Out of all the economic hardships stemming from Covid-19, the travel industry has faced its share. According to the U.S. Travel Association, the U.S. travel industry has suffered $481 billion in cumulative losses since the beginning of March. Globally, the industry has dropped 42.1 percent from the previous year, totaling $396.37 billion, down from an estimated $712 billion. So when you’re Marriott International – the world’s leading hotel operator with with more than 430 hotels and resorts in over 65 countries – what do you do? You recalibrate and double down.
Showing no signs of slowing, Marriott is poised to open 35 luxury properties in 2021 and, in doing so, is analyzing and adapting to every facet of travel and hospitality during the pandemic. Particularly for the luxury sector, spanning St. Regis, Ritz-Carlton, The Edition, W Hotels, Bulgari Hotels, JW Marriott and the Luxury Collection, that might mean creating personalized, intimate opportunities for guests – from cardio pods, to full floor takeovers, to private dining experiences.
In an interview below, Tina Edmundson, Marriott’s global brand and marketing officer weighs in on how the brand is moving forward during this uncertain time, namely by embracing technology, reframing the hotel as the destination and offering its clientele unique experiences that will resonate way beyond the pandemic.
How has luxury travel changed during the Covid-19 pandemic?
Luxury travel is more personal now. Guests want to define their experience and have choices, both on and off property. Affluent customers are still traveling and have the means to do so in a way that makes them feel safe. There is not a refrain on travel spending but a redirection of spending toward accommodations, where we’re seeing luxury travelers increase booking the highest room categories, as well as engage in “pod travel” with friends and families. They’re traveling in groups and taking over an entire floor or wing of a hotel to create a private bubble.
There is a marked increase in in-room dining as well as requests for private meals and special dining offers. In terms of wellness, guests are looking for more personalized offerings as well as outdoor options when it comes to spa and fitness.
How is Marriott adapting as a brand?
First, we’re engaging in an increased use of technology, both contactless and mobile. We’re offering clear and transparent communication. Our pre-trip communication is increasing as well as on-property communication. Guests want to know before booking what their experience on property will look like.
Pre-Covid, a guest may have called a hotel and spent one to two minutes on the phone with a front desk associate. Now, that interaction is taking five minutes or longer, as guests seek to discuss even the most granular of details related to their stay. Non-verbal communication is also important. At the Ritz-Carlton, St. Louis, our general manager leads the property’s employees in body language exercises, working with them on how to effectively communicate a warm welcome when a smile is covered by a mask. Guests want visual cues. They want to see signage and sanitation stations, and to show that protocols are being enforced.
How is the pandemic making you re-think hotel design?
Across the portfolio, we are seeing properties repurposing spaces that once focused on group activities or gathers. Also, hotels that don’t have the benefit of outdoor space are looking to transform their public spaces for more private experiences. W Boston, for example, has converted a closed restaurant into a boxing studio, while W Mexico City offers socially distanced spin classes on its terrace. JW Marriott San Francisco has taken guest rooms and turned them into private “cardio pods” where guests can use a treadmill without the fear of neighbors.
As we look beyond Covid-19, how do you envision the future of hospitality?
We see the potential for a surge in leisure travel similar to what we saw this past summer. People are currently booking more last-minute travel but they are also planning and expecting a time when future travel has normalized. Due to the current economic conditions, affluents consumers are less comfortable with conspicuous luxury. They are shifting to a “buy few and finer” mindset.
We’re also seeing the hotel becoming the destination. Where the hotel used to serve as the gateway for exploring and discovering a new locale, immersive experiences must now happen on property. Our luxury brands are developing new programming to further embrace the destination — from home-cooking experiences to master classes in culture and cuisine to transformed public spaces. Brand signature programming is being emphasized, from sabrage at St. Regis to Ritz Kids programming to give a greater sense of place. Hotels are also becoming a community hub, championing the local arts, supporting regional restaurants and chefs and increasing charitable efforts as a part of the hotel experience.
Are there any silver linings you’d like to note? A reason to feel hopeful?
86 percent of Marriott International’s luxury hotels are open globally, and our resort properties in mountain, beach and desert locations are doing very well. For example, in the U.S., our five mountain resorts, including The St. Regis Aspen, W Aspen, The Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch, The St. Regis Deer Valley, and The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe all outperformed last year’s occupancy this October and November. The St. Regis Sanya Yalong Bay has experienced growth rates of 50 percent due to strong domestic travel in China. Our luxury properties are seeing an increase in repeat guests since the pandemic, as guests feel safer returning to a trusted brand and a familiar experience.