Marriott has the chance to position itself at the front of the hospitality tech wars if it can deliver on the promise of beacon technology. It should start by getting rid of the disjointed app experience and not require an extra download.
Marriott International debuted its LocalPerks push-messaging program using beacon geo-location technology at three Marriott properties this past summer, and just added another dozen U.S. hotels.
Beacon technology has consistently been referred to as the next big tech advance in hospitality, but so far it’s been mostly talk. Placed on any surface in front-of-the-house areas that the hotel wants to highlight, the nugget-size beacon transmitters send a push notification to anyone signed into a dedicated app who comes within a certain distance of the beacon.
While beacons have been successfully implemented in retail environments, which are more controlled, Marriott’s LocalPerks pilot program is really the first hospitality brand-sponsored beacon initiative of any substantial scale.
This is a fully opt-in experience. Guests must download the Marriott Guest Services iOS app (not to be confused with the main Marriott enterprise app) that is solely designed for pilot programs. They also must activate both Location Services and Bluetooth on their Apple phone. Android functionality is presently not available. That is due to the app design in its present iteration, not the beacons themselves, which are sometimes incorrectly referred to wholesale as the Apple-branded iBeacons.
The ad tech provider for LocalPerks is Swirl, which has implemented beacon marketing programs at Lord & Taylor, Kenneth Cole and others. The most high profile retail beacon example was Macy’s rollout with shopkick in September.
Here’s how it works. For people with the Guest Services app running on their phone, they’re presented with a welcome push message upon entering the lobby, along with basic information about hotel amenities. As the guest then travels around the property, they receive more push notifications with special exclusive offers when they come within close range of a specific beacon.
That could include, for example, a free glass of beer or wine, free appetizer, or two-for-one special at a restaurant or bar. It could also be discounted merchandise or services at a spa, golf clubhouse, retail store, kids club or anywhere else a special incentive might apply.
“One of the biggest goals with LocalPerks is to find a new way to connect with our customers, specifically on smartphones,” says Sarah Bradley, director of Marriott Rewards digital strategy. “We see that people are on their mobile devices all the time, and we want to give customers another property experience that is a little bit more rich, a little bit more personalized.”
Presently, all of the exclusive LocalPerks offers are standardized for all participants within a certain property. Eventually, the goal is to customize offers based on a guest’s Marriott Rewards profile, including offers for VIP treatment or discounts for special events of possible interest to the individual user.
“People have been calling it a ‘concierge on their phone,’ and I think that’s how we’re starting to think about this and what the possibilities really are for this program,” says Bradley. “Going forward, we’ll layer in all types of personalization. We can push you an offer, say, because you’re an Elite Marriott Rewards member, and we know you really love this one restaurant, and you’re near that restaurant so we can send you a very targeted offer. That’s the journey going forward. That’s where we’d like to get to.”
There’s a reason why more hotels haven’t jumped on beacon tech in significant numbers. First, the installation is specific to each property because if beacons are placed too close together and the message radius of each intersect, they can cancel out one another or only send one of the two messages. Furthermore, maintaining the system and changing locations, frequencies, radiuses and message content requires trained staff and coordinated operations, and the system can sometimes overload when too many people have the beacon app activated at once.
“We just really have to play with the installation of the beacons a little bit,” says Bradley. “It’s not too challenging for our team right now with just over a dozen hotels, versus if we were trying to activate this in 3,600 hotels…. It’s not quite as straight forward as I think we had anticipated, but it’s been working pretty well so far.”
LocalPerks comes on the heels of other recent tech experiments at Marriott, such as the Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets and MIT-designed 6 Degrees app and social lobbies. Marriott’s willingness to test new technology without a specific timetable for brand-wide implementation is interesting. In a sense, the hotel group is moving its R&D lab into the consumer-facing, on-property experience to show travelers that it’s serious about innovation and creativity.
Even if the beacons or any of the other technology experiments fail to scale, the brand exposure is highly valuable for Marriott, which has gone to considerable lengths to turn around its internal culture.
LocalPerks is scheduled to run in its present form through the first half of 2015. As data is collected, customers are polled about their experience, and hotel executive staff weigh in with their feedback, Marriott will make adjustments to the Guest Services app and overall process. There has also been internal discussion about potentially expanding LocalPerks off-property and partnering with area small businesses to expand the amount of available discounts.
Beyond that, if the program is deemed to be a success and worthy of scaling, Bradley says the system will then be integrated into the main Marriott app.
“Everything that is piloted in the Marriott Guest Services app will not necessarily appear one day in the exact same form in the enterprise app,” she explains. “The same is true for LocalPerks. My strong belief is that something very similar to LocalPerks will be in the enterprise app in the future, but exactly what it looks like and what it’s called is still to be determined at this point.”
Marriott properties participating in LocalPerks are:
- Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel
- Boston Marriott Copley Place
- Charleston Marriott
- Chicago Marriott Downtown Magnificent Mile
- Cincinnati Marriott North
- Denver Airport Marriott at Gateway Park
- Denver Marriott West
- Grand Hotel Marriott Resort, Golf Club & Spa
- Indianapolis Marriott Downtown
- Irvine Marriott
- Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort, Golf Club & Spa
- Marriott Marquis Washington, DC
- New York Marriott Downtown
- San Francisco Airport Marriott Waterfront
- Washington, DC Marriott Marquis
Greg Oates covers hospitality and tourism development. Email him at [email protected].
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Photo credit: Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort in Florida is one of the test properties for LocalPerks. Marriott International