Unpacking Localization Strategies for a Global Hospitality Brand

Unpacking Localization Strategies for a Global Hospitality Brand
November 23, 2016
The 80/20 rule. User-generated content. De-centralized translation management. Some of the strategies Marriott International uses to achieve its globalization goals are breaking new ground–not only for one of the world’s most respected brands, but also for the hospitality industry worldwide.
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Speaker Transcript
Renato I am Renato Beninatto
Michael And I’m Michael Stevens
Renato Michael – what’s on our itinerary today?
Michael So today our journey takes us on the challenges and lessons learned in localizing a global hospitality brand. I think you’re going to enjoy it.
Renato So let our guest introduce herself.
Sonia I’m Sonia Zamborsky and I have the very long and involved title of Director of Product Field Support and Communications for Digital Globalization for Marriott International. My job is I’m part of a team of people that handles the current feeding of Marriott in language global websites. Specifically, my team looks at connecting the dots between what we do at headquarters and what’s happening with our regional team who are in-market, know the language, they’re sort of subject matter experts on the ground. So, I make sure that we are communicating with each other, that we are in synch about product enhancements and process improvements and that, ideally, the left hand knows what the right hand is doing.
Renato So, you are responsible for localizing all these websites. The immediate association that we have is with the language and translation of the websites, but travel is something that is very associated to behavior and culture. Do you do anything more than just the pure translation of your websites? What does localization mean for Marriott?
Sonia That’s a great question. It’s something we’ve been looking at for the past several years really. In terms of the language and if we’re talking about a language like French or Spanish that is “universal” but really not, you know, how localized does that need to be. And we have folks in-region help us make sure that we’re keeping the right tone and making the brand work and also make sure that we’re speaking to the local customers in their local language.

Then, from a features and products perspective we’ve done a lot of user research to determine what, really, is going to get that customer, to compel them to buy, and what needs to be global and what needs to be local because we can’t have complete localization for each of our sites, that would not be effective. But, what needs to be localized for that audience. And it kind of boils down to this 80:20 rule that about 80% of the functionality is pretty universal, it’s pretty across the board, everyone behaves the same way when they’re booking a hotel room, and then there’s that 20% that needs to be localized and you need to for particular cultures.
Michael What are some of the things that fall into that 80%?
Sonia Some of the things that need to be sort of unique. One example is for our Japanese site we have… for the rest of the sites we’ve got search where you can type in the search term, for Japanese we found that because of the language and alphabets required, there’s more of a click behavior in the Asian languages. So, we implemented a search that is based on a map, and so instead of typing in Tokyo to find a hotel you actually click on a map and narrow down the search. The bookings went up rapidly on the Japanese site as a result of really getting “this behavior is going to make it easier for folks to get to book.” So, that’s one example of localizing.

There are other cases where we’ve looked at payment methods, for example, which are very different around the world. Alipay is huge in China, so we’re working very closely to enable that. But, also, in Latin America, where installment payments are very common, how can we work with that, is it even possible with our systems? There are a lot of people that have to think careful about what this looks like but if, ultimately, it’s going to mean making more sales then it’s worth putting that time and effort into it and that’s definitely part of the 20% that really makes a difference to make it unique.
Renato That’s very interesting because what you’re saying is essentially it’s a different way, it’s a graphical search instead of a text-based search. And this can be also an indication of where the rest of the world is going because with mobile content the click is easier than the text.
Sonia Very true and we’ve found that some of our “global user research” has really led to some improvement on the US/English language website and, also, our mobile devices because some of these things are universal, they translate back into “well, that actually makes sense whether you speak Japanese or not, we’re going to make it easier.” So, we’ve been able to inform some additional user research on Marriott.com based on the things that we’ve found internationally, which is kind of exciting. We are leading the charge globally, and then it gets reflected on the US site as well.
Michael That’s great.
Renato People love metrics. So, is there anything that you have, any anecdotal changes you have made that has improved your bookings? You mentioned something about the language, of course, but is there anything in the localization process that you have done that has improved, significantly, the number of reservations or reduced the number of cancellations? I don’t know what metrics you use in your data?
Sonia We love data, and we have tons of metrics that we look at for almost everything that we do, is not necessarily tested first, but we definitely look at the numbers, and we do a lot of AB testing, and a lot of multivariate testing to see if we change, sometimes it’s a really small thing, we change the wording on this or we change the number of clicks it takes to get to the end pass—“will that really result in more bookings?”—and if the answer is yes, then we’ll implement that beyond just a pilot or test.

We measure click-through rates, bounce rates; we have feedback that comes into our customer care group; we have people that can fill out surveys and give verbatim feedback on how things are going. And we actually added translation quality as one of the questions on that survey, which is an interesting thing because how do you ask people if the content makes sense or the translations are good? The average user is not going to respond to “how good are the translations on this website?” They just want to know, “is my content, does it make sense?”

So, we’ve tried to be really careful how we worded that question, but we are looking at across all of our languages how the quality of the content, and again, are we speaking to the users in their language correctly, how does that impact the bookings? So, we look at it from a million different ways, and a number of tests that we’ve done recently, for example, on the Japanese site with the click to search map, bookings went up, I want to say like 20% in a very short amount of time, and that’s a huge win. Fortunately, with the measurements we’re doing we’re able to see very quickly if something is working or it’s not.
Renato On the language side, on the language part, what kind of feedback did you receive? I have a theory that people only talk about translation when it’s bad.
Sonia Absolutely! People like to complain, and they’re not apt to say “that was the best Spanish translation I’ve ever read”! So, it’s hard to really get to the heart of the matter. You get when there are problems and complaints, but what if we are doing well?

And the other interesting thing that we’ve found is that culturally there are different ways that people give feedback. The Germans are very straightforward, they tell it like it is. Also, the Asian languages, they will be very blunt and tell us if something is not working. For the romance languages there’s a little bit more kind of wanting to please, perhaps, somebody suggested like “well, we’re going to… maybe you could do a little better” but we’re not going to really be super-blunt about it. So, it’s been interesting to just read the kind of feedback that comes from that question and try to parse it out into was it just one irate person that wanted to shake their fist or is there really a trend, or is there really a problem here?
Renato One of the things I learned in doing business with Japan is that when they tell you that it’s almost perfect, it means it sucks.
Sonia Yes, but you sort of parse it out.
Michael So, the changes that you’ve made to that 20% of content, was that driven by you guys creating buyer personas for different markets? Have you gone down to that level?
Sonia Yes, we do that and we also do a lot of user research on the ground with local agencies. So, we’ll bring in a dozen or so people over the course of maybe two or three days and really sit them down and have them go through either a prototype or the current site, sometimes both, depending on what we’re trying to test. And really get a sense for is this working, does this make sense and is this person a rewards member, are they loyal to our brand or are they completely they have no idea who Marriott is all about? So, it’s a good way to get a very small cross-section of people, in depth, and understand what the user behaviors are.

Then, we’ve also got different kinds of online tools that we use to get more quantitative testing. We do user intercepts; we have a really cool lab in our headquarters where we bring people in to do focus-group testing. So, there are a number of different ways that we try to get at the heart of what are the users thinking and interacting with the site, and what’s the end result.

That sometimes has to be done differently with different cultures, as well, because there’s… which is why we work with the local agencies, they know how to recruit people, they know how to really set up the testing in the way that folks will be comfortable so that we get the best results.
Michael How did you get here, did you have a background in languages? Were you always interested in international business?
Sonia I do have a degree in international communications that I kind of feel like I’m finally using. And I studied languages over the years but I didn’t really have… I’ve been with Marriott for over a decade so there wasn’t really localization when I started there. It was sort of like “hey, we’ve got these global sites and maybe somebody can help with them. You’re a global girl, why don’t you go check it out?” And so it was from my perspective more an interest in travel, international travel, international cross-cultural understanding.

We always had… I was a kind of exchange student when I was growing up so I learned from an early age that it’s a big world out there, and there are lots of cool different people and to appreciate the differences and similarities that we all have. So, just from a personal perspective, when I got the job at Marriott I was really very interested in working on the global sites because that was personally where I came from.

Then, professionally, since the time that I’ve been there, I’ve really been trying to wave the banner of global as a philosophy that isn’t just for the German site, or the French site, but it kind of spans across the entire portfolio, and I’m pleased to say that the way our department is structured and the way the company is moving is much more globally minded. So, it’s not as challenging as it was when I first started to say “hey, global is important, and it doesn’t maybe make as much money per second as Marriott.com versus the huge behemoth, but there’s so much potential, and there’s also this, again, understanding the customer in their language is a really powerful thing, even if you’re a US-based company—especially if you’re a US-based company.
Renato What triggered that change? You mentioned there is a change in the attitude of the company being more global, when did that, can you pinpoint an element, were you part of this change?
Sonia I like to think I was part of the change. I don’t know if I could take credit for it, but one of the things that the company, one of the re-organizations they did, probably, maybe five years ago, was to give more autonomy to the continents, the folks that are in our regional offices because there’s only so much you can do from a very centralized headquarters building. You have to really have boots on the ground, and we do. We’ve got hotels all over the world and we’re opening up… The pipeline for the hotels in China is much more, there’s much more happening than there is here.

So, I think it was partly a recognition of the potential, globally, and also an understanding that to really be effective, you’ve got to empower your local folks, and they have the best understanding of what’s happening in their market. So, it was sort of a gradual thing but also there were several business factors, and I think the rise of China as an economic power really gave some rapid fuel to that as well.
Michael We do talk a lot about the importance of evangelizing internally, and you are someone who has gotten traction with that, being able to get attention from the C-level suite. What message do you feel had the most effect?
Sonia Ultimately, it’s about the bottom line, right? So, it has to tie back to those metrics or whatever is really going to count at the end of the day. I think that, also, the ability to work closely with the digital folks that we have who are marketing and have a digital spin but, also, they’re working with their regional folks, so they were able to be kind of a conduit for what’s happening digitally, globally, I think has been very powerful in that we can work together and really “here’s what the impact is”, and we can see with digital, it’s great, because most all those metrics you can see instantly if something’s working or it’s not.

So, I think that there is a kind of philosophy, and there’s kind of a soft dollar value, sort of the kum ba yah, of us all working together. Then, ultimately, like here’s the result, here is what’s happening; these sites are performing; we can see the difference this is making.
Renato What is interesting, what is in the nature of the travel business is that the metrics are a little bit reversed, right? So, in a traditional localization environment you would talk about the percentage of the revenue of the company that comes from outside the United States. Well, in international travel the percentage of the revenue that comes from outside the United States are actually people who come to the United States and spend money in the United States. So, what you are actually… you are selling your US property to the Germans, to the Japanese, to the Argentinians, and you’re selling your Saudi Arabian property to the Americans and the British and everyone else. So, that’s a very interesting way, you cannot use the metric of percentage of international revenue because it’s very complicated.
Sonia That’s exactly right, and that’s been something that we’ve also been trying to champion in the last couple of years, this cross-regional promotion because, typically, if you are in a region and you have hotels in that region you are responsible for and you’re sort of concerned with “okay, how are these hotels doing?”

And the reality is that the hotel still gets the highest percentage of their traffic from people in that area. But, there is so much more happening with cross-cultural, cross-regional travel and trying to, again, market to the Chinese is a big example of that. We’ve really been trying to fight from a funding perspective as well as from a philosophy perspective.
Renato Yes. What do the Chinese search for, what do they look when they look for a hotel because I know that some people go travel for shopping, some people travel for sightseeing, some people travel… what is the driver for the Chinese tourist?
Sonia There is a lot of shopping, and also packages and tours are a really big, very popular thing for the Chinese. And they are coming to the US in greater numbers than ever before, so part of what the hotels have been looking at is localizing their product as much, as again, to offer Chinese breakfast, Chinese newspapers and slippers in the rooms, which is not a thing that’s really typical for Americans. So, kind of localizing that, the product being the hotel, they are trying to look at trends and try to make sure there is an actual program that really looks at culturally what the Chinese experience, what they’re looking for in hotels.

As much as you can, I mean, there’s only so much you can do in your building to really try to cater to those gaps and make sure they are comfortable and happy and come back, for whatever reason whether it’s shopping or they’re seeing a Broadway show in New York or they’re going to Disney World or for some other reason that we surprise and delight them with an experience that is above and beyond.
Michael I realize the impact of this. I go to northwest Montana on a regular basis, a little town called Whitefish Montana; from Seattle, we stop at St Regus Rest Stop, which has big trout. It’s the cutest rest stop in the world, but it’s really in the middle of nowhere in western Montana, and we last summer arrived, and there were three buses full of Chinese tourists. And I was like “Wow! This is a major market all over”! It’s beyond New York and some of the larger cities that you would think are major markets.
Sonia Yes.
Renato Do you use user-generated content in any way to identify this kind of stuff?
Sonia We do, and the user-generated content that my group works on is a little bit different. There are reviews that are available in-language, and that’s kind of more traditional user-generated content. But, the users and how content is generated from the work my team does is more about the people in the hotels or in our regional offices providing in-language content versus having it go through the translation engine.

So, for example, we have for our hotels, there is a content-management system that the hotels put in their content in English, and it gets translated into the various languages. Very recently, we opened up a pilot to allow them, for certain deals, to put the content in directly, in-language. So, if you consider that the hotel in China won’t necessarily speak English as their first language, so to make them write it in English, and then it gets translated, and maybe the Chinese is good, maybe it’s garbage in garbage out, so avoiding that whole cycle and allowing them to enter the content in Chinese has been very successful, but it was also kind of a scary step to take to de-centralize that control over that content.

So, the way we rolled it out was as a pilot—test it, start with a couple of different hotels, start with a small number of fields, and really allow those end users, being the folks in the hotels, to take ownership of their content and write it in-language.

And, like I said, it’s been going very well, and the world hasn’t come crashing down, so that gradually we’re able to convince the stakeholders, not for everything and we certainly have to maintain brand standards of quality and monitor and all that good stuff, but in certain cases where it makes sense for us to not have so much control, it really does benefit. It saves money, it saves time, everyone is happier, and we get a better end result.

So, I think that gradually, step by step, that’s kind of the way that we’re moving, again, where appropriate, to allow for speed to market and savings of time and money to allow those folks to just create what they need to.
Michael You have built in some level of accountability. You mention guidelines. How have you fostered that with the teams that are creating the content?
Sonia We have traditionally and historically had a lot of governance around the content that gets generated, especially with the hotels because we want to make sure that photographs are of a certain quality and that the things are SEO optimized, the things like that.

So, we have the guidelines already in place for hotel website content, and then it’s just a matter of, okay, how do we broaden that? And if we need to make it specific for language, yesterday we were talking about using formal versus informal versions of Spanish, and there are cases where it’s appropriate to have an informal tone and cases where it’s not.

So, we do have style guides for each of our languages that get into some detail around how do we translate the brand names and what’s the tone of voice, and how are we conveying the brand in this market. And that’s always evolving and always changing as we do user research and we find out what’s resonating with customers who may not have that brand awareness that continues to get modified and built on so that we get stronger at knowing how to communicate in that language and making sure that everybody in the chain who’s generating that content is aware of what those guidelines are.
Renato Do you use machine translation in any way?
Sonia Not at the moment. We talk about it from time to time. There was some discussion of possibly using it for the reviews content because if you have… the way that the user reviews go, if there is content in that language, it displays. So, if somebody has written a review in Spanish it will show up. If not, then it won’t. So, we were talking about what if we really want to get more volume of content, then you can maybe use machine translation to kind of say “all right, this is the gist of what this person said, good or bad”. And so we continue to consider that, and it’s again that question of sort of giving up pristine control over anything that faces the end user. We really want to have consistency in our brand voice.

So, at the moment we don’t use it, and I’m not sure that we will any time in the near future, but it is definitely part of the conversation.
Michael Are you guys measuring the impact of the user-generated content? Are you seeing certain areas where it’s much more effective, and areas where, maybe, you hold back?
Sonia Right now, the metric that we’re looking at is cost savings and time savings. Obviously, we’re always looking at bookings and revenue and all that good stuff, but it’s really hard to pin down just one field that we localize and put user- generated content and now, suddenly, we’re getting all these bookings. So, it doesn’t necessarily… it’s not a one to one match in terms of the big metrics, but it really is more about the overall health of the ecosystem and having content move through smoothly and get updated on a regular basis and things like that.
Michael Did you sense a change with the in-region people who were contributing with their greater level of ownership, rather than just being dictated?
Sonia There was, yes, there’s this sort of… it’s huge. Let’s just say “all right, we’re giving you a great responsibility, here is this ownership over this content, make sure it’s good, make sure it gets updated on a regular basis, and if it’s wrong, it comes back to you guys.” So, they were happy and excited to take on more of that ownership and that, I think, is one of the biggest arguments for continuing to do this.

We’re looking at can we have more self-publishing content for promotions which are very time-sensitive? We did a pilot with a platform that is actually hosted by one of our vendors where people can go in and generate a promotion, and it gets published, and it can be in any language; it gets published almost instantly, and they are not part of the regular QA approval process that just is out there.

Again, there was great fear that “Oh my God! What are they going to generate; it’s going to be terrible”. And, you know, there were some missteps, there is some governance needed, again, guidelines to help people understand what’s going to be the most effective, but it’s been a very successful pilot and, there again, the question is how to make it bigger, how do we bring it on platform, how do we make it part of our content publishing system where if there is a flash sale, if there is a hotel that has a need time where they really need some help to get some reservations, and they’re going to put a promotion together for this weekend. You can’t have the same cycle of “Well, we’re going to build this page, and it’s going to take a couple of weeks, and it’s going to be great”. No, it needs to go now, so how do we account for that and have that be something that, again, there’s ownership, and there is a much better sense of working together, rather than we’re asking for something from the field and you guys at the headquarters are just folding your arms and saying “no”.

So, it’s a process, definitely, but I think if we can prove in small ways that it’s working, and then expand the pilots to become something bigger, that’s the way that we’re going.
Renato So, you are doing this great job; you’ve been figuring out how things work, and then top management comes and decides “we’re buying Starwood.” That was not in the plan.
Sonia No, it was a big surprise! The good news is…
Renato They didn’t ask you about it, did they?
Sonia They didn’t! They didn’t really allow me to vote on it or anything; we got announced that we were all very surprised, and it’s been a very interesting year, and will continue to as we look at how this integration happens.

The good news is that Starwood is more globally minded, I would say, in terms of their DNA. And so it was refreshing to talk to their team and see how they do things and how they think about things as global first, which is something we’ve been fighting for forever, and we’re kind of getting there as the Marriott side. So, now, Starwood is coming in and saying “yeah, this is what works for us, to think globally first,” That really warmed the cockles of my heart.

So, I think that as we look at, again, the nuts and bolts of their system, our system, their different offices, how they communicate, how they are publishing content, who is in charge of what, there are a lot of questions to get worked out, but the good news is that I feel like we’re heading in the right direction from the global perspective.
Renato Are you integrated? Are you one team now?
Sonia Sort of. It’s happening very gradually, and we’ve started having conversations with their global team and thinking about “all right, what shall we tackle first; how are they doing things that are the same or different; and what are some opportunities to start merging these things together?” It’s going to take a while and, really, next year is really all about getting everything sorted out across the board.

So, we’re just one small cog in the machine that’s thinking about this, but from the global perspective, we have definitely started working with their team and thinking about, again, the similarities, the differences, how can we merge this together and use the best practices, really, from both sides to make the best product possible.
Renato Maybe we should check with you in a couple of years and see how did it go.
Sonia Yeah, see the wild success that we’ll have in a couple of years after we’ve figured it all out and merged the companies.
Renato I have no doubt.
Sonia Yes, it’s going to be exciting times, and Starwood has a lot of really cool properties around the world, so I’m very excited about going and checking them out and seeing “ooh, let’s do a little research in Tahiti and make sure we’re really…”
Renato I’ve been talking to Michael, I think we should make a live recording of the follow-up podcast in Tahiti!
Sonia I am with you!
Renato Fantastic.
Michael I have a little follow-up to add, though, because again we’re practitioners, many people in the localization industry, so it’s very easy to gravitate towards that. If you had to express how the localization industry could serve the travel industry better, what would you have to say to that?
Sonia Hmm…that is a great question. I think that flexibility is the name of the game these days. We obviously have a very complex system in place that handles a lot of translations as effectively as possible and as cost effectively we possibly can. But, at the end of the day, to really resonate with travelers, travel is a very emotional thing and hospitality is a very intimate thing. When you think about it, you’re having people come and sleep in this building, and that’s rather intimate, and so you need really to stir up content that is engaging and also reassuring in some cases and appropriate for culturally what are folks looking for and what is going to make them feel good about staying in your hotel or flying on your airline, or whatever it is.

So, I think that the flexibility and ability to really provide content that is engaging and cost effective, and all the other systems need to work too, is really the balance that we’re looking for and that’s not easy, I know that having been in the trenches, but I think that the name of the game is connecting people, connecting content with the people.

End of conversation

Sonia Zamborsky

Sonia Zamborsky is the Director of Product Field Support and Communications, Digital Globalization for Marriott International. She has worked with Marriott for more than 10 years, helping the company build strong relationships with travelers across the globe. She's also an "intrepid world traveler with a passion for cross-cultural understanding and an innate talent for seeing the 'big picture.'

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