Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Hanging out with Lewis Hamilton: A look inside Marriott's money-can't-buy experiences, and more

Rajeev Menon, president, Marriott International for Asia Pacific excluding China, speaks about the Bonvoy loyalty programme's rewards, expansion plans and hotels for millennials

Pankti Mehta Kadakia
Published: Jun 12, 2024 01:49:36 PM IST
Updated: Jun 12, 2024 05:03:26 PM IST

Rajeev Menon, president, Marriott International for Asia Pacific excluding China (APEC)Rajeev Menon, president, Marriott International for Asia Pacific excluding China (APEC)
What if you could watch not one, not two, but three stops of Taylor Swift’s historic Eras tour, without selling a kidney? Or hang out with Lewis Hamilton at an F1 garage? Or fly to Sydney to watch the Australian Open, with a pit stop at the ‘back of the house’, the area from which Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic walk through—a ‘place you can’t buy a ticket to’?

It won’t cost you money up front, but will have you bid with carefully collected rewards points at Marriott hotels over the years. As part of Marriott’s loyalty programme, called Marriott Bonvoy, which celebrates its fifth anniversary this year, the hotel chain is looking to woo customers with ‘money-can’t-buy’ experiences.

The programme has spurred a marked increase in loyal customers from the Asia Pacific region. Just this year, for the Australian Open, Bonvoy customers have redeemed some 14 million points, says Rajeev Menon, president, Marriott International for Asia Pacific excluding China (APEC). Luxury customers are willing to build up their points base for the promise of access, he adds, fresh off the opening of India’s 150th Marriott property, at Katra, the seat of the famed Vaishno Devi temple.

In India, spiritual tourism has always existed, but expectations from accommodation have changed, he adds. Edited excerpts from an interview with Forbes India:

Q. It’s Marriott’s 25th year in India, and you’ve just opened its 150th property in the country. In 2024, the brand will open 12 new hotels. What drives your expansion plans in India?
We’ve opened a few of those already, including the Moxy in Bengaluru, and the Katra Marriott, on the steps of the Vaishno Devi. By the end of the year, we’ll have 12 new hotels, just over 1,200 keys.

Talking about our expansion into secondary and tertiary markets, as we come into any country, we first set up in primary and gateway cities. Once the main cities are established, the company generally moves into the secondary and tertiary markets. Marriott is now present in more than 40 cities in the country, which means we are exploring many secondary and tertiary markets, such as Raipur, Surat, Bhopal, Indore. Now, we’re seeing expansion all the way through the Northeast, including Shillong and Siliguri.

What we are seeing is that these secondary and tertiary markets, to some degree are growing as strongly, if not stronger, than the primary and gateway cities. As middle-class India acquires wealth, it’s very clear that the customer base has high aspirations, they want to travel, they want to experience international brands.

When we opened a Courtyard by Marriott in Ahmedabad in 2009-2010, it very quickly became the Marriott of the city. Similarly, when we first opened the Courtyard by Marriott in Gorakhpur, it became the Marriott of the city. And these hotels ended up becoming the social hub for the community. Fairfield by Marriott is no different.

So the opportunity to drive food and beverage revenue and rooms revenue is considerable in these locations. And we are seeing that success.

Also, as our Bonvoy loyalty programme continues to grow, we are seeing many members from the secondary and tertiary markets. As part of that aspirational story, they want to be part of the loyalty programme. They may start off at a [lower-end] Fairfield property initially, but eventually could end up staying at Ritz Carlton or St Regis hotels as they travel around the world and acquire more wealth. So we really see the opportunity to continue to grow across the country. And I’d say in the next couple of years, we would be present in more than 50 cities across India.

Rajeev Menon, president, Marriott International for Asia Pacific excluding China (APEC)The new Moxy hotel in Bengaluru is aimed at millennials and Gen Z guests; the Courtyard by Marriott in Gorakhpur

Q. How does Marriott’s Bonvoy loyalty programme engage the top-end customer? It has had some stellar sports and music partnerships, for instance. What has the response been to those?
If you look at the last couple of years, coming out of Covid, almost 80 percent of the new signings for us are in the luxury and premium end of the scale. Pre-Covid, for the few years around 2018-19, we were signing more of what we would call ‘upscale hotels’. So like Courtyard by Marriott, Four Points by Sheraton, Aloft, Fairfield by Marriott and so on.

It has shifted because customers are very focussed, coming out of Covid, on experiences. Marriott Bonvoy has therefore been tailored to become a loyalty platform, beyond hotel stay and redemptions. It’s about creating an ecosystem where our customers can get amazing experiences beyond the world of just hotels. So we have incredible sports partnerships with Mercedes-AMG, Petronas for Grand Prix racing, we have Manchester United in football. We sponsor Australian Open tennis, we’ve been doing a fair bit of cricket sponsorships.

In the world of music, we’ve been  sponsoring the Taylor Swift Eras Tour, Ed Sheeran recently in Mumbai, and so on. We’ve been bringing some of the top chefs from around the world to India, through what we call the Masters of Marriott programme. So it really is about creating these money-can’t-buy experiences for our loyal customers, that in many cases, they can bid for with points.

So, for example, just this year, for the Australian Open, our Bonvoy customers redeemed some 14 million points. And they were able to see the ‘back of the house’, where all the players go through; this is where the Nadals and the Djokovics of the world enter through and go to the lockers. In simple terms, there is no ticket that you can buy to this place. When you think about watching the Grand Prix and also hang out with [Lewis] Hamilton in the garage, you cannot buy a ticket for that.
In Asia Pacific alone, our membership has grown 50 percent since 2019.

Also read: Global luxe brands rush to cater to the VIP Indian tourist

Q. What sort of growth are you seeing in the spiritual tourism market?
This is definitely on the rise, in terms of expectation of quality accommodation. Spiritual tourism is not new—I used to travel to Vaishno Devi as a child with my family too—but back then, we would stay in guest houses, because there were no quality hotels at these locations.

Today’s traveller expects a quality experience because now they have a considerable amount of wealth. They want to be comfortable. People have always showed up in droves at these destinations, but now, we are able to provide great accommodation and food and beverage options. Earlier, people would do day trips, but now, they are staying the night, or even doing weddings or smaller events.

We’re seeing this demand, be it in Shirdi, Nashik, Amritsar, Ayodhya—across all the great religious destinations in India.

Q. Tell us more about the Moxy brand, which has just entered India, through Bengaluru in January.
We designed Moxy in partnership with Ikea, the furniture company. This brand is designed specifically for millennials. The focus is on communal spaces, and rooms that are very different compared to traditional hotel rooms.

Typically, guests want to hang out around the bar, and it’s all about great music in the lobby, or a game of pool or foosball, lots of interactive communal spaces. This particular customer base prefers to hang out downstairs in the lobby.

So when you think about the rooms, there’s no wardrobe—you just hang your clothes on the wall. You even hang the table and chair on the wall, so when you need them, you pull them down. You can choose configurations of bunk beds, beds put straight together or ‘toe to toe’ configurations where beds are in a line. It’s fun, it’s creative, it’s different, and that’s what makes it special.

Our next Moxy hotel will open in Mumbai, and we have a few more under construction. This is a brand will go into gateway cities as well as in the secondary and tertiary markets. Because as India continues to evolve, particularly the millennials, Gen Z, they feel very comfortable, almost at home, with this particular brand. The Bengaluru one has been getting great reviews. We have also opened one in Bangkok this year, another one in Malaysia. And last year, we opened one in Sydney. So we are seeing some incredible openings of Moxy across Asia Pacific. And as far as I’m concerned, you will see this brand grow really, really well over the next few years.

(This story appears in the 14 June, 2024 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)