For Marriott, March Madness means more than a bracket-driven college basketball tournament. It is part of the company’s seven-year-long role as official hotel partner of the NCAA, and a significant opportunity to reach a huge fan audience and drive even more customers to the massive Marriott Bonvoy loyalty program.
Mandy Gill, the company’s vice president, continent marketing, U.S. and Canada, said sports and hotels have one major element in common: they both bring people together. And, wherever there’s a sports event, there will probably be a Marriott nearby, she added.
While Marriott’s partnership with the NCAA encompasses all sports and extends through the year, the company sees March Madness as a particularly rich opportunity to connect with millions of current and potential customers. During the event, hotels located near games are “activated”-- displaying on-property collateral highlighting the partnership and offering food and beverage specials, while guests were able to turn on all TVs in lobbies, lounge, and bar areas to show regional, Final Four and championship games.
The big play, however, was in Marriott Bonvoy Moments, where members can redeem points earned through hotel stays and everyday spending to bid on “unforgettable” tournament experiences. For 2023, Marriott Bonvoy members were able to get close to the action by bidding on packages to the men’s and women’s Final Four, Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games for both the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.
New for this year, Marriott unified the Men’s and Women’s Final Four in Houston and Dallas with watch parties in each city -- the men’s semi-final game at the Sheraton Dallas, and the women’s championship game at the Marriott Marquis Houston, with talent Grant Hill (a former NBA star) and Ali Krieger (a long-time soccer star) in attendance.
There was a very high level of interest this year, with 42 Marriott Bonvoy Moments packages available for the tournament. These packages received 1,155 bids and 12.6 million total points were redeemed, said Gill.
Other prizes included a coaches’ breakfast on big game days (not with the coaches of those games of course), meets and greets and behind-the-scenes visits at ball games. “It’s all about the things members can’t buy,” said Gill.
And to stay within a basketball metaphor, Marriott Bonvoy does a full-court press in messaging -- down to having school team mascots appear in Marriott ads on mobile phone screens in Uber vehicles in a city where a game is being held. And, generally, teams stay in Marriott hotels.
But Marriott does not want to just appeal to super-frequent guests. It also wants to reach out to the next generation of travelers with options that cost far fewer points, like the watch parties. The goal is to make any messaging and content relevant, said Gill. For instance, the company would only send content about a team the member is interested in. “We are personalizing marketing at every touch point."
Marriott has been so happy with the NCAA deal that is negotiating to extend it because, said Gill, “longevity is also helpful.”