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Two of the travel industry’s largest hotel companies face off on their direct marketing prowess

InterContinental Hotels Group
4,500 properties globally
$16.8 billion in sales

Marriott International
3,100 properties globally
$10.9 billion in sales

Travelers often believe that once you’ve seen one mid-priced room, you’ve pretty much seen them all. To unearth the subtle differences from one loyalty program to the next, you must dig deeper still.

“I believe all of these hotels are starting to look the same, and so they have to create something that is unique about them,” says Jody Merl, president of Innovative Travel Marketing. “Now, everybody has a nice bed. Everybody has a special rewards program. And yet, they need to differentiate their brand.” That’s an uphill battle that two of the world’s largest hotel chains, Marriott International and InterContinental Hotels Group, face: How do they use direct marketing to stand apart from the competition?

“I think they [Marriott and IHG] still have to create value. It has to be a multimedia effort … From a marketing standpoint, I think they both need to get out of the box a little more,” Merl says.

Both companies’ signature brands have stellar recognition, but Marriott International, despite being the smaller competitor, has the edge. The company operates 17 brands, including Marriott Hotels & Resorts, Courtyard by Marriott and The Ritz-Carlton.

Neither Marriott International nor IHG cracked Interbrand’s top 100 best global brands last year, but Marriott Hotels & Resorts appeared on the list as recently as 2008. Within the US, Courtyard by Marriott and Marriott Hotels & Resorts made the American City Business Journals’ top 25 “Best Biz Brands.” And the name The Ritz-Carlton is nearly synonymous with luxury and service.

Yet the Holiday Inn, one of IHG’s seven brands, is an iconic mid-priced hotel chain in the US, a staple during family vacations. The sheer footprint of IHG, which is the world’s largest hotel chain in terms of number of rooms, provides incredible name recognition. InterContinental Hotels and Resorts remains popular among international business travelers.

IHG also has been rolling out a rebranding of Holiday Inn and Holiday Inn Express, complete with new logos aimed at giving the chains a contemporary feel.

Both companies have strong loyalty programs but are they vastly different in customers’ eyes?

In a comparison on USAToday.com, Marriott outscored InterContinental on loyalty. However, in 2009, IHG’s Priority Club Rewards narrowly beat out Marriott Rewards for a Freddie Award, voted on by frequent travelers.

Marriott offers the better redemption options, including attractive travel deals, according to the USA Today analysis. But the Freddie Awards touted IHG’s PointBreaks promotions, in which customers may redeem their points for a night at select locations at discounted rates. IHG also allows its members to redeem points at any hotel, including those not among its brands, and for flights without seat or blackout restrictions.

Both companies offer hundreds of rewards options. If Marriott members do not find a redemption offer that interests them, they may request that Marriott place a points price on a specific item. But in the end, both chains agree that customer service, not rewards, drives membership.

“Ultimately, if you don’t have a product or service that people are willing to engage with and build, you can’t build loyalty to it,” says Bob Behrens, VP of marketing at Marriott.

Both companies launched their rewards programs in 1983. IHG has more than 52 million members while Marriott has 33 million. Only 20% to 25% are estimated to be active at any chain, adds Don Berg, VP of loyalty programs at IHG.

Meanwhile, IHG is trying to gain ground on Marriott, which sends 66 million e-mails each month. Within the past year, IHG, which sends 30 to 40 million e-mails a month, consolidated its transactional and promotional lists, which is allowing it to segment its database and send highly targeted messages.

“A year ago, we had a fragmented situation relevant to the infrastructure,” says Lincoln Barrett, VP of guest marketing at IHG.

However, this practice has been in place for years at Marriott, “We actually score every single customer to every single hotel and create billions of rows of data, really to pull through and activate that in a meaningful way with the customer,” Berhens says. “So in e-mail, 80% of the content can be versioned to that individual customer.”

Behrens estimates that a campaign of 3 million e-mails may include 2.9 million different versions.

Mobile marketing is another way that the brands are reaching their loyalty members. IHG debuted its apps for Droid, iPhone and the iPad earlier this year, while Marriott has apps for both BlackBerry and the iPhone.

Both companies maintain that direct mail is instrumental in their marketing strategies, but say they have cut back in this discipline.

Direct mail from both chains is largely targeted at their loyalty members, but with the help of its newly implemented database platform, IHG says it has ramped up efforts to contact non-members through direct mail.

In social media marketing, Marriott has been more successful in growing its audiences on social networks, although not because IHG has shown a lack of effort.

IHG has tried trendy location-based services like Gowalla and Topguest and run Twitter giveaways, which it says were successful in having followers retweet deals and generating bookings.

As of September 1, IHG’s Twitter feed had 4,414 followers, while Marriott International’s had 58,726. Neither has particularly impressive numbers on Facebook.

Meanwhile, Bill Marriott is one of the few CEOs with a blog — an August post about his father generated 66 comments.

IHG seems a bit more daring with its tactics, evident by its participation with its Gowalla campaign, in which customers could “check-in” using the service and earn gift cards or double Priority Club Rewards points.

Marriott, too, isn’t standing still. Last fall’s launch of its multiyear “Driven” campaign for Marriott Hotels & Resorts, in which it recruited actual customers through social media to promote the chain, shows its willingness to innovate.

Brand Champion

While there isn’t a wide margin between the two companies’ direct marketing efforts, Marriott is just a step ahead in several areas. Its brands are stronger, it has succeeded in building a large social media audience, and because its integrated database has been in place longer, its e-mail marketing is more refined, although IHG is quickly catching up there.

IHG, however, routinely presents fresh ideas, including in the important area of mobile and social, which in time could tilt the scales in its favor.

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