Contently Case Story: Inside Marriott’s Ambitious New Travel Mag

Great brand publishing doesn’t happen overnight—it’s a process that has a beginning, middle, and end. Contently case stories is a series highlighting some of Contently’s most successful clients, and telling the stories of how we worked together to produce great content and great business results.

Marriott International wants to own the travel space. It has designs on becoming the world’s biggest travel publisher—to take publications like Travel + Leisure head on by putting content in front of consumers before they’re even thinking about booking a trip. Ambitious? Yes. But armed with new online travel magazine Marriott Traveler, the company just might do it.

The site comes weeks after the launch of “Two Bellmen,” an original short film that has already generated 3.6 million views. Both projects are the fruits of Marriott’s 65-person global content studio, and both are part of the company’s mission to rethink marketing. “How does a brand that’s been around since 1927 continue to evolve and adapt and stay relevant?” asks David Beebe, Marriott’s vice president of global creative and content marketing. “You need to innovate.”

(Marriott Traveler was created in partnership with Contently.)

For Marriott, that meant accepting that brands no longer control how consumers interact with them. Content produced by the company is always travel-related and contextually relevant, but it isn’t necessarily about Marriott. “The days of interruptive marketing are over,” says Beebe, who left the Disney-ABC television group last summer to help launch Marriott’s content studio. “If we provide value to consumers, they’ll provide it back to us.” Marriott Traveler’s value comes in the form of original content targeting both leisure and business travelers. So far, the magazine has taken readers behind the scenes in New Orleans, but it’s a rolling model. Additional sections covering Orlando and Chicago are slated to launch in the coming weeks with some 300 pieces of content in all. The cities weren’t chosen at random. Marriott used both internal data from Marriott.com and third-party data to determine the most popular destination cities, as well as which cities lacked good content.

Eventually, the publication will go global. Marriott is hardly the first brand to launch a magazine, but what differentiates it from most of its peers is that marketing isn’t operating in a silo. The company is wholly devoted to the six-month old Marriott Content Studio, and as a result it’s been able to ramp up projects very quickly. “I think the foundation of what we’re doing in the content space is built on 100 percent buy-in from our executive leadership,” Beebe says, adding that the effort is a global one, involving all 18 Marriott hotel brands. “That’s why a lot of brands fail. For us, this isn’t a strategy someone down the hall is trying out. Everyone is committed.”

Marriott also isn’t integrating its brand into a third-party platform, something Beebe considers to be an outdated marketing model. “We have the opportunity to become a publisher of content but also own the audience, and that’s what you see with Marriott Traveler,” he says. Marriott Traveler was built on Marriott.com, which boasts 36 million monthly visitors and 48 million Marriott Rewards members, to leverage its built-in audience. Says Beebe, “If you add up all our own platform eyeballs, it’s much larger than any publisher out there. We’ve got a media network just sitting here. We’ve activated it now.”

Marriott Traveler joins an impressive stable of content that fits into three categories: utility, destination, and entertainment. The former is fulfilled in part by exclusive development deals with social influencers who create travel videos, the latter by “Two Bellmen” and a TV series called “The Navigator Live” that’s distributed through AXS TV.

In addition to Marriott Traveler, destination content comes in the form of brand-specific in-room magazines like JWM and The Ritz-Carlton Magazine, and original travel articles on Gone, part of Medium.com. “Yes, the travel space is crowded with content, but it’s not like we’re trying to launch a new travel brand from scratch,” Beebe says.

Internally, a group of about ten people plucked from multiple teams within Marriott are guiding the Marriott Traveler project. Their leader is editorial director Marc Graser. Graser is a former senior editor with Variety who Marriott recently hired to oversee creative content across platforms. None of that content is developed in-house. Rather, Marriott sets the direction and uses Contently and other partners to create the content itself.

To get the tone right and ensure authentic, accurate reporting, Marriott and Contently sought out writers who had experience with New Orleans or who lived there themselves. Marriott brought on travel vlogger Sonia Gil to create videos for site, and even secured consultations from Marriott associates who were locals. “Our content providers are writing with a voice, so you connect with the content,” Beebe says. “There’s a name, a byline, and that makes it more legit.”

Marriott is promoting Marriott Traveler through paid media on search and mobile. Soon, the company will add utility and entertainment content to the site to create a hub that will feed content into Marriott’s booking engine and reward member emails. Its primary goal is to get consumers to book a room, but Beebe says that isn’t the only metric by which it measures content success. “You have to make an emotional connection. That’s the new business transaction.” Marriott is also looking at time spent with the content, views, and brand perception, as well as tracking bookings that result directly from a visit to the Marriott Traveler site.

What Marriott is attempting to do goes beyond content marketing to become an entirely new marketing model. The majority of its content is designed to be not just a cost center, but a revenue center. Because it doesn’t feature a strong brand tie-in, it’s valuable to other distributors, and advertisers, too. The Navigator Live is already being licensed internationally, and Marriott will monetize Marriott Traveler by selling sponsored content and native ads to third-party advertisers. “That money goes toward producing more content,” Beebe says. “If you scale it right, marketing starts funding itself.”

While its unorthodox strategy is “still an education,” Marriott believes it’s past the point where it needs to convince people that what it’s doing makes sense. The company will continue to buy media to get in front of consumers, even with traditional travel publications that are now competitors. Its objective, though, is to go beyond renting an audience to build and maintain its own. “Magazine publishers ask, what’s the difference between us and you,” Beebe says. “We take it one step further. We are a publisher. We say we’re going to own the travel lifestyle space like Red Bull owns action sports. We just happen to sell hotel rooms.”

Image by Joshua Brasted

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