BT: How does one get a job as vice president of innovation?
VON ERTFELDA: That’s an interesting story. I’ve been with the company 16 years. I was hired in Hong Kong and spent nine years in food and beverage with Marriott International. About nine years ago the company was looking for ways to deliver greater innovation and greater agility. So I and a number of other individuals were ‘lifted and shifted’ – the organizational vernacular for reassigned – to serve as the nucleus of an innovation discipline.
BT: So you see innovation as a discipline?
VON ERTFELDA: There’s a really wild misconception of what innovation is. Some people conceive it as just blue sky, right? Un-moored, unstructured, just directionless. But in fact there is a process, a mindset. And it’s a science, it really is. What we’ve done here is shown the benefits of applying that process.
BT: How does a culture of innovation take shape in an organization like Marriott?
VON ERTFELDA: When we started, we had no idea what we were doing. There were no processes, no tools; so we had to benchmark other innovative companies to learn from them. And we gradually accumulated a portfolio of projects that got people excited and got them to understand a bit more about innovation.
BT: Tell us about the M Beta concept here in Charlotte.
VON ERTFELDA: About four years ago there was a massive effort to really take a hard look at the Marriott Hotels brand. At the same time, there was a sort of rogue, but still very exciting project focusing on an existing hotel, and applying all of this new work in the guest experience in an actual hotel that we would purchase and reinvent from the inside out. So the thinking initially was, if we buy this asset, we can bring all of these innovations together under one roof. But simultaneously capitalize on the need to take the brand in a new direction enabling innovation and entrepreneurship.
BT: This “live beta” hotel sounds like an innovation leader’s dream.
VON ERTFELDA: I have led an innovation discipline for the last seven years. To me I was just chomping at the bit. I mean, namesake brand, 500 existing hotels, and the support to do something bold and really disruptive. It was exciting because we saw this as a catalyst for change within the brand, but also within the company and within the industry.
BT: Do you think the Marriott acquisition of Starwood has been a factor in accelerating this push toward innovation?
VON ERTFELDA: Before the merger with Starwood was even contemplated, we had been recognized for two years running by Forbes as among the 100 most innovative companies in the industry – the only hotel company to receive that recognition. I would suggest that there was tremendous momentum even prior to the acquisition.
BT: How will this culture of innovation fit into the future of Marriott?
VON ERTFELDA: It’s even more important now, given our new handle as the world’s largest hotel company. The aspiration now is to become the world’s favorite travel company. Leading in the innovation space to really, I think, take up the mantle of defining the future of hospitality.
BT: How does a hospitality brand keep ahead of the curve in a fast-changing world?
VON ERTFELDA: To do that, you need to really understand innovation – how to deliver against the tremendous changes that are happening outside of the walls of this hotel. You can’t be insulated; you can’t be myopic.
BT: Why is it important for you personally to stay on the leading edge of innovation?
VON ERTFELDA: I’m always pushing boundaries. I’m an endurance racer. I do races in Antarctica, in Bhutan, in Iceland. And there’s a really exciting intersection between that ambition and those boundaries, and professional ambition to push boundaries. That’s one of the reasons why I and my team get really jazzed, because innovation and change can allow us to achieve things personally as well as professionally.