Having an accelerator program lets a brand have more of a say in the future of startups that they're interested in rather than merely investing and stepping back. Especially now that Marriott is the world's largest hotel company, Marriott Hotels' accelerator program is an opportunity for it to glean all of the smart ideas it can get its hands on to help improve the guest experience.
Several travel brands have launched their own startup accelerator programs in recent years and that trend has become more pronounced in 2016 with Marriott Hotels, for example, launching its Marriott TestBed accelerator in Europe.
As Marriott International’s flagship brand, Marriott Hotels‘ wade into the hospitality startup ecosystem underscores the value many major travel brands see in startups for their nimble thinking and ability to fill in technology gaps that brands themselves have been slow or unable to adopt.
Osama Hirzalla, who heads up the Marriott Hotels accelerator and is vice president brand marketing and eCommerce Europe for Marriott International, points to Marriott Hotels’ healthy vending machines experiment in 2014 as a catalyst for doing more work with startups.
The Marriott accelerator chose startups Jambo, a business traveler networking mobile app and Dazzle, an in-room voice activated personal assistant, to participate after about 150 applied for the program. Both companies last week began the six-week pilot program, which includes benefits such as training, mentoring sessions and access to TedX speaker coaches and events through Marriott Hotels partnership with the organization.
Both startup teams will test their products in Marriott properties in Europe, likely at one property in the UK and one in Germany.
Marriott selected Jambo to help it better attune with millennials’ business travel behaviors. “[Millennials] don’t only want a bed for the night, but expect to feel as connected when traveling to the people and environment around them,” Marriott Hotels said in a statement. “Jambo offers a great opportunity for Marriott Hotels to enhance the role of a hotel and turn it into an enabler of meetings tailored to business travelers.”
Dazzle’s artificial intelligence technology was a draw for Marriott. “Dazzle provides the ideal test solution, that can be flexible enough to both incorporate within a single hotel and also provide multiple avenues for use cases both within a guests room and during their stay in a city,” the hotel stated.
Hirzalla said about 30 percent of the accelerator’s applicants offered a concierge service, 20 percent were in tours and activities and 20 percent were focused on trip-planning.
Why Start an Accelerator?
This isn’t the first instance of a Marriott brand working with early-stage startups as plenty of technologies used by its now 30-brands were acquired from travel startups.
There’s no guarantee Marriott will end up not choosing to implement a startup’s idea or technology.
Starting an accelerator, however, highlights how Marriott and other travel brands with accelerators view innovation and how they want to bring more of that to travelers.
For Marriott Hotels, launching an accelerator is a quid pro quo for helping create its future guest experience. “The qualms with launching an accelerator is that you’re not part of the innovation drive if you only invest in companies,” said Hirzalla. “The pros are you’re bringing that technology in-house and working together and I want to hear from our customers about how we interact with that innovation.”
Hirzalla said he and his team were surprised with the volume of applications for the program. “Some of the comments I’ve heard from these startups is ‘what are Marriott’s pain points?'” he said. “For us, it’s not so much about pain points, it’s more about changing consumer behavior and looking at that as a positive experience for the brand as a technology platform.”
Getting the attention of global tech players was another appeal of working with startups. “Attracting companies like Uber to want to have a conversation with a global brand like Marriott is one of the other ideas with Marriott TestBed,” he said. “We’re asking ‘how do we have more conversations with people like that?'”
Only a Stepping Stone
Hirzalla said he sees the accelerator expanding beyond Europe to other regions in the coming years, calling it a “stepping stone” to a Marriott startup accelerator program that plays a larger role in Marriott International.
He added the Bethesda, Maryland headquarters fully supports the program. “Startups are like an endless book that continue to evolve as we move forward, especially as you think about mobile platforms,” said Hirzalla.
There’s some weight behind Hirzalla’s statements — the recently opened Marriott AC Hotel in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for example, was designed with entrepreneurs in mind. AC Hotels also partnered with Startup Grind, a startup organization of 400,000 founders in more than 200 cities and Marriott Hotels offers perks to members who stay with the brand.
Corporate Travel Accelerators Are Trending
More travel brands are demonstrating that they’re interested in hands-on work with startups besides throwing them an investment and hoping for the best.
Travel-specific accelerators are still rare compared to other industry-focused programs but 2016 has been the starting point for several brands’ programs.
Flight Centre, for example, launched its accelerator last month and views it as the company’s chance to rein in new talent. “We’ll open up analyses that we did in the past that we didn’t think were as important that these startups can highlight for us,” said Atle Skalleberg, chief digital officer of Flight Centre and part of the accelerator team. “We can learn a lot. We’re honestly looking to learn more than we’re interested in investing but do plan to make a few investments.”
JetBlue, El Al, British Airways parent IAG, and Travelport are other examples of other companies that announced accelerators in 2016. Last month UK-based low-cost carrier EasyJet announced it made a multimillion pound investment in UK accelerator Founders Factory that involves investing in and helping scale five early-stage startups during the next five years.
Plug And Play, a Silicon Valley based company that helps brands with accelerator programs and runs several of its own across nine industries, launched its travel vertical last year. It works with travel brands such as Carlson Wagonlit, JetBlue, Turkish Airlines and Lufthansa to help with mentoring and getting startups connected to the industry.
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Photo credit: Marriott Hotels launched its TestBed accelerator this month in Europe to help the brand test and learn new technology. Pictured is a mentoring session that's part of the program. Marriott Hotels