Paul Cahill (Illustration by Lennart Andresen)

From check-in to check-out and every service in between, Marriott International is evaluating ways that technology can improve its hotel business. In an industry where customer service is paramount, that means a strategy that blends high tech with high touch, says Paul Cahill , senior vice president of brand management for Marriott Hotels. Cahill oversees the company’s flagship hotel chain and the one where it pilots new technologies before rolling them out to other properties. To date, those technologies include a broad range of mobile services to ease guests’ stay inside the hotel, as well as experimentation with text messaging, social networking and location-based services.

How would you describe Marriott’s approach to innovation?

■ Everything we’ve done as a company as it relates to innovation really first and foremost starts with the consumer. We are crazy about studying customer behavior and looking for trends in the world or the markets we do business in.

Early on, those technologies were low-fi. You might not think it’s a big innovation today, but we were the first company to put remote controls for the TV in all of our hotels. We didn’t create remote controls, but we saw customers had a need for it.

How do you gauge customer behavior?

■We do a series of things around customer data collection. We do quantitative studies, we do qualitative studies. We travel with them. We go into their hotel rooms with them when they’re on the road because sometimes people will tell you what they do and what they actually do is somewhat different. On top of that, we couple that with things like global brand tracking, which starts to measure loyalty and how much someone loves your brand or how quickly someone will recommend your brand.

Marriott is a large organization with many different brands. How do you trial new technology initiatives?

■As a company, we have our flagship, which is our Marriott Hotels and Resorts. We have made the decision that because we have scale and because we have expertise in this flagship, that we are leading with this brand. Our full-on intention is we will scale [new technology] to the other brands that we have. though it may look different.

Last October, we rolled out mobile check-in to 300 full-service Marriott hotels. By February, we had rolled out check-in in all 500-plus hotels around the world. [Soon] we will begin to expand that to other brands.

Why did you start with mobile check-in?

■ The key insight from the consumer was, “If you can’t scale the app, I can’t use the app. If it’s only good in 10 hotels or one country, it’s not going to serve my needs.”

So our initial thrust, starting in October of last year, was let’s get a simple, singular functionality app scaled across our hotels while we continue to add new functionality to the app as customers become comfortable using the services.

What are the areas where customers most want to see mobile services?

■ If you ask 10 people what they want from mobile services, you might get 10 different answers based on who the target is and what they need at that moment. We’ve spent a lot of time getting our target customers to prioritize what those services might be.

We’ve heard from customers that there is an awkward moment at check out as a consumer, which is what am I supposed to do when I leave? Do I have to go down to the desk? If the paper is under my door, is that good enough? Putting this on the mobile device is taking away one of those anxious points or pain points for the consumer.

[The two-way text message request platform] Service Request is in 15 major markets in the U.S. since last December. It is wildly successful. Consumers are asking us for things from, “I want more pillows before I get there,” to “My kids are coming with me, I need a different kind of room.”

Two-way texting is a way for hotels to stay connected and guests to stay connected with the hosts on our property, even when they’re not on property. With technology, we have the ability to send certain texts to certain parts of the hotel. One of the innovations that may not, outside the industry, feel like an innovation is the move to a department called At Your Service. They can handle all of those requests.

Are there parts of the customer experience that you don’t think are as effective on mobile compared to in-person interaction?

■ What we clearly know is not every guest wants to walk into a hotel and not talk to anybody. At a premium brand like JW or Marriott, they want both. If I’m on a vacation and I’m at a resort, I’m probably going to spend a lot of time talking to a person. If I’m on a business trip and I’m checking in at 11 at night and getting up at 5 in the morning, I may want to bypass people. We’re looking at every aspect of our business model and trying to understand how does technology enhance it from a customer standpoint and a business standpoint.

Marriott is now doing more with location-based services. What are your efforts in that area?

■We’ve been working with the MIT Mobile Experience Lab. We happen to have a Cambridge Marriott right next to the campus. For probably 14 months now, we have challenged them to say how do we use technology that exists today and apply it in our hotels.

They came up with this app called Six Degrees. You have to opt into it. At that point, you allow it to pull data from your LinkedIn account, where you went to college, your sports teams, and then we ask you a series of questions: Do you like craft beer? Do you like going out to dinner? Do you like to run? In the morning or evening? From there we know that we can start connecting people. It gives the hotel the ability to curate these experiences in real-time based on the preferences of people in the building that day.

Will it ever roll out to everybody? I don’t know. But it’s an example of our thinking. There is not just one or two silver bullets in this space. This is about holistically looking at our business model and technology, and seeing where we can take advantage of it.

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At Bethesda-based
Marriott International, you can do more than book your hotel room on a mobile device. You can also check-in. Soon you’ll be able to check out, request pillows, ask for restaurant recommendations and more — without having a face-to-face conversation.