Marriott International held its Asia Pacific operations conference in Bangkok in early December. Bart Buiring, senior VP – operations & continent lodging services, Marriott International, Asia Pacific and Tim Sheldon, global chief – operations services, took time out from the conference to discuss why it was taking place and how Marriott International is moving forward, especially in the areas of design, meetings and F&B – and why innovation and Gen Y are key to the future

Bart Buiring (BB): “Holding our Asia Pacific operations conference here in Bangkok was originally planned for the beginning of this year, but postponed due to the situation in Thailand. However, we never considered relocating the event – we wanted to send a message that Thailand is back in business and to support our Thai hotels and team members.”

Tim Sheldon (TS): “In terms of the conference itself, in addition to the F&B and meetings themes (see box), there were three main topics: growth, people and results. Within that we wanted to emphasise the importance of Marriott Hotels as the core brand; the Marriott Rewards loyalty programme; digital mobility and food & beverage innovation.

“Arne (Arne M. Sorenson, Marriott International president and chief executive officer) coined the term ‘millennial mindset’ as a fourth priority.

BB: “We also wanted to inject a healthy dose of Marriott culture and leadership development in the curriculum of meetings to inspire team members to drive results, create excellent guest experiences, achieve business goals and generate returns for our owners.”

Exceeding expectations

BB: “As this is an operations conference, we spent a lot of time thinking about F&B. We also set the theme of ‘exceeding expectations’. After all, we expect our team members to create great events for their guests at our 170 Marriott International hotels across APAC, so to impress team members here we needed to dial it up a notch – show them some creativity and flair and outstanding Thai hospitality.

“So over the course of the conference, lots of meetings will take place to inspire, motivate and celebrate the success of team members and hotels, culminating in the awards dinner at JW Marriott Bangkok’s newly renovated ballroom.

“In terms of the format of the conference, it is designed to be very millennial focused with an emphasis on collaboration ­– in the mornings more general sessions take place, while in the afternoon smaller groups, take place in ‘labs’ throughout the city. We deliberately wanted the labs to happen throughout the city. There’s also a treasure hunt throughout Bangkok – to promote teambuilding while engaging with the city. The brief for the labs was no PowerPoint!”

BB: “We are emphasising ‘ideation’ [idea generation] – discussion, problem solving and collectively finding solutions for future business challenges. We flew a lot of team members in from around APAC to support the event – chefs and bartenders from India, Hong Kong, Osaka, and of course all our hotels in Bangkok, so the event goes smoothly and is a resounding success.

“Later we will send out a survey to find out how the meetings ranked, whether individual meetings resonated, to let presenters know how they did. We all need to be on our A game – there is a healthy amount of pressure on all of us to make sure we deliver on all sides.

“The conference sets the tone for business for 2015. It’s great for our people who are coming from all over Asia. This typically includes directors of operations, directors of rooms and directors of F&B who are coming from our Ritz-Carlton, Marriott Hotels and JW Marriott, Courtyard by Marriott, Fairfield by Marriott and Renaissance brands.

Right issue, right time

TS: “We feel this is absolutely the right time to be looking at these key issues. For example mobility and digital – the way people utilise it has accelerated. Our new mobile check-in and check-out app has already rolled out at our higher-end properties in APAC and all of our hotels worldwide are also getting it. Also mobile chat – our SMS platform is in pilot at the moment and will roll out next year. Gen Y expects this digital communication – while non Gen Y also sees the sense of it. It represents service on your terms.

“Meanwhile our ‘Meetings Imagined’ concept is very much a tool for guests, associates and meeting planners. The way content is curated has received a phenomenal response. Event planners are finding the site extremely helpful. It has visual interest in a similar way that Pinterest does – that’s our analogue model. You can type anything in to get ideas on how to create the right energy, content and context. It all comes back to millennial mindset. Meetings Imagined has been tested in 13 hotels across APAC and now been roll out in Shanghai. It will be completed across other markets by 2015 Q1.”

BB: “Innovation is at the core of what we do as a company, and mobile digital is the next part of this innovative journey. These innovations are really a series of ‘minovations’ combined with a relentless focus on execution. If we say we’re launching a programme we make sure we launch it and it is available across the portfolio. An example is mobile check-in and out – this is now available across our properties. We offer a guarantee to guests that they will be able to interface with these technologies wherever they travel at any of our properties.”

TS: “With technology, as with everything else we do, people expect Marriott to deliver. We’re maniacal regarding our focus on execution so guests get what they deserve and expect. We don’t discuss it until we get it right so we can ensure the technology works.”

Process of innovation

BB: “Innovation happens in multiple places in the organisation – hotels, regions, at headquarters … associates are encouraged to offer ideas, which, if proved to improve service delivery or create a memorable experience, can then be adopted as a best practice.”

TS: “Ideas can – and do – come from anywhere. And we when we want to do it on a bigger scale – globally, for example, then we (corporate office) will get involved. Every hotel has a way to show what it offers – we wanted a way to show what everyone can do. We can then repeat this across the enterprise.

Having said that, innovation only matters if it actually materialises – if it’s only theoretical it’s not much use. If the idea’s a ‘ten’ in theory, we want it to be a ten in practice, actually in the property. We encourage big dreams, but they must be practical. We therefore spend a lot of time and effort focusing on execution, and ensuring there is rigorous training and tools in place. Team members must be certified to make sure delivery reaches the necessary standards.”

BB: “And most importantly, the voice of the customer – through social media, guest surveys and reviews on our website – also provides feedback. We collapse all those scores so general managers can receive a social media ‘score’ for the property. We are in business to please guests, so receiving both positive and constructive feedback is outstanding. We believe in transparency, this also raises accountability throughout the business.”

The way ahead: Marriott’s roadmap for the future

New hotel design

Marriott Modern: The new hotel design focusing on interior architecture that grounds the space, provides visual dimension and includes simple, yet strong, focal points – all bringing added warmth, inviting comfort, and relaxed formality to Marriott guests.

Future of meetings

The Red Coat Direct Meeting Services App: With customers demanding a more social, collaborative and technologically sophisticated meeting environment, Marriott International will introduce in Asia Pacific ‘The Red Coat Direct Meeting Service’ to allow meeting planners to communicate with Red Coats through any mobile device, enabling efficient customer billing and improving responsiveness of event staff.

Meetings Imagined: This is to respond to the next generation’s need of “everything visual” and provide a differentiated approach for selling and planning meetings based on the purpose. The collaborative platform provides expert tips and trends organised by meeting purpose, inspiration gallery with 1000+ images to spark creativity, and a platform for on-line collaboration with Marriott event partners.

New F&B concepts

Goji Kitchen + Bar: This is an innovative restaurant concept, with the flexibility to adapt to global markets, for an all-day dining venue to deliver maximum volume for breakfast with an action kitchen and buffet anchored by a distinctive beverage platform.