Were you surprised when Fast Company named Marriott International one of the most innovative companies of 2017? When you think innovation, the usual suspects pop up, but a 90-year-old hotel chain doesn't immediately come to mind.

Last week at the Millennial 2020 conference, I had the opportunity to sit down with Stephanie Linnartz, Global Chief Commercial Officer & EVP at Marriott International, and was truly impressed with her crisp vision of hotels and loyalty programs in the digital age.

The Future of Hotels

Today you can hail an Uber and board your plane just by using your smart phone. Soon, it will be commonplace to use your favorite hotel brand's mobile app to check in and unlock the door of your room - thereby completely bypassing the front desk. What happens to all those hotel employees who spend so much of their time checking guests in and out of the hotel?

"When you think about the impact that ATMs had on the banking industry," said Stephanie Linnartz, "there were many bank tellers who thought they would be out of a job. Instead of cutting staff, however, bank tellers were able to spend less time on deposits and withdrawals and more time focusing on the higher value functions their customers really cared about. The same will be true for the hotel industry."

Throughout her career, Stephanie Linnartz has focused on the guest experience. She sees the reduction (and eventual elimination) of the transactional check-in and check-out relationship as a powerfully good thing. Now, instead of waiting in line to access your room, you can tap the incredible local knowledge of the hotel staff - from restaurant recommendations to local attractions and entertainment. The hotel staff are freed up to focus on delivering an even better customer experience for each guest at the hotel - and isn't that what the focus should be?

"I don't believe anyone has ever said, 'Wow, Marriott has the best keys!' she said. "So using your phone as your hotel key is table stakes. I'm interested in exploring what's exceptional at the front desk. This is where the next innovation will come from." Stephanie Linnartz and her team examine and explore all that is special about each hotel's brand personality that can be embodied into the front desk experience.

Where Stephanie Linnartz And Her Team Discover New Hotel Innovations

I asked Stephanie Linnartz about how she is dealing with start-ups such as AirBnB and VRBO, to which she replied:

"I think it's important not to bury your head in the sand. Rather than being threatened by a new innovation, I look at what can be learned and incorporated. We are piloting communal rooms in some of our extended stay properties. This includes four or five guest rooms with a common area. It's like renting a house where there are common areas for friends who want to stay together can hang out, but with the added security and safety of a hotel.

I also like to read outside my own industry and apply other experiences to the hotel industry. I like to examine how people do things. I think about how consumers buy in other industries and look for innovation coming outside the hotel industry. Then I ask how this innovation could apply to my business. If they love it here, how could I make them love it at Marriott?"

Next Up: Marriott on The Future of Hotel Loyalty Programs

Last year, Marriott International acquired Starwood and became the world's largest hotel chain. In doing so, Marriott now has the largest hotel loyalty program. In my next article, I'll share what I learned from Stephanie Linnartz on the future of hotel loyalty programs. She is a wealth of insights and information and I did my best to keep up as she laid out just how important bringing these two giant loyalty programs together will be and how the eventual combined loyalty program will benefit customers, property owners, franchises and all of Marriott's 30 hotel brands (each with its own price point).