Q&A: Osama Hirzalla, VP brand marketing & ecommerce Europe, Marriott Hotels

As the hotel group looks to convert its Marriott London Sevens rugby tournament sponsorship into bookings, European vice president of brand marketing and ecommerce Osama Hirzalla explains how the company is readying for the next generation of travellers.

Marriot

Marketing Week (MW): Marriott Hotels & Resorts (the brand) has entered a four year deal to sponsor the London Sevens, part of the HSBC Sevens World Series, and to be an Official Partner of English Rugby. Why?

Osama Hirzalla (OH): We have had a long and excellent relationship with the RFU with our London Marriott Twickenham property in the stadium. An opportunity presented itself to look at a multi-year partnership with a sport that targets the same customer profile as our guests that stay at Marriott Worldwide. We saw huge synergies when we looked at our customers and the blue chip companies that follow the game.

MW: How will you utilise the sponsorship?

OH: We have invited more than 1,000 of our Marriott Reward members to the games this weekend (May 13/13) as a thank you. They will be our guest for the day and it’s a way of giving something back. We will use the partnership to drive our loyalty programme and that includes using social media. We built a Facebook page {for the tournament} and attracted 3,000 fans in two weeks. We are doing things like creating an app where you can kick a rugby ball and win a hotel stay.

Inside the stadium over the weekend we will be giving away a total of 10 weekend stays for the best-dressed fan, best-dressed couple etc. Also, every time England score a try, then fans can enter a competition via Facebook and win a weekend in the UK.

MW: What’s the value of social media for Marriott?

OH: If you do it right you are able to get your message across quite strongly. For instance we have 11 hotels with golf courses and we partnered with golf retailer Ping for a promotion. Via Twitter we asked people to follow us and answer some questions to get the chance to play with celebrities and we had 1,000 followers under an hour. It gave a high level of engagement with people saying ‘this is cool”.

MW: What are the brand values of Marriott?

OH: The key brand proposition is about inspiring people to perform at their best when they stay at our hotels. It’s the type of environment where you can be productive and successful. We care about key touchpoints in the guest’s stay – when they check in and when they check out, and when they are working in their room.

It is an experienced brand in understanding the true sense of hospitality and we like to say we have been preparing for your arrival for 85 years. We understand hospitality and that outweighs the fact we are an older brand.

MW: Is the brand and the hotel offering changing to reflect a changing customer base?

OH: We are in a transitional phase and know the customer is changing. Today we are looking at understanding that customer and how they interact with our brands. From a marketing perspective what type of devices do they use? They are using mobiles and tablets more and what they have at home from a technology perspective is state of the art.

The younger traveller is our biggest opportunity – they are fresh out of school and college and in to jobs that immediately require them to travel. Their requirements are different, for example they travel with maybe two laptops, an iPad, and iPhone. If they want to sit in the lobby they want everything to be connected and we have to be sensitive to understanding their travel needs.

We need to understand their mindset, what drives them and their preferences will be critical to moving the brand forward on all fronts from product innovation to service enhancement.

MW: How is the current economic situation reflected in Marriott’s levels of business?

OH: It’s a mixture. London will perform extremely well with the Jubilee and the Olympics, and then we have got a presence in major cities like Manchester, Liverpool and Edinburgh and they continue to perform well. It’s in the tertiary secondary locations where there is a struggle and where hotels are trying to win more of the leisure segment. During a recession people tend to travel locally, so to attract business we are offering added value packages and promotional offers, such as extended stay deals.

MW: Marriott has several hotel brands to compete in different segments. What is the group’s offering for the budget end of the market?

OH: We see an opportunity to develop our value offering in the UK. We already have a hotel at Gatwick in the Courtyard Marriott format and we’re working on a prototype Courtyard product developed for Europe – with one scheduled to open in Aberdeen in 2013.

MW: What is special about the Marriott Rewards loyalty scheme?

OH: From a redemption point of view it’s easy to get your first reward, to earn one night’s stay you only need 1500 points. We have no ‘blackout’ periods in the calendar and a critical unique selling point is that our Platinum level members are guaranteed a room if they book as little s 48 hours in advance. We have 37 million members globally. We stay in touch through a variety of channels – in some parts of the world they like a printed newsletter and we use email, and there’s the dedicated Rewards website.

MW: How do you track customer satisfaction?

OH: We have our own guest satisfaction survey and once guests leave the hotel we send them an email to fill in. We monitor positive and negative sentiment on social media and sites that allow customer reviews, like Tripadvisor. We do have response guidelines for our hotel managers and encourage them and local leadership teams to engage in conversations.

Marriott International

Marriott is the third-largest hotel group in the world with over 3,700 hotels across brands including; JW Marriott, Renaissance Hotels, Marriott Hotels & Resorts and Courtyard by Marriott.
The company’s first quarter net income for 2012 rose 18% year on year to $104 million (£64.4m). Revenue per available room rose 6.8%.

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