Not one to rest on his laurels, 81-year-old Bill Marriott is plotting how the company that bears his name can better serve its future customer base.
At age 81 and with more than 60 years in the hospitality business, J.W. Marriott, Jr. has seen a lot. After all, he was there at the opening of the first Marriott Hotel (actually the Twin Bridges Marriott Motor Hotel) in 1957 in suburban Washington, D.C. Today, the company, founded by father and led by son for four decades, has nearly 3,900 hotels in 72 countries under 18 brands.
But as he continues to settle into his role since March 2012 as executive chairman, Marriott is far from looking backward. His sights are set on the company’s future and, in particular, its future customer base.
“The companies that are going to win in the next 20 years are the ones that have the strongest appeal to the emerging travel market of young people,” Marriott told me last week during a telephone interview. “They’re almost 50% of our business today, and in five to 10 years they will be 70% to 80% of our business.”
Marriott has long had a reputation as a master of detail. He’s often said his favorite part of the job is visiting Marriott hotels around the world, seeing innovations at the property level, and getting to know managers and most of all, line-level employees.
Legend has it Marriott never forgets a detail. GMs have told me he’ll visit their properties, comment on a flaw he sees or give a deserved compliment, and mention it again when he returns for the next visit, which given the scope of the Marriott family of hotels could be a year or even much longer.
It’s this kind of detail he’s urging the new wave of leadership at Marriott to embrace, especially as it wrestles with the impact of technology on business and the influx of new Gen X and millennial travelers, who he said are looking for a different kind of experience.
“When I started in the business I would go to my room when I got to the hotel and set up my desk and work until it was time to go to bed,” he said. “Today, young people check in, drop their suitcases in the rooms and head back to the lobby to hang out with friends, maybe have a drink or something to eat, and work on their computers or establish new relationships.”
It’s for this reason Marriott doesn’t believe, as some of us do, that full-service hotels will soon become dinosaurs. He said while millennials are looking for a different kind of hotel experience, “at the same time they want food and beverage and a lobby in which they can connect with their peers and meet with people.”
“We have many more select-service rooms than we do full-service rooms today, but there is still a place for a full-service hotel with a good restaurant and a good cocktail lounge experience and a good lobby experience,” he said.
Technology is the other area in which the company needs to innovate, said Marriott. He said he was at a recent internal strategy meeting and of eight items on the agenda, seven had to do with technology.
Marriott may have the pulse on the future of the hotel industry and the company that bears his name, but he’s decidedly old school on matters he believes count the most: his personal credo of taking care of associates who in turn will take care of the guests.
The company’s most-enduring corporate value is “Spirit to Serve,” which was the title of Bill Marriott’s first book and is the basis for a number of the company’s community outreach programs. (Last December, Marriott published a second book, “Without Reservations,” to chronicle the company’s last 15 years.)
“We have all kinds of research going on to establish what the future is going to look like,” he said. “That’s very important, but it’s also very important that we stick to the basics of a smiling person at the front desk and in the lobby and the servers in the dining room and the housekeeping people. The spirit to serve is still what it is all about.”
Given the long shadow cast by Marriott, I’m sure this will be a sentiment for years to come at Marriott International. Innovation and marketing prowess aside, it’s what made the company an industry leader for the past 40 years.
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