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Today, Marriott International has 19 brands under its umbrella. Once it finishes its long-awaited acquisition of Starwood Hotels & Resorts, many more are likely to join the company’s portfolio.
Until then, the hotel giant is working to build a stronger technology platform with which it can push interesting content to potential guests and improve their travel experience once they’re on-property.
Marriott International’s global brand officer Brian King thinks that travelers are looking for more personalized experiences in hotels, whether it involves streaming their own content, exercising in the hotel gym exactly how they like, or exploring local neighborhoods with guidance from their hoteliers.
Skift spoke to King at this year’s Global Business Travel Association Convention about the challenges of improving technology over a wide portfolio of brands, what the most savvy business travelers want out of their hotel experience, and why content has become crucial to Marriott’s efforts to reach consumers.
Skift: Marriott has a lot of brands, and stands to gain more when its acquisition of Starwood goes through. How do consumer trends inform how you make decisions about the guest experience at particular brands?
King: Customers expect their travel life to be reflective of their residential life. I think for a long time it’s like, this is how I live at home and this is how I live on the road. These two things shall never be the same. Well, that’s not what customers want. They want as seamless a travel experience as possible.
In the past, a hotelier would just look at the minute they check in to the minute they depart. That is all we worried about. Well, now we’re thinking much more broadly than that, from the minute they are doing travel planning at home today digitally, and we start to understand what they want prior to arrival. The future could be on one app to take care of your reservations, or to make sure the [ground transportation] is linked to your file.
We know that your plane has been delayed, we know what room type you want and we know you’re going to be in late and we’re going to put in a little treat because we know you’re going to be late. We’re just going to know what you want, where you are and what point of the travel process you are and support you along the way, proactively.
It is going to take big data and a lot of technology to do that but the journey has begun. As you start to collect more and more information, customers are actually willing to share. That depends on the country, of course, but if you give a customer a profile they will load it up with information.
Skift: Doesn’t handling more customer data open up concerns about privacy, and when it’s appropriate for a company to use that data to push products?
King: There is this level of knowledge versus privacy, and where is the line? I think anyone in this space has go to understand that deeply and let the customer drive the conversation, but people are willing to disclose if it is going to benefit them and make their lives easy. It’s just that simple. They trust you that their stuff is going to be safe.
You’ll see a lot more happening with personalization. You’ll see a lot more happening with customized personal offers based on your preferences and not just I like ski, I like golf, but what type of skiing, when do you usually ski? What mounds do you like?
It will get richer and richer and richer over time. If it isn’t digital, you have got to be thinking digital first with everything. That is just the way consumers are behaving today and especially next-gen travelers. We’re building an infrastructure to support that behavior.
Skift: How do you look at deploying these innovations across your brands, especially given the different experiences and value propositions offered by each brand?
King: There are certain things that should cut across brands, mobile check in, mobile check out, texting for room service, all that kind of stuff. It will be done differently in each brand but it is a travel habit you want to kind of emulate and digitize. Other things could be very brand specific. Lifestyle brands, you can see us streaming digital music that is completely curated around that brand that that customer wants to download. Content. It’s very specific to a particular traveler. Whether it’s a leisure experience or just they’re connected to brand more than just travel. It’s bigger than the travel experience. Obviously Ritz Carlton is more like that. People live Ritz Carlton in their daily lives even though they might be staying there at that moment in time.
We look at the broader trends that are happening out there, this idea of personalization and really knowing the guest. Then we’re also looking at brand and what does that mean to that specific brand. We will be building a technical infrastructure that can scale across all of these brands and all little nuances as well.
Skift: When it comes to business travel, is there a new breed of traveler looking for a more authentic hotel experience? How do you look at freshening up your product and keeping it intact for those already happy with it.
King: That is a great question. What I will tell you is our research shows that the new breed of business travelers are definitely setting the trend that the typical road warriors are now following. When I think about it this way, baby boomers actually created the category frequent business traveler. It did not exist with the silent generation. They just didn’t do it. The birth of the highway system, deregulation of the airlines, it became affordable, all of the stuff that happened in U.S travel really was the boomers that drove that.
That is what made the company very successful with brands like Marriott Hotels, Courtyard, the first two business travel brands and then other brands that have expanded along the way. That gave us the solid foundation that we have today. What’s core to that foundation is still service and real heartfelt, genuine service.
Now, the boomers obviously are still traveling a lot today, but they are shrinking in their business travel. Then you have this next generation of traveler who is really communal based in how they think and work. They have been brought up in teams, they all played soccer together. It’s a very different environment on how they were educated and so they are working that way.
I think one of the challenges the business will have is customers now carry the entire indexed world on their phone … Google has everything, so how do you as a lodging provider actually lift up and differentiate yourself as far as information, to say I am a local expert. That is why curation is probably the biggest trend in lodging today. Just local knowledge, discovering those interesting gems in the city.
Skift: On the leisure side, what are the big trends you expect to see emerge in coming years?
King: I think eco-friendy travel is going to explode. I think travel for fun, travel for good is going to explode. I believe that you’ll see a group of travelers who want to go on a vacation for seven days, and they’re going to spend five of it doing communal work and then two days relaxing potentially or blending the two together. There will be hotels and programming to say, ‘hey, if you’re going to our new Marriott in Haiti and you want to spend an afternoon doing community service, we’re going to help arrange that for you.’
I think it is going to be service-based, it’s going to be fun and I think eco is going to continue to grow still. As the Ritz Carlton starts to experiment with the Reserve, private in the space in a very authentic way, I think you’ll continue to see that space grow.
I do think this idea of one app doing it all, for travel, is going to happen sooner rather than later. It’s just who can be there first with the best. I think in lodging in general, these companies have evolved past real estate companies and into experience brand platform companies. Our platforms will continue to grow in the future.
You’ve got to make sure that it is almost a daily habit [to push new content to] your travel app. Even though you might be [traveling just] this week, I will be providing interesting content that might inspire you to think or just explore more than you have in the past. I think the hotel companies are going to have to become publishing companies, and that is a big change in the industry.