When I arrived at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas last week, I found they had put me up in one of their new Skylofts. These two-level suites, on the top floors of the hotel, were built to impress the casinos high-rollers, but I suspect they would amaze even George and Jane Jetson.

A single hand-held device controls the lighting, curtains, DVD and CD players and the four flat-screen TVs in the suite. Press a button and an infinity bathtub (filled to the brim, sitting in a catchment basin) tickles the bather with champagne bubbles. Or, if you need more stimulation during your morning toilette, theres a five-nozzle shower.

Theres an espresso machine (with six types of whole beans), six tins of snacks from Dean & Delucca, fresh berries and a half-dozen blends of tea. Glass bottles of Norwegian water, sparkling like ice atop a fjord, are close at hand no matter where you are in the suite.

All of these amenities, the management of MGM Grand must know, can be duplicated, and theres the possibility that one day I may forget in which hotel I first saw them. But theres one more thing that they put in the suite that Ill never forget: On the pillows of my bed was a framed photo of my family.

OK, this was a killer touch (momentary concerns about privacy issues aside). I may not recall all of the 18 types of pillows I could have chosen from, but Ill always remember what was on the pillows.

The next day I had lunch with the MGM Grands senior vice president of sales and marketing, David Van Kalsbeek, who talked about his propertys approach to guest relations.

Maya Angelou said, People will forget what you say, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. A welcome basket certainly brings a guest to one level of feeling. A photo of the family brings you to another.

Perhaps the only thing more surprising than finding my familys picture in my room was hearing a Las Vegas sales guy quoting Maya Angelou. But Van Kalsbeek takes the experiential impact of business interactions seriously, and this has raised concerns about aspects of his supply chain.

My fastest-growing booking channel is Expedia, Van Kalsbeek said. But Im concerned about their ability to make real connections with customers.

Expedia may get to know whether you prefer an aisle or window seat, but they need to get beyond that. They need to know me. They need to present different destinations and different styles of travel differently. I have a differentiated product -- weve got Skylofts, the Mansion, the West Wing. JPEGs arent enough. Anyone with enough money can build a palace and take a picture of it. JPEGs cant impart a level of service, and thats my sustainable competitive advantage.

The result is that rooms are sold on price, and that doesnt work for me. As it is now, once you decide where you are going, every Expedia customer gets fed into the same booking process. Thats not good enough.

I think one issue the online agencies face that MGM Grand may not is the degree of trust that clients are willing to extend. When I saw the photo of my family, my first thought was, Wow! But my second thought was, How did they get that picture? (Someone on our staff had supplied it.)

On the other hand, if I logged onto Expedia and my familys photo popped onto the welcome screen, I think Id be more than a little freaked. Online privacy has a range of issues associated with it that might stand between the online agencies and their clients.

I have visited offline agencies that have photos of their clients families on display, and I asked Van Kalsbeek whether he felt that travel agents might have client relationships more in line with what MGM Grand is trying to do.

Yes, he said, and we rely heavily on agents who have seen the products and can walk a customer through the differences. I just wish there was more volume. Everyones in danger of being marginalized by Expedia. I said that when it comes to product differentiation, they arent where they need to be. It would be more accurate to say that they arent where they need to be -- yet.

Once, it could have been argued that Expedias processes were a function of sales, and the Skyloft experience was an extension of marketing -- apples and oranges. But now both are part of the total guest experience. And in this view, the online channel presents challenges for marketers like Van Kalsbeek.

I suspect therell soon be databases that combine preferences Ive let slip to info collectors at various points in my life, and that this data will find its way to online vendors of every stripe. What will happen when every marketer tries to pluck my heartstrings?

Inevitably, my feelings will be deadened to these attempts. Perhaps Maya Angelou has some advice for sales and marketing executives of the future: How do you approach George and Jane Jetson when they forget what you say, forget what you do and dont particularly want an onslaught of commercial interests trying to make them feel special?


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