilton also needs to consider its owners and create a technological infrastructure that is flexible for them as well. On top of that, this system then must take into account the global variances that naturally result from having properties in so many countries. “So we have one of the most unbelievable, sort of scalable global distribution systems in the world and what we need to do is make that system, that reliable sort of historically sound global system, and make it more and more flexible,” Eder said.

In the past year, she said the company has made a lot of progress when it comes to flexibility. Since she’s joined, Eder said the company completely redesigned its shopping and booking experience. Digital key, digital check-in and choose-your-room expanded to 4,100 hotels. Hilton’s website now features pictures from guestroom windows, allowing potential guests to shop based on the view they may have. “The hardest part about technology is getting the back end, really big system to a point of flexibility that they’d never been at before. And we’ve made tremendous progress on our reservation engine and doing that,” said Eder.