Marriott has become an industry pioneer in emerging blockchain-based technologies such as NFTs and virtual reality. This is what they learned.
In late 2021, as the grip of the pandemic began to loosen, Marriott International needed a spark – something that would rekindle the passion for travel among an audience that had largely lived in lockdown for the past two years.
It found such a spark in web3. The metaverse – a three-dimensional, interactive virtual ecosystem with a huge and growing number of specific experiences – is just one manifestation of web3, which, as the name suggests, is a term used to describe what is seen as the next evolutionary phase of the internet.
Non-exchangeable tokens, or NFTs — essentially non-repeatable stamps to verify ownership of a particular asset — are another manifestation of web3. They were also Marriott’s gateway to the world of blockchain-based technologies. In December 2021, the brand launched its first branded NFT drop — becoming the first hospitality brand to create its own NFTs, according to the company. Unveiled at Art Basel in Miami Beach, the drop featured three tokens, each designed by a separate artist. The artwork for the NFTs is inspired by the recently launched ‘Power of Travel’ campaign. The NFTs were awarded to three individuals and yielded 20,000 Marriott Bonvoy points, which Harper says is “pretty significant.”
In addition to inspiring these three winners to start traveling again, “NFTs were definitely a strong marketing tool,” said Nicolette Harper, vice president of global marketing and media at Marriott International. “During the pandemic, we had to start all over again. We had to identify where our current and potential future customers were spending their time: what were they doing? How were they connected? How did they want to socialize? And how does a brand like Marriott fit into that? Through all that data in the study, we really found that the metaverse… was really where they were spending their time, whether it was playing games, watching games, going to concerts… This whole social component that they were missing during the pandemic, they got their solution, if you will, in a very different way, through metaverse experiences. And so we knew we had to be there.”
Marriott’s AR and VR Experiences
In July, the brand began experimenting with augmented reality (AR) – a technology that uses devices such as smartphones or tablets to place elements of virtual reality (VR) on the physical world. The AR experience was launched for Moxy Hotels – a Marriott-owned brand that markets itself as “stylish and playful” targeting younger travelers – in the Asia-Pacific (APAC) market and was intended to “breaking the rules on an unconventional hotel stay,” says Harper.
The experience allows guests to create and dress up virtual avatars, for example; it was also launched in conjunction with a major regional gaming competition. “It was really the beauty of combining real life experiences, AR avatars, the social component – which you need to really be classed as metavers – and eSports, which I don’t think many hotels have gotten in.”
Marriott is also working on VR. It recently built a digital twin of one of its hybrid hotel and conference venues in Madrid; visitors to the virtual space can explore and “really get a sense of space,” Harper says. “I actually had a few business meetings in the metaverse of that hotel… It was so incredibly cool how realistic everything was. We could rearrange the layouts of the meeting rooms and create completely different experiences. It was probably one of the coolest things I’ve done metavers this summer.”
‘Reinforce versus replace’
The basic business model of the hotel industry obviously requires personal experience; it can be entertaining to explore a virtual hotel as an avatar, but ultimately hotels need guests to actually visit their IRL locations and stay in real rooms.
An informative aspect of Marriott’s web3 businesses in recent months has been the brand’s methods of using new technologies to complement and support its existing – and fundamentally immutable – core business model. “While we believe that web3 is definitely the place we want to be, and we certainly think it will bring a lot of new and exciting virtual opportunities, it’s really about using that space to enhance our current offerings, and really amplify them versus replaced in real-life travel,” says Harper. “You can’t fly and defy gravity in real life, but you can in the metaverse. So you can have this extra layer of experience to improve the things that really make us the best in the business… We want to inspire you in new ways and connect with you in new ways, but ultimately we’d like you to stop at by and stay with us in real life.”
While declining to provide specifics, Harper said Marriott will “look at other AR and VR experiences,” and also plans to expand its NFT strategy. “I’m sure there are more to come,” she says.