Interview: Inside Marriott’s Hotel Innovation Strategy
Toni Stoeckl, Marriott Global Brand Leader & VP, talks to PSFK about the biggest trends in travel and approaching hotel innovation brand by brand
Travelers turn to hotels for the amenities and extra comforts, but they are increasingly looking for something else too—whether it’s a tech-enabled home away from home, programs that meet their wellness and sustainability goals, or an insider’s taste of the surrounding community.
For PSFK’s Travel Debrief report and podcast, Marriott International Global Brand Leader & VP Toni Stoeckl shared his perspective on the trends shaping the travel industry and described how Marriott brands are responding to them. Above all, the next-gen experience takes a personalized approach: a travel brand doesn’t need to have something for everyone, as long as it can be everything to someone.
PSFK: What are the biggest trends you see shaping the future of travel?
Toni: An overarching trend, a trend that’s been around for a couple of years now, is maybe a consumer trend in general that’s influencing travel. When you look at next-generation travelers, they’re not really into just buying and owning stuff: They’re into collecting experiences. It’s a “if you haven’t posted about your experience on Instagram, you haven’t been there” mentality in many ways.
What that means is that travel brands have to focus on not just a clean shower and a comfortable bed—they really have to look into building these emotional connections around the experience that you deliver against the specific lifestyle that someone has.
That’s really much closer to the psychographics of the individual, because they’re looking into much more personalized, personal and emotional experiences.
A couple of trends come out of that. One is around eco-focused travel or ecotourism. Well traveling is becoming increasingly important. People want to stay balanced and whole on the road, as they would do in their normal routine when they’re at home.
They’re also looking for more sustainable practices. That’s no longer just a buzzword. It’s actually becoming much more a part of people’s daily lives, doing something that’s meaningful for the environment. We have certain brands where we’re leaning in. Obviously as a company, we’re doing that quite extensively, but with certain brands like Element even more so.
Another trend that’s quite interesting is social travel over solo travel. You still have a lot of single travelers, and if it’s business travel that’s obviously individual travelers. The idea is, even if you’re traveling individually, you’re looking for much more of a social experience: connecting with likeminded people who maybe share your lifestyle, or share the aspiration behind a certain lifestyle, that might align with your trip purpose and why you travel, and of course, traveling together. I think that when we look at some of the numbers, 53% of Americans actually prefer a social travel experience.
I think the fourth trend is really around this active lifestyle that drives hotel innovation—so going a lot more beyond the typical gym and the pool—of actually allowing people to stay active and balanced on the road. Similar to what I said about ecotourism, being active and focused on your well-being is just as important of a trend.
Wellness is a major trend driving the industry. How is Element responding?
Element is a brand that’s really designed for longer stays, with some larger guest rooms, some of which have a small kitchenette in the room. Its brand is really around both sustainability and wellness. There’s a complimentary breakfast focused on fresh and healthy options. There is a Restore pantry offering healthy choices for sale if you want to take it up to your room.
There is an evening relaxed social hour where we have complimentary wines and beers. We focus on things like organic wines, for example. That’s layered in with an extensive fitness program.
We have a partnership we just launched with Priority Bikes for all Element hotels to have a set of bikes that you can take on the road or for an outdoor workout. That’s been really, really popular. Then, of course, depending on what your routine is, we have a much larger than usual fitness center at Element hotels.
We have kinetic bikes in our fitness centers that actually allow you to charge your mobile device as you pedal on the bike. We have saline pools, so there’s no chlorine in the pools. If you don’t want to go down to the fitness center—you want to stay up in your room—we actually have an app, YourTrainer app, where you can have small, bite-size workouts in your room.
Building off that, what support do your brands offer around business travel to help people achieve a work-life balance while they’re on the road?
Things like the evening social hours certainly help. At Moxy, which is one of our other brands, we do workout routines and classes on the rooftop at our Moxy Times Square location. We call it #SWEATAtMoxy. We partner with local fitness centers like modelFIT or Box + Flow, who provide these complimentary sessions, which are really fun and foster that sense of community. I think that is really an important part of work-life balance.
The Moxy brand really lives in the public space. It’s a very playful, energetic experience. We’ve got arcade games and foosball tables in the public space in the living room. We hire a crew that is focused on engaging our guests, maybe holding competitions and playing some games with our guests. While they might be there on business, we also know that that consumer wants to play a little, and they want to get permission or get away with it a little bit.
We want to make sure that we have super-fast Wi-Fi. We want to make sure that we have outlets everywhere in the public space and the guest rooms so it’s easy to be connected, easy to work. We want to make sure that you can stream your own content from your mobile device directly on the guest room TV.
Everything has to be super-connected so business becomes easy. Then we have to balance that with fostering the sense of community and creating a unique experience. What that experience looks like varies by brand, by passion point and by psychographic, but for Moxy it’s about play.
We’re a very playful, cheeky brand, not taking ourselves too seriously. From that perspective, we feel that creates a great sense of work-life balance. Because again, while your primary goal might be to achieve a certain objective for your business trip, no business trip for this customer is successful if they didn’t have the sense of play or a sense of personal fulfillment, and a sense of discovery, really, of a story that they can take home or post on social.
What are some of the most effective ways for travel brands to use community to deepen a traveler’s connection to places and people?
Our guests want to know where they are in the world, so having a sense of place is really important. What that means is we’ve got to create a travel experience that also is appealing to the local community, because that’s where people want to be. They want to be where locals are.
At Aloft, we foster this sense of discovery and community through our Live at Aloft program. That’s our program to celebrate emerging local musicians and artists by having them perform at our hotel. They’ll bring their followers. They will bring the local community into the hotel. Our guests in turn get to discover terrific local artists—ones that they might ordinarily never have discovered—and therefore get to be part of a community for the duration of their trip.
The programming that we do at our hotel level is really, really critical. I think the other way to connect to the local community and discover more is our Marriott-wide partnership with PlacePass.
PlacePass essentially is a way for you to add much more to your trip than just a hotel room, local experiences. It might be excursions, it might be meet-ups, it might be buying a private cooking lesson with a local chef. Well over 100,000 experiences across the globe are available to our guests, which make it much more about a travel experience versus booking a room. It’s much more than check in, check out.
PSFK researchers see a key trend in the way companies are using IoT to empower travelers to control their experience in the hotel room. What is Marriott doing around this technology?
This is really part of the passion behind what Marriott stands for in terms of innovation. We have an innovation lab in our corporate office. We’ve even held pop-up innovation labs throughout the year where we test new and emerging technologies.
One overarching way we’re looking to fuel this focus on innovation is in a partnership with Accenture. We launched a travel experience incubator, which is designed to identify and fuel promising new startups. The focus is on game-changing innovations for the travel industry.
Specifically, we’ve done many things like mobile check-in and using your phone as the guest room key. Those are things that are already out there. Where we are focusing on looking at what’s next in the future is, for example, with our Aloft brand, we have a project that we’ve launched at one of our hotels. We called it Project Jetson—sort of what’s next in terms of the guest room of the future.
We’ve completely outfitted a group of guest rooms with connected technology that uses, essentially, a Siri technology to control your environment. It’s HomeKit-enabled. You can change the thermostat. You can change the color of the lighting in the room to create an ambience. You can change, through the command of your voice, the guest room entertainment. Those are already technologies that are out there today. We want to take it a step further. Could your personal preferences from your home travel with you and personalize your guest room in the future?
We use Aloft a little bit as a technology incubator for the brands. We have launched a robotic butler—we call him Botler—at several of our Aloft hotels to deliver items that you might request to your guest room. We’ve also tested an AI-driven chatbot feature, which allows us to give our guests a way to communicate with us on the platform that they use to communicate with each other, whether it’s iMessage or, down the road, Facebook Messenger and so forth.
Like I said, it’s AI driven, so it’s very automated. It also responds to you instantaneously. You could message, “Hey, what’s the best local Chinese restaurant?” You could say, “Hey, I forgot my toothbrush,” and it will alert us that we need to deliver a toothbrush to your room. All of that is standalone platform that’s learning as it goes to provide smarter and better answers.
It allows our team members that are there to serve you to focus on delivering the experience versus just the functional aspect of a hotel stay. We want to be an experience brand, but we want to make sure that the functional things, like check in and check out, become very easy and smooth, so they don’t take over the experience.
Can you give us a hint of what’s in store for Marriott in 2018 and beyond?
Overall, if I think about the brands that I oversee—AC Hotels, Aloft Hotels, Element and Moxy—because of those brands each having a unique experience that they deliver to a very specific guest, it’s not about being something to everyone. It’s about being everything to someone, someone with a very specific passion.
There are a couple things to highlight maybe, and particularly for Element. The one thing that I think is the most forward-looking, on-trend experience is what we call Studio Commons. We think about social travel versus solo travel. After having really studied how consumers travel, we’re building a communal guest room type. The idea is that you might be traveling with a group of four or five friends, family or colleagues.
You, of course, want to have your individual guest room, but you’d love to get a semi-private, dedicated living space just for that group. We created this communal guest room layout where you have one living space, with a kitchen, a work table and a lounge associated with it, where up to four guest rooms are built around that particular living space.
It could be a very cool experience. We talked consumers through the idea to understand how they would use this, and would they use this. We got some great responses. The idea is that when you travel as a group, and you want to be not necessarily just in the public space, you have to hang out in one of the traveler’s rooms, and it gets a little crowded. We’re going to open the first hotel right around Q4 of this year with that new feature, so there’s a lot more to come.
Lead Image: The lounge at Moxy Tokyo. Photo courtesy of Marriott.
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Erica co-founded and co-leads UNICEF’s Innovation Unit, a group tasked with identifying, prototyping and scaling technologies and practices that improve UNICEF's work on the ground. Working with partners in private sector and academia, the Innovation Unit supports UNICEF’s 135+ country offices in the practical application of design and technology to strengthen international development outcomes. UNICEF Innovation has recognized success in innovative design of international development solutions. Erica was named to the TIME 100 “World’s Most Influential People” List in 2013. Other examples of this work include the Digital Drum, recognized by Time Magazine as one of the Top 50 inventions of 2011, gold and silver International Design Excellence (IDSA) Awards, a Red Hat prize for being one of the three top open source projects and the award-winning RapidSMS - a system that uses basic mobile phones and SMS messages to communicate with front-line workers and improve the speed and quality of data collection and health and education services. Since 2007, UNICEF Innovation has worked with partners to develop open source technologies that have registered seven million births in Nigeria over 15 months and provided antenatal care to thousands of pregnant women across Rwanda. These systems are built on a set of principles, such as collaboration and learning from fast failures, that have informed successes such as the tracking of the distribution of more than 25 million insecticide treated mosquito nets and providing a direct feedback loop for more than 260,000 young Ugandans to engage with their government and change policy in real time. Erica worked with the Commission for Macroeconomics and Health, a joint collaboration between the World Bank and the World Health Organization, and developed and executed UNICEF global communication strategies for immunization, child survival and avian influenza and pandemic preparedness. Erica co-taught ‘Design for UNICEF’ at NYU’s ITP with Clay Shirky. She has lectured at the Yale School of Management, Harvard University, The Art Center, Stanford University School of Engineering and Columbia School of International and Public Affairs on technology, innovation, design and international development.
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