A Foray into Social Recruiting: The Untold Stories Behind "My Marriott Hotel"

Marriott’s online recruiting game, My Marriott Hotel, has been a hot topic in the recruiting space for over a month—but there’s an untold story that hasn’t been picked up, says David Kippen, Ph.D., CEO and Chief Strategist for Evviva, the outside firm that designed the social media game.

Marriott is a global organization operating over 1,100 managed locations in about 70 countries throughout the world. About a year and a half ago, Marriott engaged outside help from Kippen to craft a stronger employer brand.

"We really have a responsibility to pay attention to the markets in which we are growing," says Susan Strayer, Senior Director, Global Employer Brand and Marketing for Marriott International.

Their particular focus at the time was on how to recruit in China and India, areas of enormous growth for hospitality that posed a challenge because they lack a "culture of hospitality," according to Kippen. In both countries, there is no infrastructure for hospitality management and nearly no hospitality experience in the talent pool.
This issue stemmed from the fact that getting a glimpse into the hospitality industry is nearly impossible for those in this talent pool. Kippen recalls, during a hotel stay in India, how he noticed hordes of people outside staring up at the hotel in awe. He asked an associate about this behavior, but the hotel employee shrugged it off and said that the crowds were "just curious" as to what went on inside. Kippen decided to take a walk around the hotel on his own and stumbled upon something that brought everything into focus. To the left of the pool and palm trees, there was a huge pile of sandbags and a member of the Indian Army holding a machine gun. As the Taj Hotel and many others had been targets of attack at that time, they had since implemented extremely high security measures.

The light bulb went off: the hotel, from the outside, looked impenetrable to most of the public. Obviously, the security points were a necessity. Through no fault of Marriott’s, the hotel had become somewhat of a "castle on a hill," as Kippen calls it.

Kippen recalls a conversation with a Marriott General Manager in Beijing.

"When I hire someone to be a waiter, he may not know whether a Diet Coke is served hot, cold or over ice. All he knows is that the Diet Coke costs more than he made in a day at his prior position before coming here," said the GM. "As I watch him out there, his hands are shaking because this stuff is, in a way, liquid gold." This is just another example of the types of bridges that needed to be crossed in those markets, according to Kippen.

"It suddenly became clear to me that if I were a young, eager, bright Indian man or woman at their target age (17-24), this would not be a place that I could go. I couldn’t even envision myself there," says Kippen. Unless a potential candidate had a friend or other reference on the inside to invite them in, there would be no getting past that wall.

Strayer concurs that Marriott struggled with recruiting in certain countries, because hospitality is not seen as a career that is attainable. "Perhaps you don’t think you have the ability or wealth to stay at a hotel, let alone to work there. We had an opportunity to show that hospitality has just as much status in certain countries as law, banking or government. It really is a growth opportunity," she says.

In the focus groups Kippen studied in India and China, there was a recurring theme: everyone said they came from a small town to the big city to make money, and were able to start building a network through social media with Facebook being the primary tool. While on the job hunt, many would spend an average of 8-10 hours on Facebook daily— not just networking, but playing social games as well.

"Social," as he called it, is all about connecting with friends, friends of friends, and so forth. It occurred to Kippen: what if we were able to bring the inside of the hotel to those who had no other way of getting past that wall?

"I thought, ‘What if there was a means that helped my friends who were already at the hotel broadcast the fact that they were there, they were proud, they liked it—just by playing a cool game?’" he recalls. "By playing it, that would make it a whole lot easier to imagine myself there. Then, I could just click on a tab that says ‘Try It For Real,’ that would pass me over to getting an interview and start a conversation [with recruiters]."

This project, according to Kippen, was a big risk for Marriott to take. Games have been used by several organizations for quite awhile. The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) talked about a Siemen’s game and several others, but Kippen points out that nobody before Marriott had tried this concept in a social space.

"It’s a first in Social," he says. "And as everybody knows, social is a different animal. There were risks to consider—what if it didn’t work? What if it was lame? What would it mean for the Marriott brand? It would have meant that they can’t innovate. Whenever you move into a completely new space, there’s risk there."

Kippen points out that there’s also a risk in any service-focused organization like Marriott where the "people are the product." There’s always a challenge of ensuring that the game is sending the right messages.

By the time the game launched, both Marriott and Kippen’s organization were confident it would be well-received. A risk, it may have been—but as it turns out, it was the right risk to take. Results thus far have been fantastic, says Kippen, in terms of media coverage and enthusiastic players (some have reported playing this game up to 36 hours straight!).

"This is how Social should work," says Kippen. "It should connect people to the right opportunities based on the referral network they already have. It’s not about ‘Can I shove you into a job?’ It’s about, ‘Can I give you a brand experience that gives you an idea of what it means to work here, and then, if that’s the right experience for you—we should talk!’"

A Wharton professor commented in a recent WSJ article argued that many have tried this approach before—and failed. If it could be executed correctly, however, it could potentially be the "Holy Grail" of recruiting.

"He was right by about half," says Kippen. "It was a risky endeavor, but we were doing something quite different. It’s all about Social and helping people leverage social ties. None of the games [the Wharton professor] cited existed in this space. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first major brand that’s ever done anything like this on Facebook," he states.

Kippen points out that many critics of the game don’t fully understand its goal and its target market. While the game aims to talk to the young jobseekers in the United States as well, the US talent pool has an understanding of hospitality that’s much different. They have most likely grown up taking vacations with their parents and staying in hotels.

"In our existing markets, we just want to make sure that we continue to stay relevant," says Strayer. "For millennials and others who are just learning about hospitality… we were looking for a way to make sure that they felt hospitality was not only relevant, but a career with growth options and a real business to manage."

"Sure, Home Depot has games connected to their career site, but they’re not games connected to work and working—they’re fun games," says Kippen. "That’s great, but that’s not what we were trying to do here. We were trying to give people a taste of what is means to work in hospitality."

Says Kippen: "Our criteria for success have a different ‘Holy Grail.’ Do we help create a path for young aspirational brand advocates, who don’t yet know that that’s what they are, to envision themselves in a hospitality career? I think we do."

According to Kippen—the future of recruiting is Social. "The best employees are typically referrals. The closer we can get to a referral basis for high quality talent, the better the match is going to be. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in five years, the career site has gone the way of the Dodo bird."