ChinaTravelNews, Ritesh Gupta – How to thrive as a global business in today’s digital era? Ongoing digital disruption (think of decentralized infrastructure) plus various Internet regulatory directives (think of data privacy) means organizations have to be agile to pre-empt the upcoming opportunity as well as be compliant to laws/ policies laid down by a government-controlled authority.
Such scenario is exemplified by how a global group like Marriott International responds to opportunities as well as challenges.
“The idea is to have an “open mind” and at the same time act responsibly, keeping trust of the consumer intact,” stated Shanghai-based Jason Zhang, Vice President, Digital Products and Platforms, APAC, Marriott International.
While talking about how a brand like Marriott is preparing for sweeping regulatory changes like doing away the concept of “walled gardens” in China, Zhang said it is always about looking at the bigger picture.
“Entities need to have an open mind…it won’t be possible to offer an experience alone in the customer journey. A brand would need to work with a technology partner or an ecosystem partner,” said Zhang.
So not only create your ecosystem, but also be ready with your API to work with any external partner to serve the customer.
Connecting the dots and reflecting on China, he said, “It is imperative for marketers and digital leaders to keep a tab on where are ecosystems in China headed.”
Irrespective of the Chinese government’s decision to break the "walled gardens" in the tech industry, which means that a 3rd party link would now open on any platform, the industry acknowledges the massive strength of established ecosystems like Tencent’s WeChat.
In fact, in case of established app like WeChat, which has over 1.2 billon users, Marriott is planning to create a seamless experience.
Other than content and inspiration-related objectives, Marriott is looking beyond “traditional rooms booking” approach generally associated with transactional sites. “WeChat is a superapp, has a strong social element and in lot of instances, it is also scenario-driven. WeChat min-apps or mini-programs are for completion of certain tasks, they don’t have to be end-to-end. In addition to room-booking capabilities, there are specific use cases encompassing online and offline enrolments, for instance, sharing a QR code for hotels for a specific member experience,” said Zhang.
“With the capabilities we have developed on WeChat, we can track the offline enrolment (interaction) as well. So, for example, a user wants to dine and earn points in a hotel’s restaurant. The utility we have developed would not only allow the user to easily enrol and start to earn points at the restaurant table, but also help the hotel track this offline enrolment towards its loyalty performance.
Another new initiative is related to mobile dining. Scanning a code for dining options isn’t new, but Marriott has integrated the same with back-end corporate-level infrastructure to ensure seamless customer experience, which is something novel for a hotel company.
“This feature is going to be rolled-out to most of the hotels in China by next year,” shared Zhang.
Apps or ecosystems are evolving
Observing what has changed as far as accessing content, communicating and shopping in China is concerned, Zhang said the focus has been on the “social” aspect and the proliferation of video streaming, live streaming features among various platforms, led by new players and now extending to the likes of WeChat, Fliggy or its parent company, Alibaba etc.
Also, the likes of Douyin are now looking at commerce as well. “They are setting up their commerce foundation, including payment mechanism,” said Zhang, referring to social and content-oriented apps. And trip planning aspects are being added to the transactional channels.
Another interesting aspect has been the growth of apps like Douyin coming from lower-tier cities in China. So the blend of growing user base and these new players’ foray into commerce, as also pointed out by Zhang, makes the situation in e-commerce more interesting.
There is a plan in place as far as 3rd party apps or ecosystems. Marriott is focused on strengthening its own ecosystem in China, said Zhang.
The hotel company has worked on its own digital strategy as of today, which includes its own website, consisting one in Chinese, as well as app for both iOS and Android. “Our Bonvoy App is already available in the seven leading Android app stores in China,” shared Zhang. The company’s digital strategy also includes operating local channels or storefronts on WeChat and Fliggy (there is a Marriott storefront on Fliggy through the joint venture with Alibaba). Meanwhile, Marriott is also looking at emerging options, not only from transactional perspective, but also in a strategic way.
Breaking of the walled gardens
It’s been two months or so since the governments directed the likes of major players to not to block any external link with a digital ecosystem or an app, but, as a senior travel industry executive mentioned, “only small steps are being taken to demonstrate that the directive is being followed”.
“It is too early to comment. We, as a brand, certainly welcome the development, the regulatory change (initiated) by the government to get through ‘walled gardens’,” said Zhang.
Zhang said, they would need more time to observe how this one will impact especially the consumer behaviour.
As Zhang pointed out, it was expected that “the interoperability between Alibaba and (Tencent’s) WeChat would be greater” but that hasn’t been the case yet. “The reality it (interoperability) is not there yet to meet the high expectation from consumers,” he said.
However, another executive mentioned that obstacles are being gradually removed, and 3rd party external links are starting to work within a native app.
More data, but not without being responsible
Zhang acknowledged that if the `walled gardens’ were to vanish completely, it would definitely lead to better understanding of the behaviour of a consumer or a travel shopper.
“Even if that were to happen (the implementation of the regulatory change), there are going to be opportunities and challenges. If on one hand, we would be able to identify, understand and engage with customers, on the other, there is tighter regulation around (user data) privacy and (management of) data, which is not just the case in China but everywhere, so, here at Marriott, we comply with the government requirements regarding the same. We have to respect customer’s privacy and respect the laws.”
He also referred to the Personal Information Protection Law (PIPL), an initiative being taken to shield’s one’s personal information and their consent has to be taken for processing personal information. It came into effect last month. “We are also following that (PIPL) and being compliant,” shared Zhang.
China has stood out for its progress in the arena of 5G, the fifth generation of cellular networks and highlights are faster connectivity speeds, ultra-low latency and greater bandwidth. Chinese companies have made headway in terms of the requisite infrastructure needed for the commercial scale roll-out. Examples include a user travelling at 100 km/h on an expressway that includes tunnels and can still watch live broadcasts, indulge in real-time conferencing, augmented and virtual reality etc.
“5G is infrastructure and it provides a much better way to connect,” said Zhang.
Brands are interested because it sets the stage for more immersive entertainment, interactions for live and remote event spectators etc.
“The emphasis is not only going to be on making our infrastructure connected, but also smarter (more agile),” said Zhang. One of the possibilities is related to understanding the consumer better. Zhang added that it shouldn’t be forgotten the speed which infrastructure related to data and other aspects is going to improve, it also means companies have to gear up for additional responsibility as far as protecting their customers’ data or own assets is concerned.
Marriott acknowledges it is important to keep pace with the accelerating rate of technological change. And the ongoing initiatives, be it for ones related to NFTs or keeping a track of even one mobile dining QR Code on a third party app like WeChat is testament to their agility.
Explaining his perspective, Zhang referred to the example of Marriott’s team in the U. S. working with digital artists for something completely new. “Few weeks ago, our brand team in the U. S. launched initial trial of NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens, one-of-a-kind digital collectibles that can be traded on the blockchain). This is just one example of how quickly technology landscape is changing for our industry,” said Zhang. Marriott chose to tie up with digital artists for NFTs, created for its global loyalty initiative, Marriott Bonvoy App. These NFTs are an interpretation of travel from the artists’ own unique experiences. The campaign also featured a first-to-market moment for a hospitality brand with TikTok.