Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Marriott gets aggressive with SME business travel programme

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Marriott International launched on Tuesday a long-awaited new SME programme. But if you thought it took a year to roll out a discount and loyalty programme, that wasn’t exactly the strategy. Instead, the hotel giant has introduced a travel management programme option for small and midsize enterprises. It’s called Business Access by Marriott Bonvoy, and while on the surface it may not look exactly like a business loyalty programme for SMEs – it is very much that, too.

Built on a Spotnana technology stack, the programme follows a similarly aggressive strategy forged by Qantas (also on Spotnana technology) to function as a de facto travel management tool for small and midsize companies.

Target companies, however, would have to have the appetite to go all-in with Marriott as an accommodations provider for their travellers to optimise the full set of travel management and expense tools. If they do, however, Marriott is ready to deliver robust loyalty benefits in return, plus access to flight, rail and car rental content, along with booking and expense reporting capabilities and management reports.

The SME discount and points programme included in Business Access offers a number of traditional benefits. Member companies are eligible for discounts at hotels in the Marriott Bonvoy portfolio and simultaneously earn points for future stays, room upgrades, etc. Volume thresholds also come into play. Upon reaching company-wide usage thresholds, members earn Elite status awards that they may transfer to individual travellers within their company. 

According to the eligibility terms posted on the Marriott website, member companies must be a registered legal business and they must apply to be accepted into the programme. Travel agencies and companies with preferred corporate contracts do not have access to the programme.

Non-traditional programme benefits, however, provide travel management functionalities that SMEs often access via a travel management company partner. 

Marriott – like Qantas – looks to be providing an option that could delay TMC adoption for the SME set by providing end-to-end tools that support self-service travel policy parameters and spending limits, broader flight, rail and car rental bookings and changes, interactive traveller location maps and disruption monitoring, as well as the option to use a built-in expense management module.  

Here’s where the individual loyalty trigger kicks in: In order to earn benefits for their company and maintain data visibility for other booking and spend management, each business traveller must be a Marriott Bonvoy loyalty member “in good standing” according to the Marriott terms and conditions for the programme, and they must book their travel directly with Marriott through the Business Access platform. Individual travellers will continue to earn their personal loyalty benefits.

Competition for lightly-managed travel

“We recognise the significant value small businesses provide to the hotel industry, which is why we’re excited to combine the benefits of our award-winning travel programme with a comprehensive suite of tools in Business Access by Marriott Bonvoy,” said Marriott EVP and chief revenue and technology partner Drew Pinto, in a statement. 

He continued: “Whether small to medium-sized businesses are looking for convenient online booking capabilities for their employees or better expense management solutions, the all-in-one platform, merged with our portfolio of hotel brands around the world, provides everything they need to manage their business travel needs.”

Pinto could have been talking about any travel category – not just hotels. The competition to capture the SME business travel segment has been fierce, but strategies like this might be limited to the fortunate few when it comes to category-specific suppliers. 

Marriott can make this move because its hotel footprint is so large – nearly 8,900 properties across 10,000 locations, according to its website – and brand portfolio so deep at 30-plus that it conceivably can support the accommodation needs of the vast majority of small and midsize enterprises. 

Qantas, for its part, controls a 66 per cent share of Australia’s domestic airlift, giving it entrée to be a company’s single preferred air carrier domestically and, potentially, in the region. 

Both companies, therefore, can position themselves as a legitimate provider of travel management tools with robust functionalities but still position themselves as the single content provider for their respective categories. 

TMCs aren’t missing the memo. Recent acquisitions – and even the big one that is pending of CWT by American Express Global Business Travel – have focused on this market. Travelperk’s recent Amtrav acquisition will deepen its SME roots in the US. Amex GBT’s purchase of Egencia nearly three years ago was an SME strategy. If CWT goes through, the volume play could deliver big value to SME clients that don’t have their own corporate deals in place. 

An interesting move by New Zealand-based travel technology company Serko may position that company to get into direct technology relationships with SMEs that similarly seek to short-circuit the quick adoption of traditional TMC partners. Former Travel Leaders president and Airbnb for Work commercial lead David Holyoke has taken on a new role there as head of “unmanaged travel.” 

The company’s booking platform Zeno already powers Booking.com for Business, targeted to lightly-managed SME programmes. How the tech company engages on the unmanaged front remains to be seen. 

Whatever the strategy – for any of these companies – to tap into the unmanaged SME market, they will be competing against a number of enticing options. 

Business Access by Marriott Bonvoy, the newest option on the block, is available to small to medium-sized businesses based in the US, Canada, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Marriott anticipates expansion to other regions.

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