Can you tell us about any new ventures for Marriott International in the region?
We acquired a company in Africa called Protea Hotels; this gives us a distribution of 116 hotels and makes Marriott International the largest offering in the Middle East and Africa, with just over 23,000 rooms. This obviously takes us into new markets where we’ve never done business before, so it’s very exciting for us.
Where are the new markets for Marriott International?
The main new markets are all predominantly in sub-Saharan Africa and most of the Protea Hotels are in South Africa itself, under three brands Protea Hotels, African Pride which is the 5-star portfolio, in addition to Fire & Ice. It allows us to go in a region through the people that come with this acquisition, they have the knowledge, they have the experience on the ground, predominantly in Africa.
Are you looking at further growth in the UAE?
In the UAE, we recently announced three new hotels, which will be opening over the next two years. The Renaissance in Business Bay, which is the brand’s entry into the market, the second will be the Marriott City Walk, a new project which has come up in Jumeirah and the third one is going to be Marriott Executive Apartments in City walk as well. So we will have two units in City Walk, a Marriott Hotel – our core brand and Marriott Executive Apartments, which is our extended stay brand. The hotels are due for completion in 2016.
How has your sales strategy changed over the past few years?
It differs really from market to market and hotel to hotel. We are an incredibly sales focused organisation. We’ve had a very strong presence, whether it’s in global sales or cluster market sales or property sales. We believe in owning very strong relationships with customers. The focus I want to say for the last year has been our ability to drive our rates in specific markets like the UAE and Saudi Arabia that have seen extremely high demand.
There are a lot of reports forecasting strong occupancy rate growth over the next coming years in the region. Do you agree?
Absolutely, we see this as an opportunity; we see different opportunities in different markets. In the UAE especially, we believe there is a massive opportunity for us to grow our rates. We don’t necessarily do that by increasing our prices, we do that through just shifting the mix of business that we’ve got. That’s also the case in Saudi Arabia. The UAE has been experiencing phenomenal occupancy, and we see that in some of our new hotels such as the JW Marriott Marquis, which we opened towards the end of 2012. We initially opened 800 rooms, and a couple of months back we added 300 rooms, and by September 2014 we would have opened all 1600 rooms. We are experiencing phenomenal demand and this speaks of Dubai’s ability of being able to continuously attract growth.
What trends are you seeing around mobile and online bookings?
We see a lot of business being transacted on our own website Marriott.com, which is hugely powerful because it is differentiated. Marriott.com is the eighth largest commercial website in the world in terms of the value of transactions that take place and is the only hotel website in the top 10. Also, we are introducing services such as allowing our customers to check in online through their mobile devices, and we are not only implementing this to a few of our hotels like some of our competitors, but actually across all our hotels. So we are talking about a couple of hundred hotels. Customers can just check in online just like you would through an airline. Then you just pass by the desk and pick up your key. So you don’t need to register, there is no long queue. We believe our customers look for personalised enhanced experience that saves them time.
How is the Middle East’s hospitality sector in relation to others in Europe? How does this market differ from other markets?
It differs in many very positive ways. It has the ability to absorb supply. So in Dubai, whatever supply comes, it gets filled. Also, Dubai is a very high service oriented market, so service standards and offerings are very high, in addition the F&B associated with hotels is extremely high. If you were to look at the flip side, the Middle Eastern traveller in general is a very savvy traveller, very demanding and has become accustomed to five star and luxury service.
A lot of hotels are finding it a challenge to find the right workforce, are you facing the same thing?
The challenge is that, firstly, everyone is competing for a very small pool of talent. Secondly, we are beginning to operate in markets that we have never entered before, where the hospitality sector was previously very small.
Marriott as a company is extremely strong on training, we believe in hiring the right people. We have a mantra we follow told to us by Mr. Marriott when he founded the company. Take care of your associates, our staff, they take care of the customer and the customer comes back. We believe in our ability to train people and we believe in our ability to train locals within the market for them to be able to work and grow in the industry. We are big on saudisation, and emiratisation. We have programmes in markets like Jordan and Egypt where we work with a lot of the hospitality schools and colleges to absorb some of their students as interns in our hotels. It gives them a taste of the industry they are going to work in, in addition to giving them some practical experience before they graduate, and then we hope we can eventually attract them as employers or even customers of our hotels.