Marriott Exec: How We Prototype, Crowdsource, Measure

October 10, 2014

My Role

King explains his role as Global Officer of Marriott Signature Brands & Global Sales at Marriott:

  • Includes new product innovation — physical hard products or soft products like service strategy.
  • Overall marketing communications — how we communicate our brands to customers.
  • Growth of the brands — making sure that we’re getting more hotels out in the market globally, and making sure they’re culturally relevant.
  • Oversight of 70 global sales offices to help multinational clients do business with Marriott.

Our ISI Team (Insight, Strategy + Innovation)

They “look at various business problems and come up with creative solutions that we hope will be industry- or category-changing. The main focus of this group is to bring to bear ideas that bring commercial value to the company. It can’t be idea generation for the sake of idea generation. We want to bring new things to our customers that will get a disproportionate share of their wallet.” The team also “leads and guides the thought process around a company innovation blueprint — good innovation practices, and making sure that everyone from the junior to senior level of the company understands how to be innovative.” Among the projects they’ve been involved with are reinventing what meetings look like, rethinking room design to accommodate different kinds of luggage consumers carry, and upgrading Marriott’s in-room entertainment and telecommunications offerings. (You can find a version of Marriott’s Innovation Blueprint in our Resource Center.)

“We really believe that success is never final.”

Marriott’s “Underground” Lab

“We have about 15,000 square feet of two-story high space in the lower level of our corporate offices — a big open space where we build things, tear ‘em down, and build them again. It’s available for any department to use. In there, we’re building new room designs, new bedding packages, food and beverage concepts. We also have a test kitchen. We’re always building, fiddling around, trying to do things better.”

“In the old days, we’d spent years perfecting a room and building sample rooms. Now, we’re building things out of foam core and easily-destructible materials. We can get some focus groups in, customers can touch it, then we can rebuild it to get it right.”

“We build [everything in the prototype spaces] to scale. You probably don’t want to sit on things, because they’ll break. But we do want customers to play around. We build everything in white, since we don’t want consumers focused on decor or their personal opinion. We’re looking for functionality and will this change your behavior, versus, ‘I don’t like the color blue.’ Eventually, we build a purchase-ready sample room that our owners can purchase and distribute out through their hotels.”

What has Marriott learned from that process? Now that most travelers use roll-aboard suitcases with wheels, “that changes the way you design a luggage rack, and the way closets work. Things that may seem small actually have a huge impact on consumers — things as simple as putting plugs on the nightstand. We look at the big things, and we look at the small gestures. A small gesture for service is as important as a big grandiose gesture. We never discount the small; it’s just as important as the big.”

Crowdsourcing Ideas

“The best ideas aren’t born in your corporate headquarters. Ideas come from everywhere. So we want to create environments where ideas can rise to the top — associates can vote on ideas from other associates. Travel Brilliantly was [a form of] strategic outreach to our guests, not just an ad campaign. [We wanted to know] how we can we help customers travel better. What bothers you, and what ideas do you have? One of the ideas that came from our customers was the idea of a healthy vending machine. It seems like an oxymoron. We worked with our culinary team. We had this customer sit down and think through the idea with them. We partnered with a company that was working on the same type of idea in Chicago. We’re testing it live, and it’s going really well. We’ve worked on mobile electric cubes — a small box that sits on our communal tables in our lobbies, and you can put your phone near it, and it will start charging your phone for you. We’re testing these now to see how they work.”

“You can never have too many ideas, but you can have too many priorities. Any corporation has limited capital and limited human resources, and you have to prioritize the things that have the greatest likelihood of bringing commercial value to the enterprise. Some things you do just to keep up with the Joneses, and some things you do to make sure you’re the new Jones. We’re always evaluating how much we can take on, and what will be the biggest win for our customers and our owners. You have to be ruthless about prioritizing, because you can’t build everything.”

Marriott’s Project with the MIT Media Lab

“Academic collaborations help us explore things that are outside of our wheelhouse. This particular innovation is about, if you’re in a hotel and you want to get together with like-minded people, [can we connect you] in a way that feels comfortable for you, not creepy. If you’re in Boston for four nights, and you’re interested in going to a great museum, [how do you] get people together? We’re trying to see if there’s an interest in customers who might want to find some folks to hang out with. [There’s a] lot of interest from millennials, since social sharing and building relationships electronically is very comfortable for them. We’ll see where it goes. I think we’re onto something interesting.”

Member Questions

Brandon Barnett of Intel: How much does Marriott embrace lean startup tenets, like a focus on the search for a business model through customer-driven pivots?

“I’ll give you a real-life example you can check out. It’s called We’d realized that large and small meetings have never been innovated: it has always been rates, dates, and space. What do you charge, how much space, and what is the cost of a chicken luncheon? That is not really an inspiring way to hold a meeting anymore. This next generation wants furniture that is more collaborative. They want meetings that aren’t someone up there lecturing, and people can’t give feedback during the speech. We started to think about how we create more inspired meetings for our meeting planners. is basically a fluid website where our hotels are constantly uploading fresh ideas for meetings. We started it in January, and it has been wildly successful. Folks are spending about 18 minutes on the site. We see this as the next opportunity. It’s an example of getting something in front of your customers, and getting feedback.”

Sean Klein of Kalypso: How do you structure your dedicated innovation team? Are there any interesting career pathways you have developed?

“It’s a cross-section of folks: writers, designers, folks from consulting groups, culinarians, artists. The idea is really building a team that thinks differently than your business is today — and that, my friends, is not easy. It’s very difficult to see the future, or when you’re in the throes of your own model, to see what a new model can be. Some folks came up through the hotels, and some folks came from outside innovation groups and advertising agencies. It’s a very diverse group, and that’s intentional.”

“We also intentionally protect them. We realize there are so many things in a hotel that can be innovated around. There are 367 touch points in a hotel experience, from the minute you receive the email, to check-in, to the pen next to the phone, to the thread count on the sheets, down to the type of shampoo and how it is displayed. We’ve got to keep this team focused on the highest-value opportunities. One of the greatest things I always am fearful of is people think, ‘Oh, we have an innovation department, and they do all the innovating.’ The minute your culture starts to think that is the right answer, I think you’ve lost the battle. Everyone needs to be innovating and thinking and trying to get their ideas surfaced.”

Chris Clark of UCB Pharma: How was the innovation blueprint developed and what were the biggest challenges to introducing the tool to their culture?

“My team worked to help craft a blueprint: What does innovation look like, what are best-in-class companies doing around innovation, what are the skills necessary? We articulated that in a one-page blueprint. It had senior level accountability and sponsorship. And it was part of people’s business goals for the year, to make sure the blueprint wasn’t a mission statement that hung on a wall, but a real, live organic thing that was happening. We went out to the field and developed a toolkit that people could use — almost a set of playing cards — that people could use to think about business problems.”

“The biggest barrier to innovation, in my point of view, is your frame of reference. What you know is your greatest asset, and it’s also your greatest detriment. Having a sense of being naive about something and knowing nothing is usually where some of the greatest innovations come, as opposed to incremental change.”

Anonymous: What are you trying to measure as the outcome of the innovation blueprint, and all this rapid prototyping?

“We want to make sure that guest scores are improving on quality of the hotel room, enhancing the guest’s stay. When we roll out something like, we’re going to look at unique visitors, repeat visitors, time on the site. But also, how much of that translates into real bookings and people thinking differently about their meetings. We have been able to create a better guest room at a lower price point for our owners. We measure product adoption — we are the first hotel company to roll out mobile check-in and check-out. We’re about to launch another 3,000 hotels in December. Adoption is huge, share of wallet is huge, and are we delivering a better experience for our customers than we were a year before?”