Skift Take

By collaborating with the public to build a better hotel experience, Marriott has shown a surprising willingness to take risks and embrace relationship marketing in an effort to rework its reputation among next gen travelers.

There’s a different energy these days internally at Marriott International, which has always been considered the standard bearer for the corporate hotel brand rooted in conservative tradition.

The sweeping attitude change focuses on innovation and the modern traveler, and it’s coming right from the top. Executive Chairman Bill Marriott, Jr. and CEO Arne Sorenson have been appearing regularly on television talking about the new direction at Marriott, and especially how they’re adapting to Millennial travel trends, like this CNN program with correspondent Richard Quest.

Both executives are also active online. Mr. Marriott is probably the only major hotel group chairman who blogs on a regular basis, and Sorenson has over 80,000 followers on LinkedIn.

On the consumer-facing side, the first glimpse that changes at the brand were afoot began last March when Marriott announced its cryptic-sounding ”Underground” Innovation Lab at its Bethesda, Maryland HQ. This is standard operating procedure for many large hotel groups who have testing facilities to develop new products and design concepts, where they can then invite owners and franchisors to come by and kick the tires.

Adding the “Underground” part helped create a bit of mystique. One Marriott insider told us people were imagining a kind of MI6 lab where serious men in white lab coats were devising crazy experiments to build a better loo.

Some of the first Marriott innovations to spring from the lab were mobile check-in functionality and a suite of branded meeting apps for the different, meetings-appropriate flags. They followed that up this year with mobile check-out and the Pinterest-style platform.

Last summer, the flagship Marriott Hotels brand launched, which surprised a lot of people for two reasons. One, it was the first time a major promotional campaign for an international hotel brand focused on crowdsourcing and co-creation of this scale, above and beyond just using social media. Two, that international hotel brand was Marriott.

At the beginning, Travel Brilliantly was a three-pronged initiative designed for the U.S. market. First, the web platform showcased innovative ideas that Marriott was cooking up internally. Second, Marriott asked the public to submit their ideas about how to create a better hotel experience. And third, which was pulled earlier this year, the site directed readers to an integrated content marketing partnership with Wired, Fast Company and Mashable.

In its first iteration, over 700 ideas were submitted from readers in categories ranging from tech to wellness.

In April 2013, Marriott hired Katie Krum (see video) as director of digital marketing to help launch the new portal and study consumer response and engagement. Earlier this year, Krum expanded’s reach into the U.K., and today, she’s tweaking the user experience for a relaunch scheduled this summer.

Call it what you will: crowdsourcing content, consumer co-creation, or any other half dozen terms. It is the future of marketing across many industries, and could be a catalyst for widespread adoption in hospitality.

We spoke with Krum to gain further insight into the systemic cultural shift at Marriott.

Skift: What was the motivation behind the, and this overall new spirit at Marriott?

Katie Krum: Really what’s motivating all of the initiatives for us at Marriott International is that we’re well aware of the shift in terms of the next generation traveler. And as we look to the future, we know our target audience doesn’t look like the classic Baby Boomer. We have a certain amount of time before there’s an enormous shift in who our business traveler looks like.

So we’re on a journey of change. We’re trying to increase the number of ideas going into the top of the funnel of the innovation pipeline. For us, helps validate some of our thinking and it provides additional ideas to consider.

Skift: How is this a dramatic shift for Marriott?

Krum: This is unlike Marriott because usually we get everything big, launch it, and then tell you about it. But we are aware that in some ways that doesn’t work as well for the next gen traveler. And also, we’re doing so much in terms of change that we don’t want to wait to tell everybody about it. It’s a sort of “We’ve arrived” message.

So we’re bringing you into the process much earlier. If I had to box it up in one statement, it would be: “We’re on a journey of change, and we want you, the traveler, to be part of it.” We’re lifting the hood, or pulling back the curtain to show you where we’re headed. And that’s really what and our multimedia, multi-layered storytelling approach is all about.

Skift: Do you use the term “Millennials” in internal strategy sessions?

Krum: We do. We use Millennial and Gen Y interchangeably with next gen traveler.

Skift: In your external communications, we see the phrase “The Future of Travel” a lot. Is that an official brand thing?

Krum: It’s not really anything official. On the website and in our internal discussion, we often use The Future of Travel phrase as a question, as in, “How would you shape the future of travel?” In a lot of ways it signals to the consumer that you’re not walking into a Marriott today and seeing the future of travel. It’s more that we understand that the evolution of travel and technology is moving very fast. And we’re expressing that through The Future of Travel concept. It’s just a way that we can say, “We’re working on this. Work on it with us.”

On our side, some of what we’re showing are ideas, some of it’s in prototype, and some of it’s about to roll out into the marketplace. On the consumer side, we’re really showcasing that we’re not finished, and we want your insight. So we started asking consumers to submit their insights around what they imagine could be the future of travel.

Skift: What have been your impressions about the quality of submissions?

Krum: It’s pretty incredible the quality of thinking. People really understand what we’re looking for, and they understand that we’re trying to have a conversation bigger than just their recent hotel stay. It’s really impressive that people are sitting down and writing something thoughtful, and it’s not just a place for people to complain and say whatever they want. It really has been a place for thoughtful dialogue.

That’s been very exciting because Marriott is a very data driven and research-focused company. So as we look at Millennials and Gen Y and see what they are interested in, it is sort of about being able to use technology to make their experience more seamless.

Skift: Tell us more about the winner for the best submission contest.

Krum: We picked a grand prize winner last year around the idea of healthy vending machines. Or healthy food on-demand. That’s been a favorite of mine because I think it hits on something the next gen traveler is very focused on, this idea of healthy or local food whenever they want it.

You know, going beyond the room service caesar salad, and providing something that’s tasty at any time to keep them on their regular schedule. Just because they travel, they don’t have to have an unhealthy approach to their trip.

We took the winner to London and had an innovation session where we brainstormed ideas. And ultimately we’re looking to bring a version of her idea to life in select Marriott Hotels this summer.

Skift: What were some of your favorite submissions?

Krum: Some of my other favorites are the Marriott Closet where you could have specific clothes delivered to your room. There’s a lot of themes around personalization, which is also a focus of ours. It’s like a lot of startups, like Birch Box and Stitch Fix, who are delivering personalized things related to your individual consumer profile.

So when you arrive at your hotel, there could already be clothes in the closet that you could shop from. Or perhaps toiletries that are customized to you, that you could try out for the first time.

Skift: We’ve focused a lot on hotels becoming community portals, and you’ve had some people propose ways to facilitate that.

Krum: Another big idea is this theme about a social concierge. The hotels are really helping you discover the best of the best when it comes to local. Or even better, that guests are helping each other.

Just last week there was an idea going around about what we’re calling “Trading Tips.” So say you’re at a hotel and you’re trying to figure out what restaurant to go to. You could look at all of these tips from people who stayed at that hotel and liked these places. And the cost of entry is providing your own tip, which I think is a clever way to bring community into the hotel, because we’re hearing people ask, “How can I, in a non-creepy way, connect with someone in the hotel?”

Skift: What’s the end goal for Travel Brilliantly?

Krum: What we’re really working on is how we can use the ideas on beyond the overall grand prize winner program, so we actually have started releasing the best ideas of each month to people inside the organization who’ve showed interest. We’re trying to figure out ways where we can use the ideas to provide inspiration for our own innovation thinking.

That’s definitely a challenge in a big company, but there’s a lot of excitement internally for this kind if collaboration.

There was a video done by Arne Sorenson, our CEO, about innovating and taking risks, and our Insight, Strategy & Innovation department has really been tasked with thinking outside the box. It’s indicative of the thinking that, with this next generation traveler, it’s all about speed to market. You have to deliver and you have to be willing to take risks, and that is definitely a new philosophy at the company.

Greg Oates covers hotel/tourism development and travel brand media. He has toured over 1,000 hotels in 50+ countries. email / twitter


What Does the Future of Lodging Look Like?

Get the latest news about hotels and short-term rentals delivered to your inbox once a week.

Tags: content marketing, marriott, millennials

Photo credit: homepage Marriott International