Marriott looks to customer experiences to hold its empire together

Marriott International has been splashing the cash of late in Australia, and with the acquisition of Starwood now past the teething stage, it is looking at the long-term.

“Australia is doing reasonably well for us,” says Rajeev Menon, Marriott International’s chief operating officer in Asia Pacific.

“Partly because we are in the upper luxury space and we have recently refurbished a lot of our hotels.”

Among those hotels that have seen some hefty investments are the Sheraton Grand Sydney Hyde Park ($50m), Sheraton Grand Mirage Resort, Port Douglas ($50m), and Brisbane Marriott ($20m).

Pier One Sydney Harbour, Autograph Collection is set for a $50m refurbishment next year, while Surfers Paradise Marriott Resort & Spa will get a $30m revamp. Sheraton Fiji Resort’s Denarau Island Conference Centre has officially opened following a $20 million investment and the Westin Denarau Island Resort & Spa is set for a $130m refurbishment.

New hotels recently added to the portfolio this year include W Brisbane and Westin Brisbane.

Rajeev Menon says Australia is experiencing hotel sector growth on par with Sydney during the 2000 Olympics.

“Australia hasn’t seen this supply growth since the Olympics,” says Menon. “While there may be a little bit of an oversupply situation in some markets, we do see the demand is fairly strong still.”

Darwin is the latest city to be targeted with a new Marriott hotel in the shape of a Westin being built on the waterfront in between the convention centre and new cruise terminal. The Chinese owner, who also owns the port, selected the brand as it “resonates” with the Chinese market, according to Sean Hunt, Marriott International’s area vice president of Australia, New Zealand and Pacific.

“Everyone has done Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane,” he says. “I think there is an opportunity to tap into these new markets.”

Another emerging market Marriott is eager to tap into is Tasmania, with The Tasman, a Luxury Collection Hotel the latest to enter the market.

“Timing is everything and that hotel will do incredibly well, with international flights into Tassie for the first time with the airport extension,” says Hunt.

Even Perth is expected to deliver in the long-term.

“Occupancies are still in the 70s despite the current supply issues,” says Menon. “Once that supply gets absorbed you will start seeing the trend head upwards.”

Marriott also sees some big advantages for the MICE sector following the merger, with around half of all the large format hotels in Asia now under its portfolio.

“That gives our customers a distinct advantage,” says Menon. “Most meeting planners want options to travel across the market and we have those options. Where ever you want to go with meeting space we have a large format hotel that can take your business.”

Sean Hunt is confident about the success of merging markets.

Marriott touches base with the MICE sector by holding regular meetings with its consumer insight committee.

“We meet them formally and informally and always ask ‘how are we going and what can we do better?’” says Hunt. “Direct connectivity with incentive houses is also being set up, so they can access rates 24/7. We want to be the easiest to do business with.”

A plan to set up clusters in each city that have a centralised touchpoint for meeting planners is also part of that mission to make things easier. Instead of dealing with the DOS from each hotel, planners deal with one person across all the brands in that city.

“They will be able to see live what solutions we have at every price point for every customer within the Marriott ecosystem,” says Hunt.

With an increased focus on food and beverage, Marriott is also keen on making the most from their new culinary partnerships, such as Guy Grossi’s hatted Italian restaurant Garum at Westin Perth.

“We have talked about infusing his menu into our banquet menus for a premium,” says Hunt. “Gone are the days of alternate chicken or beef drops. For big groups there is the potential to get Guy to come and talk about his food and elevate the experience.”

The glue that holds every piece of the Marriot empire together is the newly branded Marriott Bonvoy loyalty program. The process of combining three premium loyalty brands under one umbrella may have started with a nightmare scenario of a data breach harking from Starwood’s systems, but after “an incredible number of man hours” the worst is behind them and in some ways leaves them stronger than ever, says Menon.

It now has 130 million members globally and growing, with over 1 million new members joining from Asia alone this year. And these members want one thing in particular from their brand allegiance – experiences money can’t buy.

“There is a very strong focus on creating experiences,” says Menon. Or Bonvoy ‘moments’ as the brand likes to say. One of the latest Bonvoy moments is their new partnership with the Melbourne GP and Mercedes-AMG Petronas racing team, with trackside experiences and driver meet-ups available.

“The loyalty program is the single biggest advantage we have as a company and that gives us incredible strength,” says Menon.