What the Tech?

If We Were Marriott – We’d Build a Digital Future While Leveraging Brick and Mortar Assets

Disclaimer: We have not spoken to a Marriott executive and have no further background information. This is merely a thought experiment to exemplify what digital transformation is about.

The hotel industry hasn’t changed much in the past decades. While they have introduced some level of digitization such as websites and apps, they haven’t fully embraced digital transformation. Indeed, if things are working fine, why change? Because the next unforeseen disruptor may be right around the corner.

Digital transformation is about reinventing your core business. Doing what you do better, faster, and more efficiently or perhaps doing something completely new. It eliminates a complete reliance on the analog world and extends the business digitally.

Marriott’s operations were dramatically impacted during the pandemic, but they could have fared a lot better had they embraced digital transformation early on.

In this thought experiment, we reimagine Marriott as an adopter of digital transformation with a specific focus on their highly lucrative event business. Although, there are many other areas for transformation, each with their own opportunities.

Blurring physical and digital events: a three-step approach

While Marriott’s core event business focuses on in-person gatherings (although, if they get the technology platform right, it could turn into their main event business), Marriott should merge physical and digital events, creating unique experiences. Clearly, this type of innovation doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process that can be broken down into three steps. Let’s take a look.

Step one: Convenience through digitization

The first step, as always, is adding convenience. A website and mobile app are the baseline. But digitization (not to be confused with digital transformation) calls for more than that. It aims at enabling users to do digitally what they currently do in an analog manner. This is nothing revolutionary, yet Marriot’s current website is digitally deficient. When planning an event, website visitors are limited to viewing event availability windows. Should they need more information they must submit a request for a representative to reach out and discuss details.

With this in mind, let’s see how digitization can transform this experience.

Self-service portal for event planners

Were Marriott to add a self-service portal, event planners could see availability but also make all choices and changes on the fly. They could view available event space through virtual tours, select seating style, AV equipment, food and beverage, guest rooms, basically everything they need from within the portal – no sales rep needed. Of course, if they aren’t sure and/or prefer personal recommendations, they can do so at any time via a chat.

The event planner may also adjust the reservation details at any time as long those options are still available and deadlines haven’t passed. Keeping track on deadlines, the system will send notifications so the event planner doesn’t miss them, such as when discounts on room blocks end. Planners can also communicate with event team staff via the portal / app under messages (linked to their email for those who prefer this mode of communication). Payment and invoicing are all automated and managed through the portal as well. How convenient is that?

“My Conference” by Marriott, the event app

We’ve all been to conferences with a great app where you can build your own schedule, see who else is attending, and much more. These apps are great but not cheap, not every event host can afford one. But what if Marriott were to create a “My Conference,” app that event organizers could lease?

With the app, event organizers upload the schedule and send the information to all attendees. This eliminates the need for event organizers to develop costly apps. Instead they can use “My Conference” a powerful app that is continuously optimized based on feedback from millions of users worldwide.

Attendees simply download the app, enter a unique conference code provided by the organizers, and log in with their LinkedIn account or email. That’s it, they’ll have all the info at their fingertips – program overview, schedule, speakers, attendees, session location, and more.

And because Marriott hosts thousands of conferences with millions of users each year, it’ll be worth adding add-ons that regular conferences wouldn’t bother about. Here Marriott could go really crazy. Think virtual networking rooms, job boards, extending the exhibit floor with a digital one where sponsors can link all their collateral, digital raffles or other games, and much more. They could even white label the app and sell it to competitors. This is something that The Washington Post does with their Arc Publishing platform (which guess who helped to build?).

If you were an event planner and Marriott would offer such an enhanced attendee experience, where would you host your next conference?

On-demand office space

Large events bring big bucks, but why not fill the gaps with small spontaneous meetings? How many people end up meeting with colleagues or business partners in one of Marriott’s hotel rooms (possibly leading to awkward situations) because the lounge was busy or didn’t provide the needed privacy. By embedding a new booking tool on the Marriott website, guests could check availability and book a small meeting room instantly or well in advance via Marriott’s website. Just check date, time, guest count, AV needs, add-on services (e.g. coffee or lunch), confirm, and head right to the conference section.

But why only focus on Marriott guests? Anyone in need of a meeting room close by a Marriott may want to book one. Think of all the people who telework and need to arrange an in-person meeting, be it an interview, partner opportunity, or client. Think WeWork on-demand or Airbnb for office space.

There are so many opportunities here and we are still in phase one – far away from real digital transformation!

Step two: Intelligence and APIs

Now that Marriott has digitized all event planning processes and created new services that are implemented worldwide, the hotel chain is gathering a lot of data. Used properly, this data could provide valuable insights as to how to improve the user experience even further. And whenever you have data, APIs become a huge business opportunity.

By exposing APIs to third parties, the unforeseeable will happen. It’s really difficult to predict outcomes as there is an avid and creative developer community out there who see opportunities that never crossed your mind. They will build applications with Marriott’s data that will benefit their customer base.

Here’s an example from our customer WMATA, the public transit agency in Washington, D.C. By exposing their APIs, a vision impaired programmer developed an app for blind passengers, helping them navigate the transit system in D.C. Would WMATA ever develop such an app? Probably not. Is it of value? Absolutely!

APIs are a quick way to get fast results. With some guidance, Marriott could build an API strategy in four weeks, expose their first APIs for a beta community within six weeks, and build a real developer portal with real users within two months. They have a lot of static and dynamic data developers can tap into, even today.

By nurturing a developer community through hackathons and rewarding winners with prizes as low as $10K, Marriott could provide enough guidance to get what they need at a bargain. Whether a mobile app for business users, social connections, or a connector for other platforms.

And think about all the potential startups waiting to create the next generation Kayak app but need access to data to develop it.

What kind of data is of value? In the case of a company like Marriott, probably any data. To make things easy, they should first start by exposing static data. This includes hotel locations, number of meeting rooms and bedrooms, AV options, other facilities such as gym, spa, restaurants, etc. Then augment it with dynamic data, current occupancy, menu items, maybe even demographics such as percentage of families versus business travelers versus tourists by season, etc.

These benefits aside, digital transformation calls for APIs anyway. That’s how modern applications communicate. To streamline communication between modern and legacy apps you need a clean communication layer which are your APIs. Additionally, like any other enterprise, Marriott is probably also migrating to the cloud. Through APIs they can slowly trickle into the cloud, probably the easiest and safest way to do so. Since APIs are necessary, exposing them to the outside world is a no-brainer.

Interestingly, Marriott did launch an API program in 2014 and even got an award for the initiative. However, there is no sign of a developer portal. Why they would drop such an initiative may indicate they lacked the vision of what exposed APIs can do. They probably didn’t have the needed technology-driven culture to become a successful API-based company such as Facebook, Salesforce, or Google. By the way, they all make most of their money through APIs. Marriott’s API program would have been the perfect opportunity to digitally transform themselves, yet they remain a company that offers event space (just a friendly reminder of the disclaimer above – this is all based on assumptions).

APIs are huge but there is so much more that can be done in this step. In fact, we could write an entire book about it. But to keep in short, let’s just throw a few high-level ideas out so you get the idea.

Event self-service portal 2.0

In its 2.0 evolution, the Marriott self-service event portal could provide smart recommendations based on price, guest count flexibility, weather, or any other relevant criterium. It could also create reports based on personalized KPIs so that event planners can compare events and set benchmarks. It may even provide industry stats, so event planners know how they compare to industry events.

To help plan their event, event planners could accurately predict no-shows, the percentage of people with dietary restrictions, general requirements, and much more. Notifications next to the order field will pop up helping them adjust the count or plan the menu. If ordering lectern but no mic, the system will suggest adding one, etc.

Smart internal systems

Using insights from historical data, Marriott’s event team system could predict how many individual meeting rooms they’d need to have ready for spontaneous bookers each day. Without that data point, hoteliers often rely on gut feeling which leads to fire drills or rearrangements of rooms that weren’t needed. By better anticipating demand, needed staff can be optimized.

Cross-industry conference insights portal

Based on data generated through the event app, Marriott could access a huge amount of potentially valuable data. By analyzing session topic and attendee interest (what they add on their schedule), they could provide clients with interactive dashboards with topic clusters and traction by industry, region, and time of the year. With this data they could identify new trends or patterns such as topics that aren’t covered often but when they are, get added by a lot of attendees to their schedule.

This information source could be bundled as an additional service for any conference organizer – a potential new business opportunity completely unrelated to Marriott's day-to-day business. It could even be exposed and monetized through an API to third parties.

Step three: Extending the core analog experiences digitally

Step three is about transforming Marriott’s core business – a caterpillar to butterfly kind of transformation – that’s what digital transformation is really about.

In step one we added a lot of convenient digital components by digitizing processes otherwise dependent on human interaction, but the actual event – the core value proposition – still happens in-person. In step two we were able to optimize processes and events based on data and enable third parties to build convenient tools basically for free. Yet the core remains the same. If in-person isn’t possible, these tools are not of much use.

In step three, we extend the in-person experience with a digital one. It can function as a fallback when in-person is not an option, or as an additional option for those people who can otherwise not attend.

Marriott Virtual Conferences v1: Copycat

Just like so many virtual conference platforms, we suggest that Marriott has its own – not buy or lease one – since it will become the starting point for something new. With such a platform in place before COVID, at least some of their events could have moved to this online platform, generating revenue even during the pandemic.

It’s not necessary to go into details about this tool, there are many good options available that do everything from one-way keynotes to highly interactive breakout sessions and networking opportunities. The real innovation will come as Marriott merges digital and analog, and that will happen in v2.

Marriott Virtual Conferences v2: Innovate

Now that digital events have become the norm, in a post-COVID world many people may want to continue with this digital format. Digital is more convenient, doesn’t require travel, and is compatible with other work obligations. Indeed, some attendees may not be able to attend in-person events; be it due to disabilities, financial constraints, or family commitments. Others will prefer face-to-face interaction and the kind of experiences that can’t be translated into the digital world. And then there are those who may join in-person but continue digitally.

Each of these parties could benefit from a hybrid approach.

They could literally walk out of an ongoing session and continue participating from an iPad on their way to the airport. If they lose connectivity, they could pause it and watch the rest asynchronously (more on this below).

Event organizers could extend their reach to the entire world – the only hurdle being the time difference but even that has an answer (we’ll come to that in a bit). For this to be successful, you’ll need more than livestreamed sessions, it requires creativity, experimentation, and some hardware.

Keynotes

By adding the appropriate hardware in the conference rooms or even a small production team for larger more sophisticated events, in-person events could be livestreamed with live captions. During the Q&A, virtual attendees can raise their hand virtually and either go on camera or mic only to ask the speaker a question directly or just type it in a chat monitored by a community manager. By alternating between live and virtual audience, everyone gets a chance to engage.

Interactive discussions

For interactive sessions, such as roundtable discussions, each in-person attendee would have an embedded monitor with a camera in their desk where they can see virtual attendees and in-person attendees by simply looking up or slightly down. How this is done is key as you’ll need to break the barrier between digital and analog, so some experimentation is needed for the right hardware setup. Digitally, it would look like just another online meeting with multiple screens.

Virtual networking breaks

During networking breaks, mixing both will be difficult – in-person networking can’t be coordinated, or it will lose its natural flow. But you can create a virtual networking room for virtual attendees with a networking host who’ll greet attendees as they log in and start the conversation.

To ensure engaging discussions, attendance per “room” should be capped at 10 or 15 people and everyone must be on camera. At larger events this means that multiple networking sessions will run simultaneously. Networking hosts could be someone from the organizing committee, volunteering attendees, or even better, the speakers – this will drive attendance and interaction.

Asynchronous streaming for truly global events

While virtual events theoretically open up the world, there is still a time difference issue. Asynchronous streaming can address that.

With asynchronous streaming attendees can watch the conference at their convenience from the beginning. Attendees can stop the stream at any time, tag the speaker or fellow attendee for a follow up question, even send a video section to one of their colleagues.

Any asynchronous follow up questions start a chat with the tagged video section as the first piece of content. The speaker or fellow attendee can respond at their convenience. Of course, contacting speakers at conferences with thousands of attendees isn’t feasible. For large events that function would be disabled but attendees could still engage with other attendees and discuss conference topics.

Summary

We could go on and on. Digital transformation is about reinventing your core business and, as such, there are multiple directions in which you can go. It is not about digitizing your processes or adopting the newest technologies. Technology is merely the enabler to digital transformation and to execute it you must become a tech company that happens do to [your core business].

While it may sound daunting, it needn’t happen all at once. Progress is iterative. It doesn’t mean morphing into a new business tomorrow. As you digitize your business, start leveraging your data, and see what others to with it. Ideas will start to form as to what your reinvented core business will look like. It can take some time, so starting sooner rather than later can pay dividends.

To discuss how such a thought experiment applies to your business, book a 20 min consultation with our technical team.

…and if you are a Marriott employee, we’re eager to learn, and understand, what we got wrong, or if we got anything right.