Interview: Marriott On Elevating The Business Travel Experience Through Local Culture
Aiming less to compete with Airbnb and more to enhance the traditional business stay, Marriott's Renaissance brand of accommodations builds on the standard experience its customers expect by curating mini adventures and integrating local culture into its design to help those on quick trips return with a unique and sharable stay
Experiential travel retail is the new standard for hospitality across the board. Just ask Airbnb, where experiential travel bookings have grown 500% in tandem with its rollout of more experience-based offerings. But for the homeowner-based platform with the foundations already in place for local expertise, launching an experiential division was a natural extension of its established brand. Now, legacy hotel chains and decades-old franchises are finding innovative ways to tackle the emerging trend—while still staying true to their brand.
Take Renaissance Hotels, a division of Marriott International. For the first time in eight years, the brand is introducing a reinvented visual identity that places emphasis on the local neighborhoods surrounding each hotel, promising guests an unexpected and exclusive experience each time. The transition is accompanied by the launch of a new marketing campaign dubbed “Discover This Way,” a targeted storytelling approach to design featuring handpicked experiences from neighborhood experts.
PSFK caught up with George Fleck, VP of global brand marketing & management for Renaissance Hotels, to learn more about the consumer insights and strategies behind the new identity, as well as how it developed based in part on the changing expectations of business travelers, one of the largest demographics in its network:
PSFK: Tell us about how the Renaissance hotel brand came to be, and what consumer demands for travel and hotel experiences it responds to.
George Fleck: “I was leading what we call our Premium Distinctive brands (our full-service brands that have a very distinct lifestyle positioning), which includes Westin, Le Meridien and Renaissance. We wanted to take a deeper look at the positioning and programming of these last two in particular, asking, “How do we activate the brand from a design perspective, as well as from a 2D visual marketing point of view, as well as for our guest experiences on our properties?
So, the last two years, we have worked to ensure that those two brands that are both deeply anchored in what we call the discovery segment have an ownable and distinct positioning that's appealing to travelers, and that there isn't overlap in terms of how guests are experiencing those two brands.
With Renaissance, we were looking for specifically at key consumer insights—whether there was a nucleus that we could drive the consumer experience back to. Our Westin brand is based on the very simple insight that traveling is stressful. We want to be a great partner in ensuring guests' wellbeing on the road. I don't feel we had that insight quite as defined for our Renaissance brand.
We looked at the entire Renaissance experience from those three perspectives. We determined that, given this brand is in this discovery segment, we could base it on a simple insight: When consumers travel, they want to feel like they've been somewhere.
Second, they want to feel like they've had the chance to truly immerse themselves into the neighborhood that they're in. It's not just about discovering the best of Paris when you go there, but rather, whether you can extract these interesting, unexpected moments around the Place Vendôme or République.
What are interesting hidden gems or experiences that define a specific neighborhood? That's what we wanted to focus on. We think that destinations like New York, or Paris, or Shanghai are places that are not just defined by the character of the destination, but by how neighborhood experiences define or make up a patchwork of experiences.
When you are in Harlem, it's a very different New York than when you're in Chelsea, or when you're in the West Village. We wanted to capture that as a sense of inspiration for what role Renaissance can play. We wanted it to still be a brand that primarily speaks to business travelers, but that also offers what boutique hotels have cornered the market on as their strength.
We wanted to provide customers with more curated style and design, but still offer the consistency in service and quality of a full service chain or mass brand hotel experience.
That's how we started. That then led us down the path of doing a full MRI on the experience from a design perspective, as well as then from a programming perspective in the guest experience.”
Airbnb is similarly focusing on tapping into the experience of local regions. Why do you think traveling consumers are interested in this kind of hospitality experience?
“Business traveling has changed over the last decade. A business traveler in the past might have wanted to come in and out of a destination, attend to the purpose of the trip, order room service and maybe visit a restaurant nearby.
Today, there's a much greater sense of longing for a local experience; almost like an adventure. Even if consumers only have an hour in a place, they're more likely to want to make the most of it and have a unique encounter. This applies even to business travelers.
We feel that if you don't have the time to leave the hotel, then the establishment itself, from a design perspective and from its service offerings, still provides you with that local experience, from interesting local microbrews, to localized cocktail recipes, to interesting food offerings that speak to the destination.
Our guests want to walk away with some story that's worth retelling. Whether that is for their social feeds, whether that's to share with friends and family or colleagues, they want something they can take away and show from that experience.
Business travelers today are wanting to enrich their lives, in addition to the purpose of the trip. We want to offer them therefore something beyond the basics. This idea informed our renovation of our Los Angeles Airport and Gateway Airport Renaissance locations.
Those hotels really set themselves apart from a design perspective from the many other hotel offerings in those markets, because they're typically very standard. We use sensory experiences like sound, music and service infused with local flavor to elevate that standard experience.
Customers can walk away thinking, “Yeah, I had to stay at an airport, but it wasn't like anything else I've been to.” We're really trying to push those experiences. We're reimagining that more staid, traditional hotel experience.
We're not trying to compete with Airbnb, but rather elevating a hotel experience that has become quite commoditized in expected spaces like convention hotels or in airports. Luxury and boutique hotels can capture that very well, but I have not seen a lot of hotels in that four-star, full-service scale doing doing that at scale, which is where Renaissance comes in.”
Could you explain how Renaissance taps into the local culture of its locations?
“There are three main ways. One is our Navigator program, which was implemented over six years ago at this point and connects our guests with a local expert—a kind of elevated version of a concierge, someone who's well connected to the neighborhood.
This informed not only having this type of concierge attention, but also how we can provide the same service through social media and other digital content as well as our marketing campaigns.
The second pillar we looked at was the idea of evenings. Most of the time, business travelers have the ability to go out into the neighborhood after work hours. A lot of cities come to life at night, and so we invested in helping business travelers enjoy these types of experiences, from night markets and of course restaurant experiences to art and galleries that are open late.
The third aspect is integrating our hotel into the local culture. That's done through community outreach and partnerships with local businesses, like bringing food trucks to guests, or bringing interesting visionaries to do talks about their businesses or art, or bringing local artists in to do installations on location.
These three aspects allow our guests to come back from a business trip to Shanghai, but still have been able to have a unique experience that they can speak to.”
I would love to hear about the Global Day of Discovery. Does this year's event differ from previous years? What can guests expect from that?
“This year is really special, because we're coming out of two years of creating a very distinct, refined positioning for the brand. In a world of 30 brands in our own portfolio and many more outside of that, having a product is a key part of differentiating your stance.
When you go to Renaissance Midtown here in New York, it's in the Garment District, and there are several visual cues that speak to its origin there. Every property that was designed in this new, refined design foundation really starts to set the scene for our positioning and the programming to come to life.
Kicking off with Global Day, we introduced a new program platform called This Way Partnerships. Through these partnerships, we gave hotels another framework to find a partner in their local market that could add to that location's experience for guests.
For example, in Hamburg, the location decided to do a partnership with the art publisher TASCHEN. Through this partnership and even just through the coffee tables and magazines included, they're helping their guests discover the art and culture scene of Hamburg.
In places like Renaissance Allentown, they are partnering with the Allentown Art Museum and the Miller Symphony Hall to uncover how the museum and the symphony have played a key role in the city's rebirth. They've put together what they call “The Best in Show,” for the city.
Basically, our goal is that every hotel will have these interesting partnerships that they can then offer to guests, even if they just have only one hour, to do something already curated for them.
With that program, we needed to communicate differently about the brand in our marketing. We've worked with our advertising agency on a new concept to say, “How do we more overtly talk about the benefits of discovery or unexpected discovery in our marketing channels, in digital as well as on property communications?
We reimagined both our ad campaign, as well as our whole visual identity on property. All of those elements are essentially being introduced on this eighth Global Day of Discovery, which is why it's such a big milestone. It will debut in New York City, Paris, Dubai and Bangkok. Then our 160+ hotels around the globe will also, on a more local scale, activate on those same talking points, those same activations and experiences.
Discover This Way is designed to highlight how hotels offering unique experiences in a playful and fun way. It's the idea of a tale and that you can get lost in the heart of a neighborhood, and is something that's quite aspirational.”
As Discover This Way continues to expand across the globe, it will also grow within New York City in particular, with openings in Chelsea in Fall 2019, as well as Flushing and Harlem in 2020.
This new vision from Renaissance Hotels marks a distinct shift in hospitality expectations, aiming to function as Marriott's to answer the modern traveler's need for experience consumption. Further, it is designed to fill a whitespace that the establishment identified recognizing that its business travelers still appreciate its core brand, but increasingly want to make the most of even their professional trips, taking the opportunity to explore and create shareable memories.
For the full lineup of performances and events planned on Global Day of Discovery and throughout the year at Renaissance Hotels, click here.
Lead image: courtesy Renaissance Hotels