Lessons from Marriott on Rapid Prototyping, Co-Creation

By Scott Cohen |  April 28, 2014

InnoLead caught up with Marriott International’s Global Brand Officer Brian King to find out how the Maryland-based hospitality giant is using rapid prototyping and an innovation team known as ISI to design the future of the vacation (or the business trip.) King also talked metrics, and shared some photos of the three-dimensional prototypes Marriott builds to get feedback from various constituencies, and videos that describe how the company practices customer co-creation.

One of the ways Marriott quickly builds prototypes is in its “Underground” innovation lab. According to King, the lab “shortens the time needed to conceptualize, design and build, and lowers costs as we get more comfortable with new design technologies and low-fidelity prototypes. It also helps speed innovation by inviting in owners and guests to participate early, and at every stage of the development process.”

Highlights from our convo are below.

Q. Brian, let’s start with the organization. Does Marriott have a centralized innovation function, or is innovation embedded in the businesses?

A. Core to Marriott’s DNA is the idea that “Success is Never Final.” This core belief keeps us grounded in always finding ways to improve across our organization. So, while we believe innovation is everywhere and we expect each department to always innovate, we do have a centralized practice.

This innovation function, actually a team, is called ISI, or “Insight, Strategy + Innovation.” Their focus is enterprise and brand-driven innovation with a bias toward longer-term, disruptive innovation opportunities.

Other disciplines share the innovation charge but focus on the more incremental, nearer-term innovation necessary to keep our brands and guest experiences fresh and relevant.

Q. Who’s on ISI, and how does it operate?

A. ISI was strategically designed to be a small team that is made up of members with very diverse backgrounds. Some of them come from the hotel business; others have no hotel experience at all. We look for folks who have “no fear,” and can think beyond their expertise.

The team is made up of visual designers, former top business consultants, retailers, and some associates with a fine arts background. Marriott is a company grounded in operating expertise, so we need this team to have skills that are not normally found in the DNA of our company when you come up from the ranks.

ISI operates in service to the brand organization in general. Everything that they are doing should be about bringing new consumer products or services to the market that will drive shareholder value. Since most of our big change projects need department R&D resources at our home office (i.e. IT, Marketing, Food & Beverage), the team is based at our headquarters in Bethesda [Maryland].

Q. There are so many different components to your business — food & beverage, meetings, room design, billing. How do you prioritize innovation?

A. Well, innovation comes into play, as both a process and mindset, across every project under development. It’s not optional, but foundational.

We specifically designed the ISI team to explore game-changing innovation opportunities. We also consistently look at external or macro trends and what consumers are experiencing — this helps guide how we prioritize and focus our efforts as well. At the end of the day, it comes down to core consumer insights and unmet needs that have the potential to drive shareholder value. That is our “true north” to prioritize the work of the company.

Q. With about 4,000 hotels, I’m assuming much of the innovation bubbles up from the field. How do you learn about potential innovations from a manager in, say, Des Moines, or Tuscany?

A. We have a digital platform called “JAM” that allows us to connect virtually and surface ideas and concepts, sharing them across projects, disciplines, brands and continents. We also regularly mine our company for innovative thoughts through virtual town halls and project specific challenges, providing regular forums for ideas to be introduced and shared.

Q. And how do you scale those innovations? I mean, how do you know when to test and iterate vs. go big?

A. We create proof-of-concepts of our ideas and co-create with operators, owners or guests until we have something viable. Their feedback guides whether we kill an idea, continue to POC, move to pilot, or scale and deploy. It must pass various “stage gates,” from a great idea to consumer acceptance, and operations and technical viability, before it is scale up for full deployment. If you don’t pass one of the stage gates, you go back rework or kill it.

Q. Marriott has gotten great at rapid prototyping. Developing “sample rooms” used to take you years…now you do it in weeks. What changed?

A. The Underground, our innovation lab, shortens the time needed to conceptualize, design and build, and lowers costs as we get more comfortable with new design technologies and low-fidelity prototypes. It also helps speed innovation by inviting in owners and guests to participate early, and at every stage of the development process. (Get a glimpse of The Underground in the video below.)

Changes can be made in real-time on site for lightning-fast innovative outcomes. In simple terms, we went from hard construction to using foam core to build things quickly. We could rip it down, change it, and redesign it. Let people touch the experience we were trying to create vs. just showing some renderings. When you have a three dimensional product, you must work in a three-dimensional manner.

Q. Can you give us an example of an innovation that came out of The Underground, or another breakthrough or change that ISI has implemented?

A. Right now we are working feverishly to prepare for the first AC Hotel that will open this fall in New Orleans [AC Hotels is a joint venture between Marriott and Spanish hotelier Antonio Catalan].

Since this is new brand to the U.S., we had to adapt it from its Spanish roots for a North American consumer. The food and beverage menu, staffing, and delivery models needed be created quickly. We tested the “AC Kitchen” concept by building the elements to scale in our innovation center, then had owners come in and give us their feedback and ideas.

This three-dimensional buildout in low-fidelity materials was critical to getting real time feedback from the folks that will actually build the hotels. You could never get this kind of robust feedback with traditional approaches. (Photos of the buildout are below.)

Q. What lessons could you impart to our readers about that rapid prototyping methodology?

A. Avoid getting over-invested in early prototypes and POCs — and I’m talking about both financially and emotionally over-invested — because you need to iterate in the hospitality industry with so many complex stakeholders. That might not be different your readers’ industries. So they need to get comfortable with failure and learn. POCs and early prototypes are meant to be broken so we understand operational and design limitations and opportunities.

Q. You mentioned stage gates before. Do you have other processes or systems around innovation that you employ?

A. Yes. We handle idea collection and concept development through crowdsourcing platforms like For design solutioning and co-creation we go through platforms like Jovoto. We also employ live innovation jams and workshops where diverse participants collaborate to build concepts and overcome challenges. (See the video below for an overview of how Marriott uses TravelBrilliantly to support co-creation.)

 Q. How do you take into account opinions or behaviors of your customers? (i.e., co-creation)

A. We do a lot here, including ethnographic research conducted at the outset of a project, and a variety of conventional methods, from online bulletin boards and guest intercepts, to co-creation workshops where guests and end users actively shape product and service experiences. In the early phases of our work, it is so important to uncover the unmet needs of the consumer. We seek to find the things that they themselves cannot envision yet. The starting point for this kind of discovery is always consumer’s emotions and behaviors. When you really watch consumers you see all kinds of work abounds they do in life and don’t think about. How can you as a brand and innovation leader take these subtle workarounds and design a better product or service that has commercial appeal? We are always looking for that next golden opportunity.

Q. When it comes to innovation, we’ve found most companies struggle with metrics. Does Marriott measure innovation?A. There are many different ways to measure innovation. If you rely on the definition of innovation as the creation of “new value,” that new value can be measured in a few ways, including:

  • Strengthening long-term loyalty of our end users or customers
  • Deepening engagement of our associates with our company
  • Growth in long-term shareholder value for our investors / stock price appreciation
  • Growth in customer satisfaction and business value (REVPAR / profitability, etc.) for our owners
  • Ability to enter new markets and develop revenue channels
  • Strong, competitive brands with intense relevance and enduring appeal.