How Marriott Leads Innovation by Keeping it in Beta

Marriott, the world’s largest hotel company, has been around since the 1950s. How is this old company still an innovation leader when it feels like the entire hospitality industry is in reinvention mode?

Charles Trevail

CEO at C Space

The following is based on Outside In, the customer centricity podcast.

In Charlotte, North Carolina, there’s a Marriott. It’s anything but your average chain hotel. Something unexpected happens here.

The hotel is called M Beta – a working innovation lab where Marriott tests and measures everything about the hotel experience with customers, in real-time. Guests give their feedback to new concepts, like the check-in process, by tapping “beta buttons” placed throughout the hotel.

“We went in and we did a reinvention from top to bottom,” says Jennifer Hsieh, Vice President of Insight, Strategy & Innovation at Marriott International. With M Beta, Jennifer says Marriott “wanted to get our latest and greatest thinking out there so [customers] could give us feedback on how to refine and scale. We wanted to be able to demonstrate that you can innovate fairly quickly so [owners and franchisees] could see it and bring that experience back to their hotels.”

“The Underground” at Marriott Headquarters

M Beta is just one example of how Marriott is pushing the boundaries of tradition and innovation in an industry that’s constantly disrupted. Most recently, it was named among the top 50 of the “World’s Most Innovative Companies” by Fast Company – one of the few honorees on that list that’s been in business for more than a decade or two. And, Marriott receives regular praise from customers, who say they feel the company respects them. That’s no easy feat based on its size and scale. With last year’s merger with Starwood Hotels and Resorts, Marriott is the largest hotel company in the world. It has more than 6,000 properties across more than 120 countries and a portfolio of 30 brands.

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I met Jennifer at Marriott headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland, to interview her for my podcast, Outside In (you can listen to it here). On the outside, the building is unassuming. But inside, it’s bustling; enthusiastic marketers, designers, innovators, and customer experience experts gather in open meeting spaces. Several floors below is the labyrinthine Innovation Lab – or, “The Underground” as it’s known to Marriott employees – a 3-floor, subterranean test center/hospitality playground filled with working prototypes of different hotel room and lobby configurations. Inspiring messages are throughout about why innovation takes “conviction, collaboration, inspiration and relentless refinement.”

Marriott employees testing and experimenting in “The Underground”

Since 1957, when the first Marriott opened its doors in Arlington, Virginia, the company has stuck to the vision laid out by its founder, the iconic J.W. Marriott. “Culture is really what drives this organization,” Jennifer says. “We identify the right talent who really care about our guests, and we give them the tools to be able to bring that to life.”

It may surprise you to learn that, since the 1980s, Marriott has evolved into a brand business that owns few property assets. “We like to think that we’re the originator of the sharing economy,” Jennifer jokes. Customers are individual guests like you and me, business corporate customers who hold conferences and meetings, and property owners and franchisees. Serving them all is a balancing act. “We have to make decisions that drive value for our owners, but also drive delight for our guests.”

Continuous innovation is a big deal for Marriott. And so is scaling it. A small change to one room will need to be duplicated across thousands of rooms. To ensure success and mitigate risk, Marriott approaches innovation with customers. “We recognize that we can’t solve everything ourselves, that the customer plays a really important part in co-creating with us,” Jennifer says.

What you might not realize when you’re in a Marriott property is just how much customer understanding is designed into the experience. For example, a lot of the newer hotel rooms feature open shelving instead of closed drawers. This is not simply for design’s sake. It’s because so many guests said their biggest concern was leaving their items behind. Open shelves help them not to forget.

“At the basis of human-centered design, there’s a consumer need you’re solving for,” Jennifer says. But sometimes a human truth or insight can unravel at the execution stage, especially when you’re working within a global corporation.

For example, one of her earliest projects was creating a better experience for families staying at their hotels. One of the early insights they heard from parents was the challenge of getting their kids to go to bed. An early idea was to re-create a familiar ritual for kids – milk and cookies before bedtime. However, soon after the project got underway, “we ran into some old operational paradigms,” Jennifer explains, like food safety requirements for individually wrapping the cookies, labeling them with potential allergens, refrigerating milk and having staff on hand to monitor distribution. The result was an experience that no longer embodied the spirit of the insight. So, they abandoned it.

Indeed, the entire hospitality industry feels like it’s in reinvention mode. But if you think Marriott is obsessed over what the competition is up to, think again. “We’ve made a shift from obsessing about what our competitors are doing to deeply understanding our consumer,” Jennifer says. “In a world that changes so rapidly, staying centered on our customers’ needs, wants and unarticulated desires guides us as we innovate.  We’re bringing new technologies, design, and service experiences that delight our guests and differentiate our brands.”

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