Marriott: deliver choice and control and be 'super conscientious'
While a great portfolio of hotels remains a cornerstone of Marriott's offering, the group understands that in today's climate they must go further to keep loyal customers in the fold
Customers no longer want a bog standard travel experience. Period. They might want to stay in a luxury hotel one night, a moderately priced business hotel the next and a week later rent a log cabin on a distant mountaintop. So, is the traditional hotel loyalty programme dead?
Not exactly, but it is definitely not what it used to be. Marriott International should know. In February, it launched Marriott Bonvoy, its rebranded loyalty programme which merged Marriott Rewards, Starwood Preferred Guests (SPG) and The Ritz Carlton Rewards. At the time of writing, the programme, which launched in February, now has 133-million members, with new sign-ups happening daily.
“That’s nearly half the size of the US population, and it’s growing,” says Brian King, Marriott International Global Officer, Digital, Distribution, Revenue Strategy & Global Sales. Some of the programme’s strongest growth is coming from emerging markets like China, adds King, who is joining us for a fireside chat at EyeforTravel North America 2019 in Chicago (Oct 28-29).
King is clear that loyalty programmes today have to go much further than they did in the past. “It’s all about giving customers choice, while at the same time allowing them to be in control,” he says. He is quick to stress, however, that: “No-one will enroll in a loyalty programme unless they believe you have great hotels and great offerings.”
No-one will enroll in a loyalty programme unless they believe you have great hotels and great offerings
Thanks to the $13-billion acquisition of Starwood Hotels & Resorts in 2016, and the launch of Marriott Homes & Villas, not to mention a recent announcement the company is getting into all-inclusive resorts, the company has a range of choice. There are the existing upscale and luxury-branded properties such as The Ritz-Carlton, the St. Regis, Marriott Hotels, Westin Hotels, and W Hotels to name a few. The broad portfolio includes mid-range brands like Courtyard, for the on-the-go business traveller, and more affordable boutique offerings like Moxy. Most recently, the portfolio of alternative lodgings, which is seen as a ‘huge opportunity’, completes the offering.
“With the depth, breadth and scale of the brand offering today,” says King, “we are also able to focus on building the Marriott Bonvoy brand by making travel easy, frictionless, exciting and more personalised for our members.”
Hype vs use case
A great portfolio of properties may be the most important achievement for hotels, but technology and partnerships are also crucial to driving 21st century loyalty.
In the technology space, from artificial intelligence (AI) to machine learning, chatbots and blockchain, there is plenty of talk, and King sees the potential. However, he is quick to stress: “One of the things that is really important today for anyone in the tech space, and especially in travel, is to distinguish between the hype and use cases.”
In addition, it is crucial to be ‘super-conscientious’ and not to look at an app in isolation. “We look at analogous businesses, and we look at what consumers are doing in other apps, whether it is in transportation, food and beverage, or even grocery shopping. If we see a consumer trend in those spaces, we look at it and say, what is the application that would port across easily to travel,” he says.
Building sticking power
Marriott continues to invest in its ongoing digital transformation, but King is a firm believer that “if you take an idea and build a user journey that is meaningful for customers, iterate and gain their feedback, then it will have sticking power”.
The Marriott Bonvoy mobile app seems to have sticking power. “Our frequent and loyal travellers are addicted to our app, and especially the one-click booking functionality,” King explains. In essence, this allows customers to enter a date, click a button and book.
The company is also looking at opportunities around contextual booking. In the future, for example, if a guest is in a particular location, or maybe even at home, they will be able to view nearby Marriott portfolio restaurants and earn loyalty points.
A recently released enhancement is a new shuttle tracker at participating hotels, which alleviates frustration by notifying guests waiting for a hotel shuttle at the airport to exactly when it is due. This is an example of eliminating a pain point for customers. In this case, the guess work of when and where the shuttle will arrive especially when it’s cold.
“We are constantly looking at friction points and pain points like this, especially for our loyalty members and we are eliminating those to make our app more sticky,” says King.
Loyal to the ecosystem
In the world of apps, being top of the iPhone or Android stores is important, but the real measure is frequent usage. And for Marriott, the end goal is to be the place that users go first when they think about travel. The chain isn’t alone in recognising that hotel loyalty programmes today are about a whole lot more than room reservations – Accor, Wyndham and a raft of others are widening the net.
Says King: “At Marriott, we really want to service the end-to-end customer journey with amazing partnerships, unique member only access and priority services, because if you are really going to win in this space, it is about keeping your customer loyal to your ecosystem even when they are not traveling.”
If you are really going to win in this space, it is about keeping your customer loyal to your ecosystem even when they are not travelling
The aim, then, is to create a travel loyalty programme where customers feel “no need to peer over the wall anywhere else”.
Partnerships with the likes of car rental companies, airlines, bus transfers, food delivery outlets and more are important. One recent addition to the app is a utility belt whereby new icons will continue to be added showing the different and unique things that customers can do. These include Marriott Bonvoy Tours and Activities in more than 1,000 destinations where guests can round out their travels whether they have a few hours to spare or an entire day.
While AI and machine learning have been used in travel revenue management for years, the new digital frontier is service. “The ability over time to see how customer behaviour is shifting and be sure that we are offering a personalised experience that helps predict what customers want. That is the real opportunity here,” says King.
It could be something as simple as allowing a member to update their profile about, for example, their allergens. Or, it might be more complex, like making a tour recommendation because a loyalty member may have a couple of free hours one afternoon during their stay.“ The next frontier for machine learning is definitely in service - in upselling new offerings, and predicting and personalising the future.”
Right now, the Marriott Bonvoy app empowers its members to chat directly with its hotel staff beginning a few days before arrival. At this point, customer requests are fairly specific and require expert knowledge, but Marriott is experimenting with using AI with more routine type requests.
In short, Marriott understands that it is important to empathise and understand pain points before you build anything. “If you rush to the latest tech frontier too fast you will leave customer behind,” King says.
To hear more about how travel can drive loyalty, join us at EyeforTravel North America in Chicago (Oct 28-29)