Marriott Is Launching a Startups Program to Improve Travel Experiences

The hotel chain is working with Accenture and incubator 1776

The hospitality brand is getting set to hear pitches from entrepreneurs. Courtesy of Marriott
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Marriott has been on the bleeding edge of marketing technology for a while now. For instance, a few years ago, it was one of the first brands to offer customers experiences via Oculus Rift VR headsets.

With that kind of innovation in mind, the hotelier will kick off a startups program on Sept. 12 in partnership with Accenture Interactive and Washington, D.C.-based incubator 1776. Called Travel Experience Incubator, Marriott received 165 applications from entrepreneurs in recent weeks, and six of them will be revealed next month as participants. The 12-week program ends on Dec. 11 with a demo day, when the startups pitch their products to the judges. The winner or winners will be revealed at the end of that day. Could one of them get acquired by Marriott?

“While we’re open to this possibility, it’s not the primary goal. In the near term, we’re looking for opportunities to bring these innovations into our hotels as proof-of-concepts,” explained Stephanie Linnartz, global chief commercial officer at Marriott International. “We see this incubator as a mutually beneficial experience—we’re providing guidance and mentorship on our customer insights, business model and operations; in turn, we’re learning about the agility and entrepreneurship that is core to every startup.”

Here’s the criteria that was used to pick the six participants:

    • Does the startup have a business or idea that either has the potential or is in the midst of a pivot that can positively impact the travel experience for consumers?
    • Is the intellectual property of the startup defendable and differentiated in a way that can’t easily be copied before they build momentum?
    • Is there a solid founding team that is extremely passionate and educated about the space and have dynamic expertise required to build fast and pivot as needed?
    • Lastly, is the startup in that sweet spot where they are stable enough that they’ve received early funding, but not so mature that they can’t benefit from the curriculum developed by Accenture Interactive, Marriott and 1776?

“[The participants] will receive a dedicated curriculum, drawing on the hospitality expertise of Marriott leadership, Accenture experts and the 1776 global mentor network,” said Bob Ghafouri, head of digital transformation at Accenture Interactive. “Through the program, startups will develop, validate and test hospitality solutions using data and technology, with the goal to increase customer connectedness and enhance guest experiences.”

Is this all about Marriott’s digital transformation?  Ghafouri answered: “It’s all about experience transformation, that is by definition digitally led.”

He also remarked that 1776 was chosen to facilitate the program—which is designed to keep Marriott ahead of the competition—because of its global network of innovators. Ghafouri said that “we are able to bring together diverse set of ideas and founders all grounded in a central purpose. The ultimate goal of the Travel Experience Incubator is to have one or more collaborations launched and implemented in the market.”

Meanwhile, the Accenture-1776 development builds on not only Marriott’s aforementioned VR play but also on a recent history of pop-up hotel labs and iterating features with real-time consumer feedback. At the same time, as Linnartz pointed out, it’s the brand’s “first global challenge that we have issued focused on our guests’ overall travel experience.”

@Chris_Heine Christopher Heine is a New York-based editor and writer.