The pandemic and its aftermath has greatly affected the way we view travel, and needless to say, it has taken a toll on the hospitality sector.
At the height of it all, hoteliers had to be quick on their feet when it came to drastic, unexpected changes – from constantly changing governmental restrictions to a fall in occupancy rate – to introduce new cleaning procedures and different staycation packages for local holidaymakers to ease the negative impact of the pandemic.
Within the industry, the luxury sector suffered the brunt of it. Leading hospitality company Marriott International, for instance, experienced its first full-year loss in 2021, after more than a decade of revenue growth, citing that the impact had been more severe than what the hotel chain had experienced during 9/11 and the financial crisis combined.
Now that the global situation has lightened up dramatically and travel is once again back on the cards for many, we’re checking in with Jennie Toh, Vice President of Brand Marketing and Brand Management, Asia Pacific, Marriott International. The Singaporean-born, Hong Kong-based individual has spent 25 years with the brand, so it’s safe to say she was the best person to chat about her time in the hospitality industry, the future of luxury travel, and what the newer generation of travellers are looking out for these days.
Read on for the full interview:
Tell us a little more about yourself and what you do at Marriott International.
As the Vice President of Brand Marketing and Brand Management for Asia Pacific at Marriott International, my current position is to make sure that we lead the 24 brands and make sure that it stays top of mind for our consumers in the various market. I refer to it as relevancy, recency as well as frequency.
The particular part that I’m very passionate about in this role is really the brand management and programming activation — to make sure that we continue to keep to the true essence of the brand globally, while we align the company’s brand strategy, as well as the global standards to continue to be true to the market and be true to our customers in this part of the world.
You’ve been with the brand for more than two decades — that’s no easy feat. How did the journey start and what has it been like so far?
In the years that I’ve been in this leadership role above the property level, I have been the discipline and subject matter expert for room operations. So every single check-in that you experience, housekeeping, guest room standards, spa operations, the general public spaces, activation of all of the standards that we have, I have been able to deal with that. To be able to guide and direct the hotels together with our area and general managers, I would say that the past 11 years hasn’t something that was very flat in terms of the experiences, because during that whole 11 years, we rolled out the Marriott Bonvoy Travel Program in 2019.
We also activated the China outbound Li Yu program for our Chinese customers coming from mainland China and into various parts of Asia, as well as globally. From Bangkok to Singapore, all the way down under to Australia, as well as to San Francisco and France and major parts of Europe, that outbound program was huge for the company at the time.
You must be crazy passionate about hospitality to have stayed in the industry for so long, right?
That is true, and I think I’m not the only one. I think if you ask a lot of the Marriott associates and the leaders in this company, it’s really about the passion for the business, right? Because passion is the only way to move you forward. To think about what you can contribute to the associates in their career and the way that we really deliver against the guest experience, and all of the promises that we make to our consumers.
Plus, the fact that opening a new hotel is always exciting, right? You get to touch and feel all the real things, you get to interact with the associates that really want to be part of the creation of excellence as we move down the journey. So, I will say that I’m very fortunate to be in this business.
Speaking of opening new hotels, what was that like for you during COVID-19 since you’re based in Hong Kong right now?
The last two and a half years were difficult, I agree with you. Pre-pandemic, in 2015 all the way till 2019, those were really our golden years: you could see that Marriott build up our strength in growing our business and portfolio in this part of the world, and it was very important for us to travel and to be out there with our team members on property.
To make sure that we deliver training, we deliver the experiences and all of the engagement directly with them, not just the general manager, but with the frontline associates, that is really, the true essence of delivering the branded experiences. For the past two and a half years, we have been very focused on making sessions online very interactive, in the way that we train our voice, the background that we use and the interaction of the polling questions on the system — all of those things really helped to create engagement. Of course, it was best done in person, but we’re very, very happy that technology has helped to enable us over the past few years, to continue to be able to interact in almost real-time.
Now that we’re technically in a post-pandemic situation for the most of the world, what do you think some of the factors are determining the trends for hotels?
You wouldn’t believe this, but demand is soaring and growing even more quickly than any other time we have seen. There is a very strong desire to travel with all the borders reopening. I think today, other than Japan, that hasn’t fully opened, as well, as you know, most of the Greater China region, I will say that the rest of the borders reopening has really helped us understand that there’s a very strong pent up demand to return to travel.
What we’ve seen from our numbers is that the acceleration to return to travel has grown exponentially. That would definitely be one of the key factors to drive the trend on how we cope with the post-pandemic situation.
The second point that I wanted to highlight is the renewed appreciation of the power of travel, as well as all of the expectations on the branded experiences that we are going to deliver in this post-pandemic era. If you think about it, the pandemic has forced people to reprioritize and rethink the purpose of travel. I hope people continue to be kinder and gentler in their speech and everything to the associates that are really doing their best to serve them during this post-pandemic period, because as you can imagine, the standard on cleanliness, the hygiene level, the service elements, have been adjusted to make sure that we cope with the new order of travel.
There’s a great indication for us that our customers are looking for a new meaning, as well as new expectations that have evolved because of this particular pandemic. I will say that many people realise that attainment of joy, wellness and personal growth as they traveled to different locations, which was once probably viewed as a “nice to have”, has become a “need to have.”
Has there been a shift in terms of what luxury travellers are seeking out now?
It’s no longer about the hotel experience anymore, it’s about the journey to the destination. More guests are looking for one-of-a-kind, unique experiences. This renewed appreciation for travel is also shaping the way we deliver service and we deliver our brand experiences.
The Ritz-Carlton yacht collection, for instance, will be launching in late 2022. This will really bring the guest experience from the hotel on land to the sea level. We have also launched homes and villas by Marriott International: this particular curated and growing collection of 60,000 premium and luxury homes, and rentals in over 700 markets have been very, very well received. I have to say that we just launched this in Australia and New Zealand, around mid-June this year, and we have already added another three around 50 premium and luxury homes to the entire platform in prime leisure locations, including Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, as well as Queenstown in New Zealand.
So all of these new product extensions of the brand are critical to cope with the new travel trends that we’re seeing people wanting to stay longer people wanting to be purposeful in their travel, and people want to explore different options of travel experiences, not just with the hotel, but what else the brand has to offer beyond the hotel.
Touching on guest experiences, Marriott launched Commitment to Clean to tackle the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, but is this something that will be a permanent fixture in most of your properties even after everything blows over?
I would say that we want to align with the government’s calling. The Commitment to Clean concept that we have developed, used to be an add-on, but now it has become the foundation. We will follow exactly what the local hygiene regulations would like us to do, and this is oftentimes in alignment with what we have created in the commitment to clean protocol. If a particular practice such as masking in indoor spaces is no longer a requirement, we’ll dial it up or scale down, according to the regulations and the local sentiments of the guests that we are serving.
I’m sure that in your years at Marriott, you’ve seen changes in the expectations across travellers of different generations. What are some differences in the wants and needs the next generation travellers are looking for? How have you guys been adapting to this?
If you think about the next generation of travellers, I think having a purpose in travel is critically important: to be able to contribute back to the locale and the people in that location, is something that we keep seeing. I also see that the next generation of travelers are looking for personal growth. They want to be able to understand the history and the heritage of the place that they’re visiting.
For that, we are really scaling our offerings to keep things fresh and renewed. The Ritz Carlton Club, for instance, has traditionally been known to be an elevated top-of-the-line luxury experience for business travelers. Post-pandemic, we’re starting to recreate the meaning of personalised luxury experiences in the club; from every single touch point from the time that they arrive to the time that they depart from the hotel. What we are doing is to make sure that these thoughtful experiences, food and beverage offerings have been curated and shifted in order to meet the new demands.
At the Ritz-Carlton Xi’An, you will see the chef create a home-cooked noodle dish because that is the dish that he grew up with. For him to be able to tell the story and help the guests who are at the club lounge to understand what that dish means to him and the location, and for them to experience the taste of childhood from his younger days.
There is a fantastic turtle conservation effort over at JW Marriott Phuket, where we bring in the local experts to really speak to the guests at the hotel to understand how the whole ecology works and for them to personally experience how to harvest and support the growth of this little turtles before we send them back out to the sea.
We are now actually presenting a new program that will be available in Q4 of this year, in all of our Ritz-Carlton hotels in Asia Pacific (excluding Greater China) for young little guests, together with your parents, to understand more about the journey of Leo the Lion, which is the Ritz kids mascot, and take them to the locale, help them understand, the responsibility that we have towards nature, as well as the local culture as they visit each of our hotel. During these programs, they would have the opportunity to interact with local people which will allow them to capture the essence of the place.
Could you can share a little bit about what do you think people will be expecting in the future of luxury travel and experiences?
I think fundamentals will not change, right? You want a good night’s sleep, strong Wi-Fi and technology support when you get to a hotel of luxury status.
I will say that sustainability is something that we cannot dismiss. We’re now in the final process of eliminating all single-use plastic shower amenities. By the end of this year, you will see almost all of our luxury brands replacing the small mini bottles into biodegradable large bottles that would help to make sure that we reduce our plastics back to the environment.
Technology as we mentioned, is something that is a key element for the next generation. If you have been a user of the Marriott Bonvoy app, you would have seen how we have had we have transformed. In the past, it was just a place for you to view reservations or hotel portfolio, but now it’s a place where you can interact live with the hotel: there is a check-in function, a check-out function, there is a service chat that you can set up when you stay at that particular hotel to chat with the associates. With the chat function, associates can help you explore the locale and aid you with services that you probably in the past might not be aware that.
Speaking of single-use plastics, I feel like a lot of travellers, especially Asian ones may hanker for single-use shampoo and soap. Did you guys get any feedback from guests wanting to collect them to bring them home?
We’re actually very happy when some of them ask for it. We call them the raving brand fans. When I was visiting our EDITION hotel in Tokyo, where they have already implemented the residential bath amenities in the bathroom, some Japanese local guests ask, “Can I have a takeaway of this, because I really love the scent. It helps me remind myself and my husband about the stay at your hotel.” These requests still trickle in through the various request platforms. But I think as we explained further on, the purpose why we have switched to the larger size bottles, a lot of guests, in the very, very near future, would really be able to understand that.
For more about Marriott International and their offerings, click here.