How Marriott Never Forgets a Guest

When retiree Ben B. Ussery Jr. goes on vacation, he typically spends hours beforehand nailing down golf dates, scouting shops for his wife, and making restaurant reservations. But last year, when the Usserys and another Richmond (Va.) couple chose to spend a week at Marriott's Desert Springs resort in Palm Desert, Calif., he let the hotel do the legwork. Weeks in advance, Marriott planning coordinator Jennifer Rodas called Ussery to ask what he wanted to do. When all was set, she faxed him an itinerary. She had even ordered flowers for his wife. ''Marriott made it a real smooth experience,'' says Ussery. ''I'm ready to go back.''

What makes such velvet-glove treatment possible is Marriott International Inc.'s (MAR) use of customer management software from Siebel Systems Inc. (SEBL) The hotel chain, based in Bethesda, Md., is counting on such technology to gain an edge with guests, event planners, and hotel owners. The software lets Marriott pull together information about its customers from different departments, so that its reps can anticipate and respond more quickly to their needs. It starts with reservations. Says Chairman J.W. Marriott Jr.: ''It's a big competitive advantage to be able to greet a customer with: 'Mr. Jones, welcome back to Marriott. We know you like a king-size bed. We know you need a rental car.'''

Marriott, America's No. 1 hotel chain, is the industry leader in using technology to pamper customers. The company, which manages 1,850 hotels and resorts worldwide, began installing Siebel software in late 1998 and is spending just under $10 million for the initial pieces. A few other hotel chains are dabbling in customer-info systems, but Marriott is ahead of the pack, says analyst Bryan A. Maher of Credit Lyonnais Securities. ''It's a huge advantage,'' he says.

The biggest boost from the Siebel software is in the hotel chain's sales operations. Marriott is transforming its sales teams from order-takers for specific hotels to aggressive marketers of all Marriott properties. A salesperson in Dallas--who understands both the needs of his local customers and the chain's world inventory of hotel rooms and other facilities--can now pitch and book orders for hotels in Hawaii or China.

NO HASSLES. Early results are promising. In 1998, the sales-force software helped Marriott generate an additional $55 million in cross-chain sales. Anecdotal evidence also suggests there has been a jump in bookings from event planners, who find it easier to give business to Marriott, which has their needs on file, than put it out for bid.

Eliminating hassles for guests is the appeal of Marriott's free personal-planning service, too. It's now available at seven resorts, but Marriott aims to extend it to all 32 resorts by 2001. The software tracks guest preferences, so personal planners can anticipate amenities that repeat guests may want. ''Our spa is very popular,'' says Doug Mings, personal planning supervisor at Marriott's deluxe Camelback Inn in Scottsdale, Ariz. ''If you don't plan ahead, sometimes you don't get in.''

The service also gives Marriott reps an opening to pitch hot-air balloon rides and other fee-generating activities. Happy customers, fatter sales: With that kind of advantage, no wonder other hotel chains, such as Hilton Hotels Corp., are starting to follow Marriott's technology lead.

By Amy Borrus in Washington

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