Luxury travel is growing in double digits year on year: Marriott's Rajeev Menon

President Asia Pacific (excluding Greater China) of Marriott International Rajeev Menon on hospitality trends, the brand's focus on leisure and luxury travel and their plans to open 15 new hotels in India

Published: Oct 23, 2021 09:57:05 AM IST
Updated: Oct 22, 2021 03:32:13 PM IST

Rajeev Menon, President Asia Pacific (excluding Greater China), Marriott International

In the last difficult 18 months of the Covid-19 pandemic, Marriott International signed 22 deals to open 22 new hotels in South Asia—in India, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Nepal—out of which 15 are in India and six of which are luxury properties.

The 15, starting with six luxury hotels, are W Jaipur, JW Marriott Ranthambore Resort & Spa, JW Marriott Chennai ECR Resort & Spa, JW Marriott Agra Resort & Spa, JW Marriott Goa, JW Marriott Shimla Resort & Spa, Moxy Mumbai Andheri West, Courtyard by Marriott Gorakhpur, Courtyard by Marriott Tiruchirappalli, Courtyard by Marriott Goa Arpora, Courtyard by Marriott Ranchi, two Fairfields by Marriott Jaipur, Katra Marriott Resort & Spa and Westin Goa.

The new signings are indicative of the growing demand for domestic travel and luxury stays in India, especially at leisure destinations, even as the hospitality sector in the country rapidly recovers.

Singapore-based Rajeev Menon, President Asia Pacific (excluding Greater China), Marriott International, visited India after a gap of almost one-and-a-half years to meet his colleagues and partners and take stock of the business in the country. During his official trip to New Delhi, Forbes India spoke to him about the reasons behind Indian hospitality’s rapid recovery, current trends in luxury hospitality, the new age of digital-savvy and multi-tasking hotel employees and support required from the government to accelerate business.

What do these new deals and openings tell us about the hospitality industry in India today?

Even in the toughest time (Covid-19 pandemic) in the industry, it is great to see that the long-term fundamentals of travel and tourism remain pretty strong. We are always looking for more opportunities in India, and I am extremely proud of the team for the record number of signings.

As people are coming out of the pandemic, they want to travel and spend time with family. As access to international destinations such as Europe or Thailand is still restricted, people are looking inward and exploring domestic destinations, which is great for our resorts. You see this trend and pattern in the new deals as well. Over 50 percent of the upcoming properties are leisure-oriented and luxury, especially of JW Marriott. It is a testimony of how popular the brand is in India and how strong is our partners’ confidence in it, especially after seeing the demand and success of JW Marriott - Mussoorie Walnut Grove Resort.

Why is there a focus on luxury properties at leisure destinations?

For a number of years, even in pre-Covid times, we saw leisure travel grow 4X times than business travel across the globe. Luxury travel is growing in double digits year on year. Even in India there is more demand for leisure travel. While Goa has always been India’s playground, in a country as large as India the number of luxury resorts and hotels at other leisure destinations is limited. Even in the Covid pandemic, people want to go out and take short breaks of 3 to 5 days and are happy driving to a destination.

Also, as wealth increases, the aspiration to travel grows as well. Hence, you see a lot more leisure and luxury development.

Amongst upcoming hotels there is one Moxy property in Mumbai, which will mark the brand’s debut here. Globally, there is a lot of demand for Moxy, a young, millennial brand, and our Mumbai partner, with whom we have another property in the city, was also keen on having one in Andheri.

How has the hospitality industry changed and evolved in the pandemic?

Much has changed, from both the consumer and business point of view.

Contactless experience: Customers and hotel associates have leapfrogged in the use of technology. Did you ever use a QR code for anything in a hotel before Covid? Today, if you walk into a restaurant and somebody gives you a menu, you would wonder what’s going on and demand a QR code. We see contactless experience led by technology being widely accepted now, even though we were pushing for it even before the pandemic. At most Marriott hotels around the world, you can now check in, check out, order food, access elevators, all without making any or very limited contact with hotel staff.

Hybrid meetings: Globally, meetings and conferences were a major part of our business before the pandemic. It’s not that people won’t meet face to face anymore, but hybrid meetings are here to stay. You will have a few people attend the physical meeting at the venue and many others will dial-in virtually. This is and will be the new normal. All hotels are equipping themselves with the required technology to bring in people from across the world to virtually attend the meeting happening at a place.

Purposeful travel: During the lockdown, most people had the time to reflect about the lifestyle they lead and the choices they make and their impact on the planet. People are now more drawn towards purposeful travel, are keener on giving back to the community, look after the world, and stay with hotels that they know are making a difference. Early this year we launched the Good Travel - Marriott Bonvoy programme in 15 of our hotels around the world and it has been received very well. In the Maldives, we have the coral planting project and it’s incredible to see the kind of engagement we have been getting for it from our guests. We are now expanding the programme to all resorts and will eventually bring it to the city hotels as well.

Given the technological advancement, has Marriott changed its hiring in any way? Are you hiring fewer people?

We haven’t changed our hiring policy, but there is a real need to multi-skill our associates. When I started my career 30 years ago, all roles were assigned. A cashier would only do his job; someone else would only check-in guests. But today, everyone is doing a little bit of everything. People across verticals are assisting guests, helping out with F&B if required and doing more.

So, multi-skilling and digital learning have become very important for hospitality employees.

We have a digital learning zone for employees and associates are required to take live classes.

You could say that hotels have become leaner (not hiring as many employees per hotel as before the pandemic), but it varies in different hotels. But, yes, productivity across hotels has definitely improved.

Do you see a recovery in the hospitality sector?

Globally, we are in the recovery phase. In June of this year, our global RevPar (Revenue per available room) was down 38 percent as compared to 2019. In July, it was down 23 percent to 2019.

We have seen that recovery in bigger markets such as the US and China is quite strong. In China, our RevPar in July was 9 percent more than 2019. But in August they had a couple of cases and they shut down a few cities, impacting the business.

Wherever the government has been able to contain the virus and ease restrictions, business has been bouncing back rapidly.

In India, in the second quarter of this year, during the humanitarian crisis of the deadly second wave of Covid-19 in the country, our RevPar was down 74 percent. In comparison, in July it was down only 47 percent and in August we were down about 40 percent.

In Asia (except for China), India is growing at the fastest rate and I think the domestic business in India will bounce back to 2019 levels by next year.

What is your recovery plan for India?

It is evident that countries with a bigger domestic base will recover faster. Our focus in India too is on inbound travel and to go hyper local. That’s the key phrase in the recovery plan.

Currently, the leisure sector is leading the recovery. Fifty percent of our booking is coming in three to four days before the travel date. We are also seeing some growth in the corporate sector with bookings from SMEs. They are already on the move, and we are ensuring that our customers have a seamless booking experience on all our digital booking platforms.

Some innovations introduced in the lockdown have been doing very well. And one of them is Marriott Bonvoy on Wheels. If you had asked me how many hotels provided take-away food pre-pandemic, I would have told you not many because we were not necessarily in that business, except for maybe Diwali hampers. But in the pandemic, we have seen a real shift here. People across Asia have become comfortable ordering from hotels and we see a real growth in take-away dining experiences. India is currently leading this growth.

We are rapidly adopting newer technologies for people to have a quick and efficient ordering experience.

Out of all the current trends, which ones do you think are here to stay and which ones may not be that prominent post the pandemic?

The trend of staycations is here to stay. Most people never checked into a hotel a few kilometres down the road from where they are staying, but in the pandemic they did that and have enjoyed it. Everyone is keen on just getting out for a bit so people will continue taking multiple short trips over the weekends and on special occasions.

Also, safety and hygiene is and will continue to be the point of entry for any customer into a hotel. These will be the minimum ask. Customers will book with brands they trust to have superior hygiene and safety measures.

What kind of support do you expect from the government to accelerate the recovery of the hospitality business in India? Do you plan to shut any Marriott hotels in the near future?

Many countries and not just developed nations but even Thailand extended credit lines for the hospitality sector; some also cut interest rates and supported the industry in other ways. We didn’t see that level of support from the Indian government. Going by data, the pandemic has hurt many standalone hotels in the country. Thus, going forward, we will continue to push for industry status for the hospitality sector, and partner with the government in developing local talents.

If the government lends its support in marketing India as a safe destination, I genuinely see incredible opportunity for the Indian hospitality industry to grow.

Also, when it comes to Marriott, we have been growing at an exponential rate in the country. Our first managed hotel here, the Goa Marriott Resort & Spa, opened in 1999. Today, we have 125 hotels across 16 brands and we will get to 200 hotels by 2025. I am not aware of any that will shut down. Has the pandemic taken its toll? Yes. But we have been working with our partners and finding ways to not only survive the pandemic but, in the long run, also thrive.

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