How a global hospitality brand is making it personal

Marriott bounces back from a global travel lull with a renewed focus on leisure travel and home rentals. But it took the right partner to help it succeed.

When travel began picking up again several months into the pandemic, the hospitality industry breathed a collective sigh of relief. Not every brand in the industry went back to business as usual, though. Marriott, for one, saw an opportunity. Leisure travel was on the rise, and many customers who once traveled mostly for work were now taking longer trips that combined business with leisure. To meet the shifting needs of its customers, the company had to embrace new tactics.

“Coming out of the pandemic, we had formulated a lot of strong ideas about how to capture the increasingly fluid nature of business and leisure travel,” says Chris Norton, senior vice president, marketing channels and optimization, at Marriott. “But we needed a partner with a mix of the right assets, tools, customer intelligence, and boots on the ground to help us bring our ideas to life.”

That partner was Epsilon, a global advertising and marketing technology company that has been helping Marriott manage its outbound marketing communications for more than a decade. “We feel like we are an extension of the Marriott team,” says Lisa Henderson, managing director of client services at Epsilon. “It’s very much a partnership.”

Finding a consistent voice

In the early days of the collaboration, which began in 2008, Epsilon’s sole focus was on providing Marriott with an email technology solution and helping with the company’s messaging strategy. “It was an important relationship, but somewhat tactical,” Henderson says. “Today, we are working together in a much more collaborative way to support the entire customer experience.”

The evolution of the companies’ relationship coincided with a shift in the ways travelers were interacting with hospitality companies. The rise of social media and personal devices created a need for a coordinated omnichannel marketing strategy that enabled communication with guests at the right time, on the right channel, with a message that was relevant to their demonstrated preferences.

“At first, we didn’t always successfully coordinate what we were saying in one channel with what we were saying in another, and that created a somewhat fragmented customer experience,” Norton says. “Now, we’re speaking with a consistent voice across our channels.”

Epsilon’s PeopleCloud solution plays a significant role in Marriott’s omnichannel strategy. The AI-powered technology allows clients to better recognize their customers when they interact at different touchpoints and channels. This allows clients to extend their knowledge of their customers by better using what they know about them while maintaining privacy throughout a wide set of interactions. For Marriott, that means if a guest has shared certain preferences—for example, the times when they prefer to be contacted, or information about specific interests—they’ll now receive communications reflecting those preferences, no matter which channel they’re using.

Marriott is now able to stay in touch with guests throughout their customer journeys. If a guest has looked at rooms without booking, they might receive an email message gently rekindling their interest. Meanwhile, guests who have completed a booking might receive information about restaurants and activities near where they’ll be staying.

Getting the message out

In 2019, Marriott launched Homes & Villas by Marriott Bonvoy, a platform offering short-term premium home rentals to members of the Marriott Bonvoy loyalty program. As travelers started venturing back out into the world after the initial pandemic pause, Epsilon focused on helping Marriott spread awareness about Homes & Villas to Marriott Bonvoy members, scaling the program from a beta offering to a fully supported product in the Marriott Bonvoy portfolio. Many members were interested in exploring home rentals, and Marriott was able to provide them with the unique experiences they were seeking.

Through the Homes & Villas offering, Marriott Bonvoy members have access to more than 80,000 curated, premium home-rental properties that offer a safe and clean environment. At these homes, guests can combine business with pleasure and even bring their families, while still benefitting from earning Marriott points for their bookings.

The messaging worked. In the first 18 months of the campaign, about 90% of Home and Villas guests were Marriott Bonvoy members. Of those, nearly a quarter had not stayed in a Marriott hotel in more than a year, and a majority booked other homes or hotel rooms shortly after their first Homes & Villa experience. With the help of Epsilon, Marriott increased customer engagement threefold and saw a similar increase in actual home bookings compared to the previous year. The marketing efforts around Homes & Villas, particularly paid search, also drove significant “halo” benefits to its hotel portfolio in the form of increased core hotel bookings.

“As a marketing team, it often feels as if you’re alone in the wilderness,” Norton says. “And it can feel overwhelming and daunting. Epsilon has been a great collaborator, helping guide us on the best way to go.”

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