Editor’s Note: Skift is running a series of interviews with hospitality CEOs talking about the Future of the Guest Experience and the evolving expectations and demands of hotel guests. Check out all the interviews as they come out here. This continues our series of CEO interviews, the previous series was on the Future of Booking, with online travel CEOs.
Marriott International is the midst of a rejuvenation and CEO Arne Sorenson is leading more than 4,000 hotels through the process. He appears often on major news shows, talks up innovation with his staff behind closed doors, and is betting the future of the corporation on meeting millennials’, and all travelers’, expectations for more personalized, technologically advanced service.
Marriott recently announced the launch of an in-house creative and content marketing studio, is pushing its Travel Brilliantly campaign for the Marriott brand harder than ever, and is investing in the lifestyle market with its newest Moxy property.
With so many brands and properties across the globe, it would seem difficult to keep track on what needs to be done to meet the needs of so many different guests. Sorenson recently spoke with Skift about his insights on today’s guests and what needs to be done to remain a global leader.
An edited version of the interview is below:
Skift: What are the biggest challenges that you face today in improving the guest experience?
Arne Sorenson: That’s a big, broad question. We have 4,000 hotels in 80 countries and I think the answer to that question varies dramatically from place to place. I would say that the biggest single issue we’ve got is to make sure that we move the product along as far as we can so that it is current and compelling. We have some hotels that have been in our system for more than 20 years, some of which have been wonderfully reinvented and some still have to be wonderfully reinvented. We want to make sure that we get that done.
Skift: Is there a certain element of the guest experience that takes priority in improving over the others?
Sorenson: The biggest watchword for us is authenticity. We have, for generations, had a pronounced focus on our people and service culture. The most important element to that is a genuine welcome and the friendliness and attentiveness of service while they’re at the hotel. We want to make sure that we retain that, even as it evolves into a world that is more technologically aided.
We know that we can’t force people to take a friendly welcome if they want to bypass the front desk and go directly to their room. We’ve already rolled out mobile check-in, which is available at 1,400 hotels, We’ve already done well over half a million mobile check-ins and we know that technologically-enabled travelers want to use their technology at our hotels to check in quickly. That may have an impact on that authentic genuine welcome, but it still can and should be provided at other touch points during their stay at the hotel. Those are touch points that the customer values and it will continue to be there.
Skift: What’s one unexpected shift you’ve seen in guest expectations or demands in the last decades?
Sorenson: I think that the major trends are ones that have been continual. It’s not like we’d wake up and see a trend that hasn’t been discussed before. Those are about desires for better food and beverage options as guests’ tastes become more sophisticated. That doesn’t necessarily mean fancier food, but I think it does mean food that they enjoy. It also includes the way that customers want to communicate with each other and how they want to communicate with us.
How do they share their experience through Facebook or Instagram or other sites with their friends? How do they share their experience with other Marriott travelers?
Skift: What role does technology play in improving the guest experience? Is consumer-facing or back-end technology more important/effective?
Sorenson: I think both are critically important. We have 400,000 associates wearing our name badge every day. They are a big group people that need to feel good about their jobs in order to be successful at their jobs and that means being able to use the technology that will help them do their work better. We’re doing everything we can on that front. That includes things like mobile hiring, heavy use of technology in the employment and orientation process, heavy use of technology in the day-to-day work that they do. All of those changes have been underway at exactly the same time as changes around Marriott.com and the Marriott apps and Marriott Rewards.
Skift: How has the hiring experience changed or evolved to match changes in the guest experience?
Sorenson: The jobs have all become more technological and require a fluency, if you will, of our folks in technology. Our front of the desk staff, particularly, have to be both really good with people and really quite adept at using technology.
Skift: Is there a particular aspect or feature in all of this technology that has improved the guest experience in particular?
Sorenson: We rolled out mobile check-in to the entire Marriott Hotels and Resorts brand nine months ago and it is quickly rolling across the other brands as well. Our customers absolutely love it. They take out their mobile device as they’re approaching the hotel and check in. It allows them to get into their rooms faster and I think there’s just some pleasure in being able to use that technology. We’ve talked to our customers about that experience and what they tell us overwhelmingly is that they find the experience better and one that draws them to us more tightly.
I think a second example would be around personalization. The more that we have this technology available to us, the more we can know our customers in a granular way and, hopefully with the information that we have, key up information that is valuable to them and eases up their process whether it be around making their reservation or our recognizing them when they show up at the hotel.
Skift: What are your views on the increase in hotel fees levied against guests?
Sorenson: I actually don’t think it’s much of a story. I understand that a whole bunch of publications have jumped on this and you see TV programs asking whether hotels have gone the way of airlines. I actually think there’s much less substance than the stories suggest. We are not adding significant fess or charges for our customers. There has really been very little of that in the past few years. Of course, we charge for parking, but we’ve charged for parking for decades in markets in which parking is particularly expensive. The parking that we provide our guests is valuable and I think our guests understand that.
There is no way that we’re headed towards the airline model. We’re not going to charge people for bringing a bag into their guest room or using the bathroom.
Skift: How has content and social media changed Marriott’s conversations with customers?
Sorenson: I think it’s made it a much livelier conversation, but also one that is more varied. In the old days, you would have a Marriott-sponsored guest survey, which was our primary vehicle for hearing from guests about their stay, and in the old old day that was distributed by paper. More recently, it’s been distributed by email or a similarly technologically advanced way.
I think today we get guest feedback not just through our survey, but through dozens of social media insights. That feedback is, in some respects, harder to tabulate because the format varies from channel to channel, but at the same time it’s much richer in its depth because it is very much alive. It’s feedback that often might be given by somebody while they’re still in the hotel. It allows us to get a deeper sense of what they like and don’t like and it allows our hotel teams to address customers’ issues before they’ve ever left the hotel. If they can monitor that, which they’re doing and we’ve given them the technological tools to do that, they can say, “We have a guest and there’s something about their room service order or their room or their hotel experience that hasn’t been perfect. Or there’s something in their lives, which has created a special need. Let’s find a way to make sure that we meet that.”
That dialogue is, I think, very deep and very alive.
Skift: We’re one year into the Travel Brilliantly campaign. How has it performed and positioned the brand towards these millennial travelers?
Sorenson: The number of impressions and, statistically the program, have been spectacular. It has been broadly connected to and watched and it’s something we feel good about. I think the materials have been great, they’re full of energy and they’ve got a younger vibe to them which naturally has an impact on the perception of our brand. I think the thing that I would point out most would be the co-creation element of this and by that I mean the very deliberate effort we have with TravelBrilliantly to bring customers into our process and define new products and services for our hotels. It gives us real high-quality input and it also gives us a process by which our customers get close to us.
Skift: What do you see Marriott the brand standing for for this new generation of travelers?
Sorenson: I still would go back to authenticity. We tend to talk about how millennials are different from prior generations and there are differences to be sure, but there’s a couple of important things to keep in mind. One is that older generations are also influenced by many of the same trends that are driving differences between millennials and others. Technology, a desire for deeper experience and for richness of experience are all examples of that.
Millennials are as different from one another as they are from other generations. I think we do them and ourselves a disservice if we said every one of them is identical. When you listen to them, you hear very different things from them. One commonality; however, is they have no tolerance for inauthentic communication whether it be at the hotel or a lame effort on social media. What they want is to do business with people and companies that are genuine and authentic. I think that plays right into what Marriott is. We are real about our commitment to our people and our guests, we are real about our involvement in communities, and we partner with other causes that our hotels adopt around the world. We’re trying to business in a way that is both, obviously successful, and has a deeper meaning associated with it. That’s something that I think milliennials value as much as, if not more than, older travelers.
Skift: How does this change based on brand?
Sorenson: We have to be authentic as a company and each of our brands has to be authentic to what they are. The newest brand we’ve launched, Moxy, is a lifestyle economy product. It would be ludicrous for the Moxy team, we call them “the crew,” to pretend to be a luxury Ritz Carlton hotel. That hotel has to deliver a service equation that is true to the product and the positioning of the brand in the market. You could say the same thing for each one of our brands across the system.
I think Ritz Carlton would be deeply ill-served to suddenly wake up one morning and say, “We’re not going to provide deeply intensive service and instead we’re going to try to simply be cool.” That’s not what that customer is necessarily looking for. That doesn’t mean that all of brands don’t continue to evolve. They do. They’ll continue to use technology or see food and beverage evolve. To some extent they will be more current, or more lifestyle, than they were in the past. But they can’t pretend to be something that they’re not.