- By: Deepali Nandwani
The unprecedented crisis caused by a rigid COVID-19 induced lockdown has the entire travel and hospitality industry flummoxed. The challenge lies in instilling confidence in people to travel. Neeraj Govil, Senior Vice President–South Asia, Marriott International, has implemented a multi-pronged approach: getting the SOPs right, motivating the team, creating a safe environment, and leveraging the vast network of Marriott Bonvoy members, inspiring them to travel with great deals and flexible policy on reservations and points.
The hotel group has one of the world’s largest loyalty programmes. In 2018, Marriott’s acquisition of Starwood gave its loyalty programme an additional heft, when they integrated the latter’s Preferred Guest list. In 2019, they rebranded the programme as Marriott Bonvoy, offering members access to exclusive events, besides unveiling a raft of benefits.
Govil speaks about his plans for Marriott International in the Indian market and why people, when they begin travelling, will choose to stay with trusted brands like his.
What has been your learning from the pandemic as a hotelier and an individual?
I think I took in quite a few learnings. Given my role, I travel quite regularly. Not being able to travel was a jolt to my system. But what kept me motivated is our ability to learn, adapt, adjust and emerge from this crisis. I have put in a great deal of structure into my day to stay disciplined and take care of my physical and mental health.
On the professional front, the learnings have been several: How can we increasingly deploy technology for guest experience; how can we adapt and change formats; how do we keep our teams motivated, especially when we are not with them all the time; how do we stay connected and motivate them through digital platforms.
How would you describe your journey over the last three months?
The total lockdown over so many months was completely unexpected and hit many sectors, particularly travel, tourism and hospitality. We had seen what was happening in China and by the time the pandemic set into India, we knew what to expect.
India is in a very different phase in the time cycle of COVID-19 then the rest of the world. The lockdown slowed down the spread for a while, but now with things opening up, it seems we will see a peak in mid-or-end July. The biggest challenge is the great degree of uncertainty around the duration of this crisis.
We are not able to make any decisions with any degree of decisiveness. We are also concerned about the current state of the economy and the resultant slowdown we are going to witness. It may hamper people from travelling, so we have to ensure extra care in reaching out and telling guests that we provide a safe environment.
We have kept the stakeholders, the owners of the properties engaged since a vast majority of our hotels are owned by our partners. Obviously, with business not translating into bottom-lines, there is considerable stress. We have tried reducing our costs as a responsible partner.
How do you see the hospitality industry evolve from this point? What will the hotel experience be like for guests once they start returning?
I see some great trends emerging in the medium-to-long term. A lot of it will change the way we run our hotels.
Our experience with the pandemic will help us transform our lifestyles. Working from home will be more acceptable now. We have learnt digital meetings are a better way to utilise our time effectively. A lot of people will socialise at home, backed by high-quality catering, instead of going out, and we see opportunities there.
We will witness the emergence of restaurants with less seating even in the hotel space. Instead, we will extend the duration for which the restaurant will stay open, to cater to demand. I see an emergence of an entirely new category: shorter road travel and destinations you can reach on shorter flights.
Guests will come to expect the deployment of more technology and automation from hotels. The focus of travel will shift to personal wellbeing and the environment. There will be transformative changes in the way we travel and holiday, which will reflect in the hotels. There will be more emphasis on health and hygiene. Hotels will also rationalise their supply chain and run far more efficiently.
Security became a big part of the hotel operations after 9/11. Now there will be a huge emphasis on hygiene and sanitation. There will be some changes in the short term, and some will stick around for long.
Big hotels leave huge carbon footprints. There is a belief that guests may be attracted to more sustainable hotels. How will that play out with the industry in general, and Marriott in particular?
Most hotels are taking steps to eliminate the use of plastic and move away from providing bathroom amenities in plastic bottles. But for Marriott International, there is a clear commitment towards incorporating changes at the planning and design levels, down to the smallest details, like how we can avoid water and power wastage across all our properties. We are educating our associates about the need to be far more sustainable.
But sustainability goes beyond design and amenities. It involves the networks from which we source the food and beverage; it involves creating a sustainable supply chain. We have continued to look for wonderful local partners. India has advanced tremendously in this field and we can source good products locally. We want the food to travel less and offer more farm-to-plate, seasonal dining experiences to guests. But the emphasis has always been on great quality ingredients, so for those produce and ingredients we don’t find good local sources we continue to look at imported ones.
How big is domestic tourism for Marriott and which are the hotels you see doing well once you reopen?
We all know by now that international travel is a while away. We will focus on domestic consumers. Our immediate focus is on attracting domestic consumers. Marriott’s consumer base is 85 to 90% domestic and we will see a further tilt towards that segment shortly.
Bangalore and Kochi have already opened up. What I can tell you is this: Tier-II market and resort locations will rebound first. Destinations that allow people to drive in will do well, such as resort destinations. It is good to see how well Bangalore has emerged from the crisis. The other big cities will open soon, but we will see some volatility in some cities.
How will Marriott transform the weddings and conferences experience for guests in the immediate future?
We are seeing enquiries coming in for weddings in cities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. From Kolkata, requests are coming in for smaller events of 50 people.
Largely, I believe, weddings will be far smaller and will have less number of functions attached to them. But people are still going to get married and host small events. Our focus is on providing our customers with an understanding of how the flow of these events will take place to instill some sort of confidence.
We have created collaterals using which we take them through a virtual journey on how a wedding or event will be planned, to how much capacity can we fill a banqueting space, and how the seating will work. We will have to revisit the standards in every state since the protocols on health and hygiene are state matters and differ.
We will make some gains, too: Indian weddings, which went overseas, will be back within the country. Many are enquiring about booking an entire resort in destinations such as Mussoorie, Mahabaleshwar and Goa.
How are you engaging with your consumers during the lockdown? What are you doing to ensure that they have enough confidence in the brand when they begin travelling?
Instilling confidence is very important and we have adopted a multi-pronged approach. We began food deliveries at home under our Marriott on Wheels project, in Mumbai and Pune to start with. The service has now been expanded to 40 cities in India and we have tied up with Swiggy for the deliveries. We have done a lot of community work in Lucknow, Mumbai, Bhopal and several other cities, supporting medical staff in government hospitals with meals. We have distributed dry ration packages to local communities, especially around the hotels we operate in.
The first step is about building up confidence. We have launched a WeCare programme to execute elevated protocols and processes and maintain enhanced hygienic standards across our hotels in the region. It is largely India-driven, though it incorporates some elements of the global Marriott programme. The protocols have been set keeping the guidelines mandated by local authorities at their core.
The attempt is to create the right environment that will help guests to feel safe about coming back to the hotel, even as we keep our team safe. The Covid-19 pandemic has prompted changes in hotel operations that could alter everything: how guests check-in and dine-in to how rooms are cleaned.
It covers almost every aspect of safety, from temperature checks of both guests and the hotel staff to an emphasis on contactless service. We are digitising a lot of the transactions as much as possible. We are engaging with technology to not just minimise contact, but also our F&B operations. Guests can place an order at any of our restaurants via their mobile phone.
The entire focus is on reducing the common touchpoints as much as possible and sanitising the remaining ones, every hotel has identified 145+ touchpoints to meet the new health and safety challenges.
Marriott had focused on technology even in the past, but we found that guests wanted to engage with the team. This people connection is what makes hospitality so special. In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, guests are going to be a lot more conscious about avoiding contact and using technology. A large part of our programme covers how employees will come back to work. It is ever so important to get the associates part right.
Many of the technology elements we had introduced in our hotels will be further refined and amplified. Guests will be able to check into a resort using their phone as a key. Each touchpoint will be equipped with a QR code, leading to safety and quality assurance messages showcased through an animated video.
They will be able to communicate through the Marriott chat app and reserve a booking at one of our restaurants or order in-room. We will stagger the arrivals in our restaurants. The seating will be spaced out and they will be able to browse the menu on their mobile phone.
Fundamentally, guests will decide if they want to walk into the restaurant and make a reservation while maintaining a six feet distance, or reserve a table via an app. We believe that an overwhelming number of customers will want to use the app.
We are communicating with our Marriott Bonvoy programme members, who comprise 60-70% of guests that stay at our hotels. We have ensured flexible booking policies to incentivise them to stay at our hotels.
We have put in place and actively communicated a flexible reservations policy. We understand that when they get back on the road, their points and status will be important. We have provided ample time to redeem and the expiration of points has been paused till 2021. The status earned in 2019 will be extended to 2022, incentivising them to travel as soon as it is safe.
Under the recent ‘Save Now, Stay Later’, we had offered discounted rates for future bookings. So, if guests make a booking in June, they have a 12-month window in which they can redeem it. They are free to change the dates of the booking at any time they want, and as many times they want, in the next 12 months. A variety of exciting holiday destinations are available, with over 90 hotels to choose from across India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
It is about establishing confidence in people. When they decide to travel, they will gravitate towards brands they know well and trust to not compromise on hygiene or safety.
Hotels are increasingly about dining experiences. What does the future hold?
We spoke about high-end catering earlier. We are also catering to offices around our hotels, as people begin to come back to work. Many companies do not have their cafeteria operations open and tend to ask for a supply of packed boxes. We have made a significant outreach in cities such as Bangalore, Pune and some Tier II markets. Our food trucks are a huge hit and last year they went to eight locations, from Lucknow to Madurai, down to Kochi. That is the future of dining, as it allows for a far better contactless dining experience, with food that comes from Marriott’s famous chefs and restaurants.