In Public Relations

PR Student: Claire Sonksen
This article was produced in cooperation with the COMMS 425 lab.

Marriott International partners with BYU public relations students each semester to solve problems in Marriott’s Caribbean and Latin American regions. These PR students use a problem-solving matrix that involves research, insight, implementation and evaluation to continually deliver creative and effective solutions to the Marriott International brand.

Kaiser and fellow students celebrate the end of their rigorous Marriott Capstone project before presenting to Marriott executives on BYU’s campus. Photo courtesy of Kaiser Larson.

Fish Tacos in Florida

While commiserating over spicy fish tacos at a hole-in-the-wall Mexican joint in Plantation, Florida, associate Professor Joseph Ogden and Marriott International Asia Pacific region president Craig Smith came to a decision that has greatly impacted the direction of BYU’s public relations program. When Smith asked if Ogden would take on a consulting project on behalf of Marriott International, he obliged – under the condition that Marriott provide a project for his students.

Brainstorming project ideas between bites of fish taco, Ogden probed Smith: “What problem do you want solved? What question do you not have the time to answer?” Smith responded immediately with an issue that had been plaguing the company for a while: “TripAdvisor—how it works.”

TripAdvisor, code cracked

TripAdvisor is a popular American travel website that provides hotel bookings and reviews for hotels, restaurants, excursions and flights. With over 1.3 million rooms available to book at over 5,700 properties in more than 110 countries, Marriott wanted to know how TripAdvisor ranks their hotels, prioritizes reviews and decides which hotels to promote.

Ogden and his students manually collected data by combing through thousands of reviews and ratings across the entire TripAdvisor platform. The students then compiled and validated the data and essentially cracked the TripAdvisor algorithm, determining how TripAdvisor scores are calculated. When TripAdvisor caught wind of what these students were doing, the company reached out to Ogden asking what his team had figured out and if they would share their data. Ogden agreed to provide the data if TripAdvisor would verify whether their data was correct—and it was. The company revealed that the students were within one 100th of a data point of the actual algorithm. Ogden recalled his reaction to that confirmation: “Shoot! We should have calculated a couple more data points.”

This confirmed success gave Ogden and his students confidence that their strategy would move Marriott’s TripAdvisor scores for the region in the right direction.

Jakob Walker, Alyssa Blake Edwards and Kaiser Larson waiting to present to 400 of Marriott’s top executives at the Ritz Carlton in Bali. Photo courtesy of Alyssa Blake Edwards.

BYU goes to Bali

Ogden had no idea that a compromise over lunch would turn into a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship, with seven Marriott projects completed to date. His PR students have developed social media influencer strategies for Marriott’s Caribbean and Latin American regions, created new hotel launch plans with materials in three languages, completed a food and beverage project for the Asia Pacific region and executed a test launch for HYP3R, a location-based engagement platform, last fall.

One of the largest projects completed thus far resulted in a handful of students traveling to Bali to present their results to Marriott executives. Alyssa Blake Edwards was one of those students. Her capstone project was a combined analysis of four trip review platforms—including TripAdvisor— specific to the Asia region. She explained the algorithm, how the “total” score was calculated and what the Marriott brand could do to generate more positive reviews. She also led breakout sessions with Marriott executives where she went more in depth about responding to negative reviews and soliciting positive ones.

Kaiser Larson was another student account director chosen to travel to Bali in April of 2016. “Presenting our research to them in Bali was the highlight of my academic experiences,” Kaiser said. “It was humbling to present to seasoned executives and then apply their feedback and advice to my future pursuits.” Kaiser now works in marketing for Amazon and credits his capstone experience with giving him a deeper look into program management and strategic communications.

A mutually beneficial relationship

Not only has this capstone project qualified students to work for some of the top 100-ranked world brands, but it has provided them with hands-on experience that broadened their skill set and built their resume. Several students have told Professor Ogden that their Marriott experience helped them land their first job, and nearly all have mentioned how frequently it comes up in job interviews. Just as two students from the original TripAdvisor project were directly hired to work for Marriott itself, students continue to be recruited by Marriott and other capstone clients due to their excellent work ethic and professional demeanor.

Austin Tenny participated in HYP3R’s Marriott test launch last fall and left to work for HYP3R in the Bay Area after graduation. After spending nearly a year developing his analytical skills, he has been recruited by Marriott and is currently in the process of moving to Hong Kong. Austin readily admitted, “Capstone was fundamental in helping me network and land jobs at both HYP3R and Marriott.” He believes capstone is one of the most important classes students take, as it applies academic learning to real business problem solving. His advice to students is, “make an effort to lead projects and work hard. Don’t coast! It is the best way to get noticed and build your professional network. It will pay dividends in the long-term.”

Since their initial engagement with BYU, the hotel chain credits BYU students for helping Marriott better engage with guests and connect with millennial travelers. It has also noticed an overall enhancement of guests’ experiences and a rise in market share.

On behalf of Marriott executives, Smith stated, “We highly prize our partnership and ongoing collaborating with BYU’s School of Communications.”


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