Early on, the e-commerce and technology teams at Marriott International recognized the imperative to collaborate, and it’s enabled them to reinvent marriott.com into an award-winning platform. According to a recent USA Today-commissioned study, Marriott International beat out 47 hotel booking sites to be the fastest and best performing lodging website in the study. By winning the top spot, in August 2011 marriott.com earned the Gold Award for “Best of the Web” from USA Today’s partner in the study, technology performance company Compuware. Extensive testing found that marriott.com loads quicker than two seconds, while other hotel websites could take up to eight seconds. Compuware used its “Gomez Platform” (an industry standard) to evaluate the sites and included such metrics as speed, navigation and room details.
“We design our websites to please our guests, who are looking for speed, rich content, features and ease of use,” says Shafiq Khan, SVP of e-commerce, Marriott International. “Delivering on all of these simultaneously is a difficult balancing act, made even more challenging by the fact that we have practically re-invented our website in the last 18 months.”
In an exclusive Q&A, Hospitality Technology spoke to Khan, who resides on the marketing side of the house, and fellow Marriott executive Mike Keppler about how collaboration has enabled e-commerce success. Keppler, Marriott International's SVP of global sales, marketing and revenue management systems, is on the technology side. Hearing them speak together, the collaboration is evident — at times, it was hard to tell the marketer from the technologist.
HT: Congratulations on being named “Best of the Web” for marriott.com. What are some of the biggest wins that come out of this type of collaboration?
SK: When we look at customer sat scores, we have a 94 percent satisfaction rating for our website. All of our channels get rated really high, but .com has the highest. We have a website that, in performance studies, is generally rated higher than others. Forrester, in their [Travel Website Functionality Benchmark] study, for example, flunked all the hotel companies, but we had higher marks even in flunking [laughs]. We are among the top ten retail sites in the world, and we’re not a technology company. We’re a very traditional high-touch company. For us to have achieved the success that we have in a high-touch environment, and to have made it to the top 10 websites of the world, is the biggest win.
MK: People come to our website 20 times more than they call our call centers, and so we’ve got to be really fast. If a website takes you more than two or three seconds to load a page, you’re more apt today to walk away from it. It’s all about speed and convenience, and we’ve always wanted to be, from the start, the fastest and the best.
HT: How does the executive structure at Marriott help to foster cross-departmental collaboration, particularly for the technology team?
MK: In some companies you’ll find the CIO aligned with finance or as a staff position, but in Marriot’s case our global CIO Bruce Hoffmeister [who succeeded Carl Wilson in the role on April 1, 2011] reports directly to the head of global lodging services. We’re aligned in IT directly with the core business of Marriott.
SK: And we’re not just talking about IT and marketing collaboration here. When we talk about global lodging services of an organization, a very large part of that is operations. IT teams up with operations as well as marketing in a very significant way. Mike and I have been teamed up for a little over a decade and we are, for all practical purposes, one team with one set of objectives and goals. The responsibilities are different but the goals are the same.
HT: In daily operations, how does this collaboration take place? Where does the rubber meet the road, so to speak, for bringing these departments together?
MK: That’s a great question. When Shafiq came to Marriott over a decade ago, one of the things he brought to our executives was that e-commerce was going to become every part of our business and Marriott would have to be an e-business to be successful. It’s not about creating a really powerful marriott.com or doing distribution in new and different ways, but that e- in itself would become a part of everything.
SK: We recognized fairly early on, especially on the Internet side, that we were in a mode where life was changing far too rapidly for us not to be completely partnered. We created an e-business council that was chaired by my boss [then, Bruce Wolff, Marriott’s former EVP of sales and marketing programs] and at the time our CIO Carl Wilson. It had the president of company and most of the president’s direct reports as members, with the chairing being done by business-IT collaboration; today I share that with my IT counterparts and colleagues.
The second level of partnership was in weekly staff meetings with Mike, myself and key members of our teams. In the planning process we are together, and in execution and development, especially on the Internet side, it’s completely a joint effort. The front end is my guys, the back end is Mike’s folks and they absolutely have to be talking to each other in real time.
We don’t think of organizations and organizational boundaries at Marriott. We know they exist, and in fact when I came to the company 12 years ago, I was asked if I wanted my own IT people that would report to me. I said, “No — we are going into so many legacy systems, I want to have access to all of IT and I want all of IT to be a partner.” That’s been a very good thing for us because I know, at other companies, e-commerce has had separate IT staff that becomes a sub-set and needs connections into the main IT staff.
HT: Are there any differences between how marketing (as the creative team) & IT (as the logic team) operate that you’ve had to overcome?
MK: There are things that both teams are very good at, because that’s their skill sets. Setting the culture right is important to give those teams permission, and give them the support they need to work together. There’s a tremendous amount of back and forth that goes on to challenge costs and challenge if a certain type of feature is the best way to do something. But I think we’ve learned to live together really well, and get people excited about how this type of innovation changes and benefits the business, rather than being worried about this widget or that bolt.
SK: Because of the nature of the business we’re in now, with more and more of it on the web, when you talk about marketing being the “creative team” and IT being the “logic team,” that doesn’t exist for us, which is very significant. Over the years, our marketing teams have become much more tech-savvy business folks. Mike’s team has become much more business-savvy tech people. When you have that combination, that issue diminishes. There’s enough mutual respect…such that if the IT team feels strongly about something they might persuade the business side to change course. It happens all the time, in fact. But the gap is not as wide to start with as it has been on the traditional side of the house.
HT: Is there something we can do in e-commerce to future-proof the business, similar to how IP networks help hotels prep for innovation within the four walls?
MK: In a way, you’re alluding to the cloud. It’s been our strategy to move many of our most powerful platforms to our private cloud. Marriot.com, revenue management, marketing — these are above-property platforms that we can deliver anywhere in our infrastructure in the world, and it’s what allows us to make customer profiles available wherever we need them at any touch point. We’ve had a cloud strategy for some time.
A lot of the vendors in the hospitality industry have hotel systems that haven’t adopted that strategy as quickly as we’d like them to. One of the things we’re working on is moving those hotel specific systems to the cloud as well. We have experimented with above-property PMS in Europe and they are working really well for us. What we think future-proofs the network is brining capabilities for our guests above-property so that as hotels enter the system, they can plug into the Marriott kit and become active right away.
HT: As we look at the speed of innovation, especially online, can we possibly keep pace with the consumer?
SK: I don’t think it’s a choice; we have to. You’ve got to be connected enough to know what is material and what is not. In this business, you have a lot of false starts. Keeping pace, exactly, is probably impossible and we don’t even pretend that we do. But on the other hand, if we’re watchful enough, we can jump on something that’s successful fairly quickly.
Looking at mobile, for example, it’s been around for a while. The airlines were pretty good at testing out check-ins with mobile before smart phones, but it never really took off. We watched it and at that point we didn’t think it was big enough to be worth our investment. But as soon as smartphones came about, the game changed completely. Now the business case and the economics have changed and it’s become very important for us. You’ve got to keep pace, and be watching and waiting just long enough, and in the mean time learning, so that you can make the right decision. You’ve got finite resources, so the worst thing you can do is plunge head long into something that may be a ghost. That’s been our strategy and as a mature company it’s served us well, and we plan to continue to do that.