While in London, Marcus Robinson of Oklahoma City struggled to find recommendations on local places to eat, pubs to visit or nearby attractions.
Tasked with starting a European branch for the firm he worked for, Robinson stayed in London hotels and in other cities around Europe. Like many visitors, he would wait in line at the hotel concierge desk to ask questions about restaurants, tourist attractions or even services.
Though digital advertising signs were placed in the lobby, touting local food choices, he knew companies paid for that advertising. Advertising didn’t necessarily translate to local recommendations.
An idea began to form.
In 2009, Robinson and Mark Costello, a former labor commissioner for the state of Oklahoma, launched Monscierge with a touch-screen kiosk for the hospitality industry. Called “Connect!,” the kiosk included travel information for guests ranging from local recommendations to flight information based on the users’ preferences and hotel recommendations.
“Marcus had been approached by a company that was doing advertising for touch screen advertising for bars and such, and he thought, ‘Why don’t we take these to hotels as a way to scale that pretty fast,” said Crystal Robinson, brand media director for Monscierge.
“He didn’t want to get into the advertising game, so Marcus spent a year and a half on research and design because he wanted to make sure he got the technology right on the back end. A lot of companies were doing digital marketing, but the products wouldn’t work.”
In fact, the biggest challenge when Monscierge began marketing the Connect! Kiosks was overcoming the dissatisfaction hotel chains had with previous digital advertising. Many times, the advertising signs didn’t work or were poor quality. But with Robinson’s background in software architecture, he was able to put together a team that created software that worked and could be scalable as the company grew.
Monscierge products are currently in use or being deployed in over 1,000 hotels in more than 60 countries, and they are available in 20 languages, as selected by the guest. The company has partnered with Apple’s enterprise marketing, and Monscierge’s product is the brand standard for the ACCOR hotel chain, the largest hospitality chain in the world.
TOUCH SCREEN SCIENCE
Connect! Lobby became Monscierge’s first success by offering the type of information that freed up the front desk staff. All cloud-based, Monscierge now has more than 10,000 touch screen kiosks around the globe which can all be updated from one portal.
“It took a while for us to show that this works. We had to take the product to the people, and we custom-created the application for each hotel,” said Crystal. “It really took off. Our first client was Novatel in Europe. Accor then took our lobby device and make it their brand standard in 2011.”
Soon, Monscierge was approached by hospital chains as well for a similar product in order to improve mandated patient surveys on the hospital experience.
“The smartphone revolution really kicked all this into gear,” Crystal said. “But, at the time, hotels weren’t really on the app train yet. Intel sponsored Monscierge to work with Cornell University on a research project that studies how apps affect travelers’ decisions on how they spend money. Based on that information, we created a mobile advisory board with Cornell and major hotel chains.”
In addition, Monscierge also created a guest app that travelers could download. Every hotel client was included in the app, and each hotel was customized. Each app has recommendations for merchants in the hotel’s area, allows travelers to communicate with their hotel, includes flight information, meeting details and booking applications.
“Obviously, we went to our clients, did big trade shows, created public relations videos,” Crystal said. “We would actually custom-create the app for each hotel before we approached them, so all we had to do is say, ‘We made your app. Come by and check it out.’”
In 2014, Monscierge received $1 million from Oklahoma’s i2E’s GrowOK Fund. The funding was part of a $2.05 million round that also included Oklahoma angel investors and the Affinity Angel Investment Fund.
But the company wasn’t finished yet. Moscierge unveiled Connect Staff, a SMS communications systems that allows hotel staff to communicate with each other. In addition, the staff app also tracks guest requests, hotel offers, complaints and more in a way that allows brands to develop an overall analysis on how the hotel is performing with guests.
“We actually went in and worked in the hotels to see what the staff wanted,” Crystal said. “We worked back in the kitchen with the cooks, worked with the lady who answered the phones, worked with the housekeeping staff. We gave the IBIS hotel chain’s 69 hotels the Connect Staff app and watched it for 90 days to see how guest statistics changed. Their revenue per room immediately went up.”
Monscierge currently works with brands include Hyatt, Hilton, Marriott, Starwood, Warwick and Omni in 62 countries currently. From pre-arrival information to check-in, to room readiness, to requesting their car when they are checking out, Monscierge does it all.
“Mobile and tablet apps are a huge part of our business right now due to the travel industry relying more and more on mobile access to things like shopping, dining, and map,” said CEO Marcus Robinson. “We are now working on using computers to understand data about the guests and provide intelligent, customized recommendations based on that data. Say you eat sushi. If you’re traveling to Seattle, for instance, the app can discern where you are and that you enjoy sushi and recommend places to eat based on that. It’s not going to recommend barbecue to a vegetarian.”
Marcus said the new level app would be available in the next 12 to 18 months. At the end of 2015, Monscierge had approximately 1,100 hotels from which it generated revenue.
The company predicts that over the 2014-2018 period, the compound annual growth of site locations could be in excess of 100 percent, and that revenue could increase from the 2015 level of approximately $2.5 million to $7 million in 2016, and more than $30 million by 2018.
In addition, Monscierge is now working with Apple in the enterprise space.
“Apple is a consumer-facing company and the market has gotten somewhat saturated with smartphones on the consumer side. Apple realized they were going to have to expand into other markets to continue their growth,” Marcus said. “They had never tracked what they were selling to the enterprise space. They looked to see what they were actually selling, and they found they were selling $25 billion a year to the enterprise market.”
Monscierge is now part of the Apple Mobility Partner program. Within the commercial space, Apple has targeted hospitality as a key segment. Monscierge is one of only 40 companies that will be part of this program, and Apple intends to use this approach to support having all their mobility products (i.e., phones, tablets, wearables, etc.) the standards in hospitality globally.
Monscierge has already seen the benefits through introductions with Apple to their hospitality accounts, and access to Apple leasing for Monscierge’s accounts. Hotels can now purchase or lease a packaged option of Apple hardware devices pre-loaded with Monscierge’s Connect hospitality applications, for a complete tool that’s scalable, affordable and gives hotel brands an option to purchase through one channel to address their mobile needs.
The program launched in March with hotel brands, like IHG, Hilton and the Caribe Royale Hotel and Resort, placing orders for iPhone, iPods, iPads and Apple Watches. The devices will be distributed to hotel staff and pre-loaded with the Connect Staff application to utilize for daily workflow and communication among and across departments.
Hotel brands are also looking to provide VIP guests with iPads and Apple Watches during their stay, giving them access the Connect guest app for local recommendations and hotel information.
“We’ve been working closely with them to transform the hospitality industry,” Marcus said. “That led us to relationships with AT&T and other global providers who are selling us to customers. They are able to take our product and turn it on for their existing clients. That relationship with Apple is what pushed us to the point where we are moving very fast.”
Although facing massive growth, Monscierge has no plans to leave Oklahoma.
“Our primary investors when we started were i2e and myself, along with a couple of angel investors. Oklahoma has been very good to us. I grew up here, and I have another company here too. I think there is a lot of untapped talent in Oklahoma City in software development and technology. We are able to tap into that. “