Fairly or not, Marriott and design leadership have rarely been used in the same sentence. Apparently that's about to change as the 2,600-property lodging behemoth launches a systemwide strategy that will push cutting-edge design and product innovation to the same level of importance as the company's legendary ethic of service and consistency.

At last month's full-service general managers meeting in Orlando, Marriott International introduced the Experience Mission, an umbrella initiative that aims to upgrade every guest touchpoint in the system — from guestroom design and technology to food and beverage and retail operations. The goal of the mission is to engage the hearts as well as the heads of current and potential guests, or, as President and COO Bill Show said, “Our guests like us, but we want them to love us.”

Among the product innovations rolled out at the conference were radical new guestroom designs for both the Marriott and Renaissance brands, a new, 150-bottle wine portfolio and a number of technology initiatives: self-service check-in and -out concepts, either through lobby kiosks or guests' hand-held devices; and upgraded TV hardware and contents offerings.

Both new guestroom designs combine high style, upgraded bedding, brand-name bath amenities and new high-tech entertainment systems. The company will implement the designs in new-construction and renovated rooms, a process that may take five years or longer to complete throughout the system.

System expansion remains a priority for the company. In a generally low-growth lodging environment, Marriott has 55,000 rooms in the development pipeline, with 40 percent of them in full-service properties. In 2005, the company will open between 25,000 and 30,000 rooms across all brands.

While product innovation has emerged as a priority for Marriott, the company won't turn its back on the deep-rooted company culture of service. In his remarks to the GMs, pajama-clad (reminding everyone of the company's new bedding program) Chairman and CEO Bill Marriott cited a number of instances of Marriott employees who demonstrated exceptional acts of guest service.

His son, Executive Vice President-Lodging John Marriott III, summed up the philosophy: “Product is important to us, but taking care of our guests is what will make the difference in turning them from like to love. To make that happen, we need to get the right information to the right associates at the right touchpoint.”

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