The Marriott Courtyard Buffet Problem

I’m staying at a Courtyard by Marriott hotel this week, as per my usual. For those of you that believe that all of us Private Equity folks stay at 5-star hotels and live off of caviar and champagne, I’m sorry for bursting your bubble. Over the years, I have mostly holed up at Courtyards. They are relatively inexpensive, they are everywhere and you can park your own car. Recently, Marriott has been making some major upgrades to the Courtyard chain, and in the process of trying to solve another problem they have royally screwed up one of my favorite features.

Sitting here at a Starbucks, cooling my heels before a meeting, this brought to mind a common problem that I see with tech companies. In the process of addressing one chunk of missing functionality they often break the parts of their products that made customers like them in the first place.

Prior to Marriott’s renovation kick, the Courtyards all featured a breakfast buffet restaurant—and a coffee kiosk that was separate from the breakfast area. If you were in a real hurry, you could simply grab a to-go cup of marginal coffee and hit the road. (If I just wanted coffee, I usually opted for the nearest Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts instead). The restaurant was minimally staffed with a couple of wait staff and a cook or two in the back. While you could get breakfast made to order, it was faster and simpler just to get the buffet. Even if the wait staff was slammed, you could get in and out in less than 15 minutes every single time. Just get seated, tell your server that you want the buffet and to charge it to your room, load up your plate, eat, and go. The restaurant was also open for lunch (although I NEVER had lunch in one), but it was closed for dinner. They could serve dinner, but they never did, probably because no one WANTED to eat dinner at a Courtyard Marriott. Over the past few years they have remodeled the Courtyards to include a giant flat-screen TV in the lobby, new seating in the lobby and a “cafe” that is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. No buffet. They offer Starbucks coffee at the cafe, but it’s not free and you need the wait staff to get it for you. They also serve beer and wine in the evenings.

From a breakfast perspective it is an unmitigated disaster, plain and simple. They staff the cafe in the morning with one, MAYBE two people. The cashier takes your order, makes the food and takes your money. They have a runner that brings the food out to you and clears the tables. I have YET to have breakfast in one because you can NEVER get in and out of the cafe in anything under a half hour unless you are the first person in line. This morning there were 5 people in line ahead of me, and all I wanted was coffee. I left the building, walked a block to a Starbucks, got my coffee and walked BACK to the Courtyard and the guy ahead of me back at the hotel was STILL in line.

I understand what Marriott was trying to do. They wanted to make it easier for guests to get a simple meal at night and to get a glass of wine or a beer if they wanted one. (I have no idea what the giant TV-screen in the lobby is for, we all get the weather and directions on our mobile phones.) But the thing is, business travelers lack time in the morning, not at night. I’m not heading out to explore BREAKFAST places in a new city, I don’t have the time. What I need is a workout, coffee, and some protein. What I don’t need is a 30-minute wait for nuked scrambled eggs and lousy bacon.

I have time at night to try a local restaurant. In most cases I am taking clients to dinner anyway. I’m guessing that most business customers feel exactly the same way as I do.

The Courtyard is driving me away in the process of trying to cut costs (by reducing the kitchen staff) and making some money selling beer and wine at night. Historically, I have been a crazy-loyal Marriott customer. Yet, over the past year I have drifted over to staying at the Hyatt Place chain whenever possible. They are the same price as Courtyards but they still have a buffet breakfast (and most serve beer and wine at night), free coffee, and better workout rooms. And, they added TVs in their rooms that allow HDMI input. That’s right, folks, I can play my OWN movies from my iPad on the TV in the room. Courtyards block the HDMI ports, they want to force you watch crappy TV or to buy an in-room movie. As much a I enjoy a good <SARCASM> NCIS, Seinfeld or King of Queens re-run,</SARCASM> it’s nice to have a real choice.

So, this has turned into a bit of a rant against the Courtyard chain. Let me get back to the point, if I can. In the process of trying to cut costs and add sales the Courtyard has alienated a whole hunk of their most lucrative customers—weekday business travelers. As a result of that simple change, I started looking elsewhere and now Marriott has lost a TON of my business over the last year.

There is an important lesson for technology companies in this tale of woe. In the process of re-architecting pieces of your product be careful that you don’t alienate your best customers. I was recently talking to the owner of a company that makes a scheduling and billing platform for a large vertical market. Several years ago they started making a cloud version available. New customers loved the cloud version, but the existing (and bigger customers) HATED it. Why they hated it, in this case, isn’t important. The important thing is that this owner re-thought his strategy and continued to add features and functions to the desktop version rather than defecting entirely to the cloud. They have a nice business in both segments because they listened to their customers. They didn’t get rid of the buffet, they just started selling beer and wine too.