Marriott International, like every other hotel company on the planet, is taking a very intense look at loyalty these days, and asking themselves the following questions: Namely, how do we define it? How do we build it? How do we keep it?

And specific to Marriott, there’s also the very big challenge of eventually merging three different loyalty programs — Marriott Rewards, Starwood Preferred Guest, and Ritz-Carlton Rewards — by next year.

With the company’s newest updates for the Marriott mobile app, we’re getting a tiny glimpse into what the company is planning to do — essentially trying to personalize the guest experience with the help of technology.

That means more Mobile Key access at more than 500 hotel properties worldwide, having access to curated destination content from Marriott’s Traveler digital magazine, and the ability to submit mobile requests directly to hotel staff before, during, and after a stay.

Going forward, Marriott plans to use artificial intelligence to anticipate exactly what their loyalty members want in their hotel stays. Eventually, the app will also enable real-time messaging, called mPlaces, which will be powered by Marriott’s LocalPerks beacon technology.

Given Marriott’s intent and focus on using technology to improve the guest experience and build loyalty, Skift spoke separately to Thom Kozik, VP of global loyalty, and George Corbin, senior vice president of digital, to learn more about where they see the convergence of mobile technology and loyalty headed in the near future. Here’s what they had to say about the future of loyalty in the digital age.

The Hotel App Can’t Just Be Used for Booking Anymore

“I hate to use this cliché term from Silicon Valley but it is a bit of a paradigm shift now,” said Kozik. “It changes how guests expect to interact with us from their mobile devices. A lot of historical booking apps looked at the device as a point of convenience but there’s no more personal device in your life than your mobile phone now. You expect it to be personalized.”

With that kind of a mobile-first mentality, Corbin and his team tried to find ways to further personalize the mobile app experience, as well as taking many cues from what the team at Starwood did with its own mobile app prior to Marriott’s purchase of its rival.

“Now that we’re merging with Starwood, there are a lot of things that Starwood has done that has been very design forward, and we want to be more like that, so we’re taking the best of what they’ve done and what their teams have accomplished over the years and trying to up our game as well,” Corbin explained. “Our app had historically been very efficient and utilitarian, and we get the transaction done, but we need to warm it up. We’ve taken a lot of pointers from the folks at Starwood and we think you’re going to see that in the design.”

This, in addition to plenty of direct customer research, was what guided his team to develop the new updates for the app, as well as many other upcoming digital initiatives.

“Now that people are using mobile at more and more points throughout the travel process, we want to look at those points and figure out which ones we can add value to,” Cobin said. “To have relevance, we need to have personalization.”

Signs of that personalization include changing the screen of the app depending on whether you have an upcoming stay, allowing guests to make service requests before they even arrive at the hotel, and making sure relevant content appears in the mobile app’s feed for guests, depending on where they are during their stay.

How Machine Learning Will Play into the Guest Experience

The most recent app updates don’t demonstrate this but, in theory, the app will utilize machine learning to make the guest’s mobile experience and stay even more customized — a tech investment that many other companies throughout the travel industry are no doubt focusing on as well.

“Later this year, you’ll see machine learning and AI [artificial intelligence] to be more attuned to making recommendations about what we know about you, and what we know about your friends,” said Kozik. “As you know more about what you choose to share with us—whether it’s posted information on social media or shared locations — we can make more attuned suggestions to you later this year. It’s all about data and how we can use machine learning to go one step further.”

Corbin explained that, soon, Marriott will be taking “information that we’ve got from your own interaction patterns with us, as well as some intent-based data from how you came to us, where you came to us from, what you were looking for there, and then leveraging that to dynamically adjust some of the content and the visuals and the messaging that you now begin to see in the app.”

He added, “We’re still early days, but I think we’re particularly excited about this.” Corbin said that the most immediate area where this machine learning will come into play will be via messaging but, eventually, it may also translate into exact guest room preferences so that each room will be personalized to the exact specifications of a guest’s profile or interactions with the brand.

Another AI development where we may see Marriott investing in will be voice search, Kozik noted. “Where we may see opportunities for that with companies like that would probably be more in-room than on the mobile device,” he said. “If you think about Google or Siri, those ae meta, those are above everything. The phone knows to listen to you. Our app could leverage that maybe and then direct us to a particular search or amenity or hotel. We would do that in those environments at the request of the member to develop the hotel room of the future. If consumers are being accustomed to talk to their homes they will expect to be able to talk to their rooms.”

Smart Messaging

Last year was the year most major hotel companies began seriously investing in mobile messaging strategies and with Marriott, that strategy is continuing to evolve.

After doing messaging pilots last year, Marriott plans to debut full-fledged messaging capabilities on its app with mPlaces later this year. It will build on the network the company has already built as part of its beacon-based LocalPerks program to deliver targeted marketing messages to guests via the app.

“This is where you bring in the intelligence with the data and the context of where you are right now and what you’re doing, so we can go from this being marketing, which people generally tend to want to avoid, to being a service which people will welcome,” said Corbin. “If we start to geo-fence and come up with different zones within the hotel, which we’re doing, that is, if you’re in the gym or if you’re in the area of the bar or in the lobby and you’ve opted into this, what’s going to be most relevant to this guest at that moment based on the information we have?”

Corbin also stressed the importance of making sure any mPlaces messages aren’t ads. “We’re going to be very selective with what we send people. We’re not going to keep spamming you on things, but this is where we want to experiment. So, if you’re an avid fitness center user, when you show up at the hotel we can send you a message to let you know where the fitness center is and what hours it’s open, for example.”

Loyalty Is Shifting, and It’s Being Powered by Data

The number of changes taking place in the digital space are also reflecting the changes taking place in the loyalty space, too, said Kozik and Corbin.

“Loyalty is now, for us, shifting from a delayed gratification to a series of instant gratifications,” said Corbin. “How do you start using this currency, instead of it being points earned for a future stay? It’s more like how do you start using these as currencies for other things and other experiences in the moment at different points through the stay, and frankly, how do you use your wallet for those currencies?”

And as Kozik and his team are busy working on integrating all three of Marriott’s loyalty programs, he said he’s paying close attention to recognition and to the kinds of experiences Marriott can provide to all of its loyalty members, whether they are everyday travelers or frequent road warriors.

“I prefer to look at loyalty as a lifetime thing,” Kozik said. “Your tastes change over time. Brands change over time. You have to look at the reinvention of the Marriott brand and that’s changing the whole perception among or customers. You have to tie it to the member and their entire lifetime — not just the economic state they’re currently in.”

As work continues on the integration process, Kozik said the company is running multiple scenarios for a variety of different loyalty benefits, using “machine learning” and plenty of “number crunching” to see what kind of impact these benefits will have, not just on the guests but the hotels, too.

“It’s the most fascinating work I’ve had in many years — getting into that level of data,” he said.

Photo Credit: Marriott recently debuted new updates to its mobile app which are part of a larger digital strategy for improving the guest experience, and deepening guest loyalty. Marriott International