Marriott on merging hotel operations with hi-tech for the new digital world order

He may be a senior executive dealing with mobile and digital issues but he says one of the biggest challenges at Marriott International right now is bridging the gap between the rapid advances in technology with the operations side of the hotel business. Pamela Whitby finds out why

Typically hotel businesses are non-technology firms but increasingly technology is intricately woven into day-to-day operations. “Digital was in a silo and in a way very separate,” explains Jim Abrahamson, Senior Director Mobile and Digital Product Management, Marriott International, “but now the two are coming together. This is something we are trying to achieve but it is not always easy to do.”

One really big challenge for hotels is defining the roles of staff in the processes. Until now, a guest would either arrive at the front desk and deal with the concierge at check-in, or pick up the phone and make a call for room service. By developing an app for these conventional services hotels must now recognise that you could be getting a request at any time. “The guest will decide when they want to do that transaction and that could be 24/7,” says Abrahamson. “But where does that transaction go, who receives it and what are they going to do when they get it?”

It is, therefore, becoming increasingly critical that hotels address the role of their staff, and the processes they need to follow, in this new world order. Ultimately it will come down to the expectations of guests; this needs to be carefully considered. If a guest sends a text message for a service, what is their expectation? If they send an email will that expectation be different? Quite often when people send a text they want an immediate response and if they don’t get it in a hotel scenario, one could very quickly see a negative review appearing on a site like TripAdvisor.

Although Marriott is not yet using Twitter for customer service (as many of the airlines are), here a speedy response is expected. According to Jonathan Pierce, Director, Social Communications at American Airlines Twitter is mainly used for customer service queries and the firm aims to respond in 15 minutes.

Mobile is the future

While Marriott is actively considering the bigger picture, it is also focusing in on how to improve customer service using digital technologies. Unsurprisingly mobile – which is growing rapidly - is playing a significant role. 

The hotel industry tends to take its cue from the airline industry and right now Marriott is doing just that. So far the primary mobile focus has been around room bookings. Customers use the app to browse for and find hotels and then and book them. “We are looking to extend that for post-trip connectivity and at how we can leverage the mobile phone once the booking has been made, along the lines of how the airline apps are doing it,” says Abrahamson. “United’s app for example allows you to check in, acts as a boarding pass and so on. It lets you do far more than just book.”

Today Marriott offers apps for iPhone, Android and Blackberry, and a smartphone for the mobile website. To date it has not optimised site for tablets or the iPad, but this is currently being investigated and very much part of company’s mobile plan.

“From a marketing standpoint one thing that is very successful for us in our properties is the leveraging the key card holder for mobile downloads,” explains Abrahamson.  Either there are QR codes or text shown on the card so the customer can go directly to the app. “We received a good number of downloads from that and we hope to ramp this up this year by doing some marketing via search,” he says.

Abrahamson understands only too well that the hotel experience begins on the day you book your room, but it continues on the journey to the hotel, during your stay and when you are heading home. “There is a lot that happens in this period and like the airlines we looking at ways to, for example, expedite the check in process,” he says. Of course there are also opportunities for upselling of a spa treatment, room upgrade and so on.

Aside from the airline business, Marriott is looking for cues from the food industry.  It is looking at restaurant apps – like for example the one developed by the US Mexican food chain Burritos - that allows you to pre-order, and then skip the queue when you pick up your food. The idea of pre-ordering room service is something that frequent business travellers could benefit from.  “We are looking into all key points of the travel journey where we might find an opportunity to engage with the customer, make the trip less stressful or more enjoyable by allowing the customer to do things remotely from a phone,” he says.

When it comes to measuring the return on investment from such endeavours, the heaviest weighting is going to be on the softer side of things. A lot of the connections guests have with a hotel relate to transactions – picking up a key, calling for room service, checking in. “We want to be able to do two things: give them a choice of doing it the traditional way or doing it online via their phone,” he says. In doing so it is putting the power in the hands of the person with the app, so when they deal with an hotelier, it is much more personal and relationship-based.

Jim Abrahamson, Senior Director Mobile and Digital Product Management, Marriott International and Jonathan Pierce, Director, Social Communications at American Airlines Twitter will be speaking in San Francisco from March 18-19. Join us there for North America’s biggest social media & mobile event.

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