History goes high tech in colonial village
When more than three million tourists visit Colonial Williamsburg, Va., every year, they experience the life, traditions and activities of colonists who lived in the largest, wealthiest 18th century colony in the New World. It might surprise them to learn, however, that 20th century technology–from hotel check-in to tickets for meals and gift purchases–is working unobtrusively behind the scenes to make their visits enjoyable.
Using IBM/AS 400 multi-user business computers as the linchpin of its system, Colonial Williamsburg has created a flexible integrated client/server environment that allows its Information Technology (IT) Department to spend more time running the business and less time and money developing homegrown software applications.
One of America’s premier historical showplaces, Colonial Williamsburg has more than 500 historic buildings on 193 acres. Nearly 90 of these are restored original dwellings and shops. Adjacent to the historic area are a research library and three museums containing decorative arts and archaeological collections. Other attractions include fine restaurants, luxury accommodations, golf and shopping.
Even before visitors come to the city, which employs 3,500 and has an annual budget of $160 million, computers are invisibly tracking their requests. A call to 800-HISTORY begins the process. Operators in the reservation center key name, address and other basic caller information into the system.
The address is verified automatically before the fulfillment department pulls it off the system and sends a vacation planner to the caller.
Customers calling for reservations or checking in at any of the four on-site hotels or at colonial houses and inns within the historic area, may also book a meal at taverns or hotels or arrange rounds of golf at two championship courses.
Tickets to exhibition buildings and various programs may be purchased from hotel concierges or at the visitor center via a ticketing system that operates on workstations in a Local Area Network (LAN). The system is driven by a host computer on-line connecting with credit card approval and billing systems. A separate network of point-of-sale (POS) terminals processes sales in retail locations, as well as food service and hotel gift shops, which are also linked to multi-business computers for credit and room-charge transactions.
“The significance of all this from the customer’s standpoint is that the systems operate as if everything is in one building,” says Wayne Williams, manager of software services at Williamsburg. For example, he explains, when a guest makes a purchase at the Carter’s Crove gift shop, located about eight miles from the historic area, and charges it to his room, the transaction is handled by the system as quickly and easily as if the guest were standing in the lobby. That speed and flexibility are possible through packaged rather than customized software, an approach that was accelerated at Colonial Williamsburg in early 1993 with the arrival of Ron Carruth, the village’s director of information technology.
Carruth brought in multi-business computers, upgrading them so they now are used for all-hotel reservations and hotel back office operations: retail inventory; property management; fund-raising; education, including the research library and museum activities; finance, and a new facilities management system.
Carruth’s plan was to move away from locally enhanced software to non-customized packaged software and vendor-supported interfaces, thus creating an economical, more powerful, client-server environment.
Those moves have saved time and money by eliminating software development costs and by keeping local maintenance to a minimum a must in any organization with an IT complement of only 25 professionals. “That frees our technical staff to work on client support,” he says. “The overall effect is to keep our information technology investment law, but remain competitive.”