Hotels step into platform shoes 

‘What is a hotel brand?’ is a question sane minds have long learned to stay far away from, when ‘where is a hotel brand?’ is the more nuanced and, frankly, more tech-forward approach to take to the issue. And we’re all for looking like we know what on earth is happening next in tech. 

The ‘where is a brand’ in this case is not about ‘in the head or in the heart’ but where in the mind of the brand owner. The current results season has seen the leading brand stables talk about greater global reach, pipeline share, everything one would expect, but for the leading executives of these stables, the chatter is less about bricks on the ground and more about the zeros and ones flying above it.

Creeping into this as a sideline is, of course, conversions, which don’t change bricks but do change numbers. Marriott announced that it was going to launch a conversion-friendly brand in the mid-scale segment and that conversions were roughly 30% of its signings this year in the first quarter, with “a very strong stream of conversions moving through the pipeline”. A good year for sign writers, if nothing else. 

But back to digital, which is where Marriott was flexing its muscles, starting with its loyalty programme. Marriott Bonvoy – which leaped onto the Taylor Swift bandwagon faster than an ageing physics teacher – is being challenged by Hilton Honors, as reported by Skift, something which was of sufficient interest on the Marriott earnings call for it to be raised by an analyst. Truly, a sign of changing times, given that analysts usually like to chat about revpar and selling stuff (get your wallets out for some Elegant properties).

Tony Capuano, president & CEO, responded: “Size is important, of course. Engagement to me is a much more important facet of the programme and the work that we are doing to drive that engagement through our large, powerful and growing credit card portfolio, through the breadth of experiences that we offer our members, those are the powerful drivers of engagement with our members.”

It would be uncouth to make an ‘it’s not the size, it’s what you do with it’ gag here, but you’re welcome to go ahead and make that connection, because it surely do fit. A finely-tuned loyalty programme makes for a happy lifetime relationship after all, at least that’s the plan anyway (and if anyone has an example of that in the wider consumer world, please get in touch).

Marriott was not just leaning on Taylor Swift to maintain its dominance in the market – or even just leaning on the consumer – but on its wider digital offering. Capuano said: “We are making great progress on the multi-year digital and technology transformation of our three major systems, reservations, property management and loyalty. 

“Through this transformation, we expect to unlock new revenue opportunities, further strengthen our efficient operating model, enhance Marriott Bonvoy, and elevate the associate and customer digital experience. We still expect to begin rolling out our new cloud-based systems to properties next year. In the meantime, we are enhancing the digital experiences that matter most to customers, primarily how they shop and book through our channels.”

The CEO said that Bonvoy had “evolved to become a travel and loyalty platform” and the group appears to have embraced the platform concept across its digital offering. 

Marriott has grasped that the hotel brands themselves are just something to keep graphic designers occupied. The company is now a long, long way from being the face the guest sees behind front desk (that face is now their own unlocking their digital key). The private equity view of a platform may be a group of hotels large enough to enjoy collective efficiencies and uplift, for the large branded operators it’s something closer to asset management, with a side of sales. 

Expedia has muttered about being the Amazon of travel, but if the big hotel brands can perfect this three-pronged digital offering, they could be so much more than a product delivery company, which is where this former bookshop is heading. And as for the hotels themselves? Not their problem. 

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