When Marriott International acquired Starwood Hotels & Resorts in 2016 for USD 13.6bn, the merger created the world’s largest hotel chain with over 1,500 properties in over 140 countries across 11 brands.
Localized content is key to reaching a non-English speaking guest anywhere in the world, says Ora Solomon, Director of Digital Product and Globalization at Starwood.
“As our global footprint is so large (over 50% of our properties are outside the United States), having a global digital presence is crucial in meeting our growth needs. China, for instance, is one of our most strategic geographies,” she explains.
Thus, the company invested heavily not only in providing that market with more Chinese content but also in rolling market specific products, such as its own Chinese only loyalty app for the WeChat platform.
But Chinese is not the only focus. Starwood supports 16 languages, according to Solomon. “In 2016 we translated over 19 million words across all languages. Our top languages are French, German, Spanish, Japanese, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, and Italian,” she says.
Optimized Processes Cut Translation Cost
With translation volume at that level, optimizing processes is crucial. Starwood has been working closely with Translations.com (a TransPerfect division) for the past two years. “Our translation costs are down 40% since we started this process, despite a decrease in content of just 10%,” Solomon attests.
The secret is a translation strategy based on a new ROI model focused on translating property content that would yield a 5x return of investment. “I should mention that we did not ask for a reduction in rates,” she stresses. “Our costs decreased in part thanks to the following factors.”
First, she says they batch their submissions, so the vendor picked content up only twice a week instead of every day. This decreased the engineering and project management (PM) hours.
Then the company rolled out machine translation (MT) for the languages where they have more content.
And finally, they are not reviewing context translation memory (TM) matches, so they are not charged for these words, Solomon explains.
“We did not have great success with Turkish and Thai, for instance, so we reverted to human translation” — Ora Solomon, Director of Digital Product and Globalization, Starwood.
The Starwood executive definitely sees more use cases for MT in the coming years. She reveals: “We do use MT. In fact, we have expanded our use of it. We had started with eight languages in 2014, but have since switched some of them up. We did not have great success with Turkish and Thai, for instance, so we reverted to human translation, but we have added German, French, Italian, Spanish, and Dutch to the mix.”
Localization Challenges at a Global Hotel Chain
Starwood translates content across different parts of the organization, but the bulk of its customer-facing content resides within the digital organization, which is responsible for its e-commerce sites. However, there are a number of unique challenges encountered by a global hotel chain.
“Unlike other e-commerce companies, when we look at our content translation needs, we can’t just look at the Italian market and assume Italians will visit only Italian properties. We need to take into account that Italians travel to multiple markets (unlike an e-tailer who can limit their translations to the catalog of products available in that market),” Solomon explains.
“We can’t just look at the Italian market and assume Italians will visit only Italian properties. We need to take into account that Italians travel to multiple markets (unlike an e-tailer who can limit their translations to the catalog of products available in that market)”
She says this creates more complexity in the ROI model. Moreover, there are guests who might be looking at the website, but would book via the call center or an online travel agent, which makes the data capturing even more complex.
“We allow guests to enter their names in other characters on the website (Russian, for instance), but have to keep in mind that we need to find a way for the front desk associate in Rome, who does not read Russian, to know how to address the guest,” she adds.
Starwood also doesn’t centralize translations, so there may be inconsistencies across some of its digital content. “Hotels will translate their own menus or in-room materials, for instance,” she says.
A Joint Strategy
Since the merger in 2016, the integration is still underway for the combined companies. Solomon says they are currently working on a joint strategy. “We will be able to share more next year, but, needless to say, the global needs of the combined companies will only be growing,” she says.
Currently, Solomon focuses more on product and translation operations and she manages a team of 17 people — a translation manager and a reviewer for each language. Some reviewers are full-time employees, but the majority are part-time contractors.
“We use our vendor’s translation management system (TMS) and their review tool,” she says when asked about the technology they use for translation.
How Solomon got started in the localization industry is an interesting story in itself. “I got started in localization when I first moved to the US in 1996. I joined a company based in Boston as an account manager. (The company was later acquired by Lionbridge. I left before the acquisition).
I then moved to California, went to work for a startup, then came back to localization in 2002, when I joined Acclaro, a localization provider based in New York. I joined Starwood in 2015,” she shares.
On the vendor side, she says she loved learning about different industries, from tech to retail to medical devices. “At Starwood, I have loved learning more about the product side and, in addition to managing globalization strategy, I also oversee our biggest revenue-generating products,” she says.
And what is her stand on the translation apps that are proliferating in the market, including earphones that can translate? “I love all the new apps. Anything that makes it easier for people to travel abroad will benefit travel companies,” she ends.