Marriott International encompasses a portfolio of more than 7,500 properties under 30 leading brands spanning 132 countries and territories. Gaurav Singh is the Market Vice President, South East India, Bangladesh & Sri Lanka for Marriott International. Based out of Bangalore, his leadership entails overseeing and strengthening the market position of the brand across three countries. His effortless flair for the dynamics of the hospitality industry casts him as a virtuoso in the field. In this exclusive interview with TTJ, Gaurav gives an in-depth insight into their business in the region he manages and highlights the importance of localising one’s approach and implement strategies accordingly.
Q. Tell us about the overall impact of the pandemic on Marriott International’s operations in the regions you oversee?
While the pandemic had a severe impact on the overall hospitality industry due to lockdowns, the resort locations were the first ones to observe a pickup in bookings as travel restrictions eased. This was further accelerated with the decrease in COVID numbers and high momentum of vaccination efforts being undertaken by the Government across the country. Similarly, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka observed varied timelines of lockdown and return to normalcy, with both countries having recently opened the doors to Indian travellers.
While the possibility of a third wave remains a possibility, the worst of it is behind us as we are slowly observing a good return to travel due to the pent-up demand. This is reflected in the bookings as well. With the festive season around the corner, all the markets are clocking their highest occupancies since the second wave, led by resort locations and tier 2 cities. We are also hoping to see improved footfall in metro cities with upcoming long festive weekends which often draw in the staycation crowds.
Q. Due to the pandemic, how have your hotels managed to remain resilient and achieve additional revenue models for their operation and business?
F&B has been the major non-room revenue driver for us in the last 16-18 months. To stay connected with our loyal patrons, we continuously kept innovating with our home delivery service ‘Marriott Bonvoy on Wheels’. Hotels like JW Marriott (Kolkata), The Ritz Carlton (Bengaluru) among others were providing specially curated Mood Diets menu, which was well received by our customers in both the south and east markets.
Staycations and workcations were definitely trending and hotels were providing a holistic experience to guests wherein they could work as well as relax and rejuvenate with limited contact with the outside world. Most of our hotels in both regions have equipped themselves with facilities that ensure the guests won’t have to step outside the property for any kind of experience. Attractive Staycation and Social Event packages have been curated by leveraging the Marriott Bonvoy program, Shaadi by Marriott branding and distribution to increase conversions.
Q. How are India, Srilanka and Bangladesh different from each other in terms of leisure and business travel?
India, Srilanka and Bangladesh bring into forefront different sensibilities; however, all were hit largely due to the pandemic, since travel was at a slower pace and international borders were largely closed. From a leisure travel point of view, we are seeing a slow yet steady recovery from domestic source markets. India as such has large domestic consumption and hence can fuel demand, though that is not so similar to our neighbouring countries, which are more reliant on international business and leisure travel. However, the constant decline in active cases, ease of restrictions and the vaccination efforts undertaken by governments have started to reflect in the booking pace. All markets are clocking their highest pick up since the beginning of the 2nd wave and with the festive season just around the corner, we are expecting the bookings to pick up rapidly.
Business travel and MICE make up for a good portion of our revenue in India, considering the presence of corporate and IT offices in the region. MICE in both south and east markets have largely adopted a hybrid model as we see an increase in smaller event formats either virtually or physically. Through our ‘Connect with Confidence’ program, we are offering innovative solutions and working with partners to help streamline the current processes to personalise and execute events based on individual requirements.
Q. Presently, do you see a revival in business travel which is important to Marriott properties? Does it have the potential to aid your region’s hotel recovery growth?
Business travel/MICE accounted for a substantial part of revenue upstream before the pandemic came into the picture. However, with changing times, Marriott International has been keeping the services on precedence, with meeting rooms available for digital gatherings across properties.
We have been offering curated catering services for business travellers to easily navigate through our hotels across locations. Therefore, we had to largely rely on weddings and other social events and celebrations where too, we had to adhere to the norms laid out by local authorities in cap on the number of people who may take up our service. We do feel domestic demand, particularly in India, will surpass 2019 levels in the coming year, all things being equal and no third wave. Opening of international borders which will bring further buoyancy as we work towards recovery.
Q. How are you strategising and strengthening the market position of the brand across the regions you oversee?
Currently, the impact of the pandemic has been considerable and diverse. In my region, different locations and hotels both have had varying responses. Resorts have high demand and full occupancies, but large city hotels are still to bounce back. Within India, South and East markets did show a considerable spike in cases during the second wave. Bangladesh and Sri Lanka similarly have had varied timelines of lockdowns and return to normalcy. So, there is no one size fits all approach that’s possible.
We have continued to operate under guidelines of changing timelines of operations, limited offerings being permitted, and reduced margins. Our Marriott associates have shown tremendous resilience during this challenging period as they continue to drive recovery, adapt smartly, and serve our customers with the same warmth and hospitality that is the trademark of the Marriott brand. We have adapted to digitally enhanced technology, intensified our commitment to clean protocols, constantly upgraded our sanitization levels and localised our efforts. The focus on our talent and associate well-being has been relentless throughout this whole journey.
Q. How are your hotels reaching out to new, evolved, and changed customers?
Customers are always happy with friendly, competent, and consistent service when it comes to the hotel industry and they also seek the development of new technologies, which increases their expectations. One important element today is also ease of transactions. Hence, we need to make things simpler, easier and be aware that we cannot have rigid cancellation policies and complicated terms and conditions.
Customers want more efficient service than ever before, best levels of cleanliness, sanitisations and safety. Since consumer behaviour is constantly changing, companies must keep pace with customer expectations. Modern customers are very discerning having travelled all over the world, they have much higher expectations when it comes to service delivery, such as proactive service, individual interactions, and connected hotel experiences in all areas. In these modern times, with the growing presence of digital and social media, our agility and adaptability to this new digitalised world is what will help us navigate and better serve the new age customer.
The way we consume travel has shifted significantly. Today, people have realised and imbibed core values of sustainable living, conscious spending and unique experiential traveling, and we are guiding our mechanisms towards these esoteric experiences. They have become increasingly conscious of the personal impact they have on places they visit and want to establish a meaningful connection. Last year we launched an APAC led campaign called ‘Good Travel with Marriott Bonvoy’. This program offers meaningful travel across 3 distinct pillars – environmental travel, marine conservation, and community engagement. Programs like this are guided by the company’s social impact and sustainability platform – Serve 360. The initiative reaffirms the company’s commitment to supporting the local communities where our hotels are operating in.
Q. Tell us about Marriott International’s future plans? Can you let us know about the hotels in the pipeline and are there plans to introduce new brands in your region?
We recently announced the signing of 22 new hotels in the last 18 months. This continues to reaffirm our faith in the longevity of travel and the hotel business. In India, we have a robust pipeline of hotel openings in the country that includes a mix of luxury, premium and select serve openings that will add to our portfolio.
In 2021, we have a strong opening lineup of hotels in South Asia. Having recently launched the Westin Goa and the Fairfield by Marriott Benaulim in Goa. We are expecting to add further hotels into our portfolio over the next few months in Dehradun, Mahabaleshwar, Trivandrum, Vadodara and Dhaka.
One should be able to find a Marriott brand in over 36 cities in India today, which includes a substantial number of hotels in tier 2/3 cities. Having said that, as part of our future pipeline we will be debuting in newer cities.
2022 Pipeline – Fairfield by Marriott Goa Calangute Village, Courtyard by Marriott Navi Mumbai, Courtyard by Marriott Trivandrum and Tiruchirappalli, Marriott at Bengaluru International Airport, ITC Narmada – Luxury Collection Ahmedabad, JW Marriott Prestige Golfshire Resort and Spa, Bengaluru, & Le Meridien Amritsar to name a few debuts expected.
By when do you think the global hospitality business will stabilise?
The way travel is consumed is changing. We know there is a lot of pent-up demand for travel. It will take some time to come back in its pre-pandemic capacity. However, when it does resume, we know that guests will be more comfortable returning to a brand that is familiar to them and trusted.
Guests now prefer traveling in smaller groups, with their families and choose drivable destinations instead of opting for flights. These trends/observations do indicate that full recovery will be led by leisure demand, followed by transient businesses and groups. Despite the crippling effect the pandemic had on the industry, there has been a tremendous showcase of resilience, agility, and creativity. Fewer restrictions, increasing pace of vaccination and pent-up demand, which resulted in revenge travel, are helping the sector bounce back. With vaccinated numbers growing by the day, resulting in a significant drop in active cases, we are seeing demand grow at a cautious pace. Our 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. 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.
We do anticipate steady growth in demand through 2022 and domestic demand to fully recover and then should these recovery patterns hold as borders open, we aim to reach pre-COVID levels for our markets in South and East India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka by early 2023 overall.