The pandemic proved the most challenging year in Marriott’s 93-year history, as it ended 2020 with an annual loss of $267 million—the second largest after its 2009 annual loss of $346 million. While hotels shuttered and countries closed their borders, travel wanderlust grew stronger as consumers longed to get away both locally and abroad. Due to pent-up demand for travel, Marriott is hopeful that rising vaccines will boost a rebound. We spoke with Brian Povinelli, senior vice president, brand, loyalty, and portfolio marketing, Marriott International, to learn more about the company’s new global “Power of Travel” campaign, how consumer behavior changes are affecting its media placements, how current occupancy figures are shaping up and more.

If there’s been one key pandemic learning so far for Marriott’s portfolio of brands, what would you say it is?

There’s been cultural learning [about] just how critical travel is to our personal well-being, to a greater sense of community and toward encouraging more openness and acceptance on a global scale. We didn’t realize that and took it for granted in normal times. But after being stuck in your own home for a year, I think people realize the power of what we deliver as a hospitality company that enables some of that cultural well-being and healing.

From a marketing lens, we asked whether we need to be much more nimble in our marketing strategies, in the way we approach putting our message in the market. During the pandemic, we had to pivot [messaging] almost weekly… and have an ear to the ground on customer sentiment. Sometimes the message was dictated by government regulations and opening and closing markets. Most brands would define that strategy as nimble.

We’ve pivoted to create a nimble strategy that will continue even past recovery of the pandemic, especially because customer sentiment is changing on a much more frequent basis today than it did even a couple of years ago.

Are there any other consumer behaviors that Marriott has observed over this past year that you will incorporate into your strategy moving forward?

Staycation for sure. One, I think going a little further afield would be the explosion of the road trip. It was partly driven by the fact that airlines were out and we saw a huge movement to road trips and people flocking to more remote, outdoor destinations like the national parks. 

Then this whole concept of “work from anywhere,” a new phenomenon that we’ve seen that continues strongly today—people realizing that if they didn’t have to go into the office and could do everything through a Zoom-type platform, that they could relocate for a while. And especially with the younger generation who are less tied down with families and other commitments. A huge amount of people were using our hotels and homes and buildings as a place to work remotely for weeks or months on end.

How has marketing budget allocation changed based on these behaviors?

Yes, I would say we have. With the whole underpinning of being nimble, we are still utilizing occasion-based viewing on linear TV. So take something like the NBA Finals or the Olympics, we will utilize those platforms, but we’ve also shifted significant amounts of our investment into the streaming platforms. Not only because that’s where viewers have shifted, but also because there’s a lot more real-time data that we can get back from those platforms. We’re testing some shoppable ad units where people can literally click on the ad unit on the streaming platform, view more information and book a trip from that. So I think you’ll see us leaning more into connected TV OTT and the broader digital platforms, as well as experimentation in the social platforms.

We did our first foray into Tiktok and we’ve done a unique partnership with Pinterest. The amount of travel and wanderlust that’s gone on with consumers over the last 18 months has been taken to a new level because they were deprived of that opportunity to get out and see different parts of the country or the world, with the effect that they’ve been much more engaged with travel content on social platforms.

So we’ve been leaning into that and trying to put out inspiration to then lead to user-generated content and help amplify our message. It’s been quite successful over the last couple of months. And in this campaign launch specifically, we’ve seen that user engagement because people are so hungry for inspirational travel stories and images.

Marriott Bonvoy’s recent Power of Travel campaign includes many firsts for Marriott. Walk us through the brand’s thinking behind the partnerships with influencers and the shoppable Hulu ads.

We’ve tried to find influencers who grounded their storytelling on the idea of wanderlust. Some have a large following and some have more niche followings, but they’ve all got a very engaged audience in this one topic. This isn’t the first time we have worked with influencers, we’ve been doing that for years. But I would say it is definitely the first time that we’ve used Tiktok as a platform. We thought it would be more grassroots and authentic than us creating content and just pushing it out as more of an advertisement on that platform.

The shoppable ads are definitely a first. The goal came from the insight that we are seeing our booking window over the last 18 months shrink significantly. We’re seeing a lot of travelers literally booking and staying within 24 hours, almost like it’s become much more of an impulse purchase. And I think it relates to vaccine roll-outs and people hitting that point where they’ve had their two weeks of post-vaccine quarantine and then say to themselves, “That’s it, I’m going to leave tomorrow and go somewhere.” That short booking window has led us to look at some of our media placements a little bit more as an impulse buy.

So think about the grocery store. You go down the checkout aisle and there are all of the candy bars and the gum and the magazines that you just grab even though you didn’t plan to buy that when you went in. We thought we could have a similar dynamic here where if people were watching a show on a streaming platform and then they were introduced to our marketing, engaged with that ad, and go book that trip, whether it’s for the next day or the next week or the next month. And where before, people might spend three or four weeks and look at 20 or more websites in order to make the decision of where to go and stay, now we’re seemingly seeing people willing to do it on a whim and with a lot less research than they had prior.

Marriott’s recent social listening research saw a year-over-year uptick in searches for one-of-a-kind stays. What role has social listening played in Marriott’s strategy in the past year and is there one tool in particular that has proved especially useful?

A few years ago we implemented a new capability within Marriott called “M Live.” It’s a group that focuses on social listening through the worlds of data and creative. They put out polls, scrape social sites, and collect data from other third parties that we then turn into segments, use for specific targeting and to identify emerging trends. 

That is where we’ve focused over the last 12 months as things have changed so dramatically week in and week out. We’ve leveraged those analytics and that social listening group within our organization to help guide what markets we should be going after. For example, we saw in the US, markets like Arizona and Florida open much more quickly than those in the Northeast or other parts of the country. So we were able to validate that there was that interest through these tools and the data, and then we were able to craft messaging specific to those markets or those trip types.

How is Marriott responding to the finding that people are looking to experience more one-of-a-kind stays?

We’re looking at that in two ways. One is working with properties to create those unique experiences. Luckily, we were doing that pre-pandemic. So it was ramping up the availability of those types of experiences and doing a little bit more of that. You will likely find that in a luxury or upscale hotel and with brands like Westin or the Ritz-Carlton. And even our select-service hotels that are in more rural destinations and those by national parks have put together more experiential-type packages. We even formed a partnership with the national parks where customers could use their Marriott Bonvoy points to buy annual park passes. So that was one way. 

Then the other is a real continued focus on growing our collection of brands. We have about 450 independent hotel offerings that a lot of people weren’t aware of. Those tend to be your smaller, more boutique, more experiential-type properties; again, a destination that connects you much more closely to the local destination and cultural experience. We opened 70 new properties in those collections this year. So continuing to fuel that pipeline and look for conversion opportunities and new growth opportunities in that segment.

What are some of the updates Marriott has made to quell travelers’ concerns around cleanliness and face-to-face contact?

We sprinted very quickly to elevate some of the contactless opportunities. Mobile Key is one that we really accelerated and are now at over 4,000 properties, and that allows you to check-in via your phone, skipping the front desk entirely. 

We’re also piloting a check-in kiosk in several of our hotels in New York City. Think about how airlines have had travelers check in at the airport kiosks. It never found its way into the hospitality space, but we felt that in this environment that was another option where people could engage with a kiosk and minimize the contact they might have while checking in or out.

So those are some of the new initiatives that we either accelerated or are piloting during this period. And then the cleaning protocols—we already had very stringent cleaning protocols in place pre-COVID. We just elevated those and made them more public-facing with hand sanitizer in all the public spaces. 

The customer response has been great. Mask mandates are the one thing that has been a bit tricky for many businesses and industries to navigate because they became political, but we just stayed within the CDC guidance and followed their directives.

Beyond cleanliness, how has Marriott’s portfolio of brands responded to other consumer trends spurred by the pandemic? For example, I read that some Westin properties introduced recovery stations in response to people’s heightened focus on self care. 

It gets back to a little bit of the social listening and data that we were looking at during this period. Wellness was one trend that was significant. Wellness was compromised all of a sudden with the pandemic so it became a much bigger focus and people were stepping back and re-evaluating their lifestyles in a lot of ways. So we asked how we can elevate our wellness experience given that we built our whole brand positioning around well-being for the last 10 years. This was a great opportunity to take that foundation and introduce a new initiative all-around recovery. 

So through the partnership with Hypervolt, we put up a new station built around recovery within the fitness centers. That’s one example of a “work anywhere with Marriott Bonvoy” strategy where we’ve created a specific package around that wellness dynamic. We rolled out different levels of packages. For example, we implemented day passes, which you couldn’t get prior. To do that, we re-engineered our booking portal to be able to accommodate that and also to accommodate extended check-in and check-out hours. Then there was a stay pass, which was an overnight stay that came with other amenities, snacks and meeting supplies if you needed them, for that “working from anywhere” environment. The last was the play pass, which was built around this blend of leisure and business where your family is at the pool while you might be working in the room.

According to the company’s Q1 earnings, in Marriott’s largest regions, the US and Canada, occupancy started the year at 33 percent in January and reached 49 percent by March. Do you have any current occupancy figures you can share?

I can see demand definitely varying by market, but we’re encouraged to see a strong rebound. US and Canada occupancy for May was at 55 percent, so definitely seeing continued momentum. I have a couple of other examples here—in Greece, bookings were up 6 percent versus the same two weeks in 2019. So they’re actually outpacing 2019 numbers. And then we’re also seeing special corporate demand, at about 50 percent of 2019 levels, which is a significant uptick from where we were a month ago. So we’re seeing positive momentum on both the leisure side, which is leading the recovery, but also on the corporate or B2B side.

The leisure market is poised for a rebound, but how does Marriott plan to acclimate to the drop in business travel?

We’ll have to see how it continues to play out. I would say we are optimistic that there will be a notable recovery in business. We are, like I said, seeing special corporate demand, and we’re seeing people start to get back to the office, and I think we’ll see a significant boost there. 

So it’s going to be about keeping a pulse on how this hybrid work model plays out. Despite not seeing the same amount of business travel that we’ve seen pre-pandemic, we think there could be a different dynamic happening where because of hybrid work models, people now have several days free where they could take a long weekend away. They could do Friday and Monday working remotely, and then take the weekend for leisure time. We’ll be keeping a real close eye on how consumer behavior evolves as we continue getting higher vaccination levels.

We’ll also have to see how the corporate workplace and these hybrid work models play out. But I think we will see a lot of people taking longer trips. Even over the holidays, there’s this dynamic shaping up where instead of taking a week off, if you have the flexibility to work remotely, you could be taking a month off.

Tell us more about Marriott’s recent partnership with Uber. 

Our partnership with Uber was great because we had been looking for ways to strengthen engagement with the rewards program. A big pivot we’ve made over the last year is positioning Marriott Bonvoy as a travel marketplace that has a loyalty program and offers 30 hotel brands, homes, villas, tours, activities and partnerships like with Uber.

The idea behind partnering with Uber was that traveling through a destination means you need a rideshare service to get to and from the airport or your hotel. They go hand-in-hand. And with what we’ve seen through the pandemic with the proliferation and success of things like Uber Eats, this partnership is just another opportunity to keep people engaged with our platform through earning and redeeming points, and, in some ways, to keep them engaged with us when they’re not in a hotel. So it’s all about bringing added value to the overall program and your interaction with Marriott. 

How is Marriot approaching the first-party data conversation and delivering personalized experiences to customers while protecting their information?

Like every company, we’re navigating all of the data privacy laws and remaining compliant with all of the rules that are out there. The nice thing for us is that with over 150 million members, we have a lot of first-party data. We obviously go through the right protocol to get the marketing message to the people who are engaged and have agreed to receive it.

The more reasons we can give people to engage with Marriott Bonvoy, not just for hotels, but for things like the partnership with Uber or tours and activities, or dining out options, the greater ability we have to grow from 150 to 200 million, 250 million members.

There are various ways that members can interact with us and varying degrees of information they opt to give. Some are more willing to share than others and will tell us directly what their preferences are, what they’re looking for. That helps us personalize the experience even more. Even if it’s just basic information like their name and the type of hotel they want to stay in, we can personalize their experience based on their history with us.

We’re also making efforts with the Marriott Bonvoy app. We launched a new update with a lot of new functionality, not only for contactless engagements but even for a road trip finder where you can see all of the hotels along your route and what they cost. So getting that type of engagement allows us to better personalize the experience and engage with people on that platform as well.

What’s one trend hotel marketers will need to embrace as they return to the next normal?

I’ll go back to build a little bit more on this idea of the importance of flexibility and nimbleness in your marketing strategy. I think that the trend that we’re seeing is that people’s behaviors and sentiments are shifting much more quickly than they have in the past. Social media plays a significant role in that because there’s so much access to information which can lead to quick shifts in sentiment or feelings about a topic or about a brand in particular. So there needs to be a focus on having your ear to that social sentiment through social listening and other data sources, and then having the ability to pivot your message and create many more versions of that message, and also doing a lot more A/B testing of what you put in market to see what’s resonating with people at any given time.