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Carlson Exec on the Importance of Investing in Tech

by Sarah McCay Tams, Contributing Editor, EMEA |

Remy Merckx joined Carlson Rezidor in July 2013 as Senior Director of e-Business Development. Since then, he has enjoyed a stellar career, becoming Vice President of Marketing EMEA in February 2016.

In this role, Remy leads the EMEA marketing strategy encompassing digital marketing, guest engagement and loyalty (Club Carlson), CRM and e-commerce for Quorvus Collection, Radisson Blu, Radisson RED and Park Inn by Radisson.

Q&A on #hoteltechnology with Remy Merckx of @CarlsonRezidor #revenuestrategy Click To Tweet

With more than 20 years of travel industry experience, he is well equipped to deal with the challenges of this comprehensive marketing role.

One year in, we caught up with Remy to find out more about the holistic nature of his role and how he sees marketing developing in the future.

Remy Merckx What are your current marketing objectives?

Today, we have one main objective: to bring back existing customers who are staying with us but not booking with us, rather they are booking via OTAs or other third parties. In order to control this relationship with our customer we need them booking their stay with us.

Our second objective is to improve the technology and data management behind our customer. Every digital activity is related to data and this gives you a piece of information about your customer – how they behave on your website, how they book, when they book. That’s information that we were not actively looking at. When you know your customer better you can address them with better products at a better moment and work better than third-party channels.

Carlson Rezidor recently invested in the development and implementation of a global digital platform to power its e-commerce business. What are your hopes and expectations for this?

Up until now all our capabilities were built in-house. This is a significant investment and change in the way we are looking to build our digital capabilities.

We decided to go with Sabre and within the next 18 months all our digital capabilities (web, mobile, apps, etc.) will go on a new platform powered by Sabre. This will give us the agility to continue to develop.

We will finally have a complete, fully integrated platform that will also allow us to bring together the way we manage our CRM loyalty programme and the way we engage with the customer. We will be able to build user experience into the website and that will have a significant impact on the business. In the short term it will easily double our brand.com business.

How much of the company’s future do you see relying on technology and do you think you have the right thought leaders adopting it?

A digital transformation plan cannot happen if the top management is not fully behind it and supportive. But it’s not only about our top management. Our business is done in our hotels, so it is throughout the organization that we need to apply this digitalization of our business.

Last year, Carlson Hotels hired a new CTO. We’ve never had one before, and this is a positive development.

Speaking of technology, are Airbnb and Google friend or foe? And if their foes, what should hotels do to remain competitive?

In my opinion, Airbnb is competition to the OTAs rather than hotels. Airbnb represents 1% of the total global hotel business. They have new consumers but we can learn why people are going there and what we need to do to match the need.

Google is more of a partner. Google is in the centre of how we can drive new consumers into our hotels, preferably through our own channels. We can also see with all the innovation Google is doing, specifically on mobile, new ways to showcase our products and drive business through our own channels. We can use Google to shift business that went away to the OTAs back to our direct channels.

The OTAs seem to be taking the lead in the digital arena. What more can hotels do to direct more traffic to brand.com or property.com?

There are only two OTAs leading the digital arena – Expedia and Booking.com – and that’s thanks to our investment in their business. They have to realize that if there is no hotel business in the world then they will not exist. Hotels are in a Catch 22, through the commission we have been investing significantly in their technology and capacity to develop so that OTAs are much further ahead in technology than we are. That is why it is so important that the hotel industry invests in technology first.

We are doing a lot with Rezidor in terms of content marketing. If you target the right type of consumer at the right point of their journey and push the right type of content, you hook them up to a relationship that they will engage with, especially through social channels. That’s how we feel we can build brand loyal and brand engagement moving forward.

How can you change the mentality to get industry leaders to realize investment is better spent in brand.com than OTA fees?

I joined the company just over three years ago and we have been facilitating the digital revolution since then, so it took us three years to get there and realize how important it was. These changes to bring departments together saw us increase our digital marketing investment by 60%, so that today more than 80% of our marketing investments are digital.

We are in a very old industry. Technology is not our core business – that is to welcome people in our hotels, provide a good bed, good shower and a good breakfast. That is why people stay in hotels. Now, in addition to that, you have to deliver a whole digital experience that brings the customer to live that experience.

Does Rezidor implement a personal pricing strategy based on personalised loyalty? And if so, what are the main challenges and successes of this strategy?

Our loyal customers are our most important customers and because of this we have implemented a special rate for them. We launched this back in September 2016.

There were two main reasons for this. First, it was to value the loyalty of our customers. Second, loyalty programmes are big competition in the hotel and travel world and with OTAs and Airbnb launching loyalty programmes we had to react to that and improve how customers consume loyalty programmes in the hotel industry.

The members-only rate has doubled acquisition into our loyalty programme in the past six months. We’ve also seen a significant increase in the activity of our members, increase in the second stay of a member, and a significant increase in the value of our members when they stay with our hotels.

You are expanding rapidly in the Middle East. How does a Middle East revenue strategy differ from a European one? What strategies will you adopt as your portfolio in the region expands?

The Middle East has always been a key market for us and we have invested significantly in this region, especially in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Our Radisson Blu and Park Inn brands are highly recognized by the Middle East customers.

Is it an easy journey? No. The Middle East market is a challenging market in terms of driving demand because of fluctuating oil prices, the geopolitical issues in the area, and the significant development of the offer – there are more hotel projects in the pipeline in Dubai than anywhere else in the world. However, the demand needs to grow as fast as the supply. We believe it is a huge market moving forward.

At the end of 2016 we also launched our Arabic digital platform and Arabic website to help us address our product to our Arabic customers. This was an important milestone to drive business in the Middle East.

The lines are becoming more blurred between business and leisure travel. What more should hotels be doing to convert business travellers into repeat leisure guests? And is now the time to move away from corporate discounts and DMC favourable rates?

The industry will make those changes; it will take a little bit of time but the way we are managing corporate versus leisure is significantly changing.

The growth of ‘bleisure’ travel shows clearly that the consumer should not be categorised. Within Rezidor, we are moving away from a purely static segmentation of our customer to what we call archetypes of our customer.

We feel it is very important we understand how consumers are behaving. Moving towards this archetype model will help us address their needs in a much better way.

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Sarah McCay Tams, Contributing Editor, EMEA

Sarah McCay Tams, Contributing Editor, EMEA

Sarah is contributing editor covering Europe, Middle East & Africa (EMEA) for Duetto. An experienced B2B travel industry journalist, Sarah spent 14 years working in the Middle East, most notably as senior editor – hospitality for ITP Publishing Group in Dubai, where she headed up the editorial teams on Hotelier Middle East, Caterer Middle East and Arabian Travel News. Sarah is now based back in the UK.
Sarah McCay Tams, Contributing Editor, EMEA

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Sarah McCay Tams, Contributing Editor, EMEA

Sarah is contributing editor covering Europe, Middle East & Africa (EMEA) for Duetto. An experienced B2B travel industry journalist, Sarah spent 14 years working in the Middle East, most notably as senior editor – hospitality for ITP Publishing Group in Dubai, where she headed up the editorial teams on Hotelier Middle East, Caterer Middle East and Arabian Travel News. Sarah is now based back in the UK.