As the world’s biggest name in hotels and lodging — operating over 7,200 properties across 134 countries — it’s not a stretch to say that any year at Marriott International is guaranteed to be a busy one. But even by those standards, 2019 has proven to be uniquely hectic. Following the acquisition of Starwood Hotels & Resorts — a ‘game-changing’ deal reportedly worth US$12.2 billion — Marriott launched its new, all-encompassing ‘Marriott Bonvoy’ loyalty program this February. The initiative corrals 30 of the world’s best known hotels brands into a single loyalty portfolio; and is being supported by a multi-million dollar campaign, drawing on direct sales channels, digital marketing and co-branded credit cards. Regionally, the group has asserted its intention to target 40 percent growth by 2020 — requiring a further 250 properties to be opened within the next two years. At the centre of this Herculean endeavour is Craig Smith, Marriott’s head honcho in Asia.

Craig SmithKnown by peers in the industry as a seasoned hotelier, Smith makes a compelling case for the age-old (not to mention, millennially co-signed) adage ‘start ’em young’. The American exec got into the biz whilst still at university: contributing to his reputation for a hands-on egalitarian style of leadership. Fast forward 30 years, and he’s now responsible for the single biggest hotel group in the Asia-Pacific, overseeing more than 750 hotels and a veritable army of 160,000 employees. Over a quick catchup between meetings, Smith briefs us on Marriott’s plans for APAC domination, tells us what guests are splurging on in 2019 and why the concepts of ‘hospitality’ and ‘diplomacy’ have more in common than you might think.

 

Describe briefly for our readers what it is you do in your day-to-day capacity as President & Managing Director of Marriott International (Asia-Pacific)?

This is the most interesting part of the job — every day is different. In one given day I may oversee the design of a new hotel, work with our team on an advertising project, liaise with young leaders working for us, review financial statements, engage in taste panels etc.

The most amazing part of my job is the diversity — I touch all disciplines and functions in the organisation, and get to do so in over 20 countries and territories. There’s never a dull moment.

As the son of an American diplomat, was there any resistance to you joining the hotel industry? What initially attracted you to the hotel business?

No resistance — in many ways there are a lot of similarities. The human side of the business is the most important. Understanding our customers’ needs and wants is reminiscent to my father’s dealings with different countries and cultures. (I actually wrote an article about this exact subject entitled A Diplomat and a Gentleman.) The example my father set of being able to deal with senior government officials with the same grace and empathy he showed the employees in our home gave me the direction I have today. As a GM, I hosted five to six different American/foreign heads of state, yet equally, I found myself in the back hallways of the hotel — counselling housekeepers and dishwashers. They’re all equally important.

Craig Smith

I fell into the business by accident: my father had a rule that we paid for our own university, so to pay for my education I began working evenings and weekends in a small hotel owned by my uncle. During my last year of college, I worked in the largest hotel in the city (which today is a Marriott). I visit the property each time one of my children graduates from university and they always get my ‘in the old days’ speech. Both my kids and the associates of the hotel roll their eyes.

It was during those four years in university that I fell in love with the business: I enjoyed helping the guests; solving problems, and trying to make our property the best. By the time I graduated, I decided that this was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I have no regrets. It’s been better than I could ever have imagined.

What's one 'Golden Rule' that you think senior managers throughout the hotel industry - GM level and up - should be applying but don't?

What I call the ‘2% rule’. 98% of all guests are good people who sometimes experience problems — either through our fault or not. But after having dealt with the 2% (i.e. genuinely hostile guests who are trying to ‘game the system’) many leaders switch off and assume anyone complaining must be trying to get something for nothing. The takeaway here is that our leaders should treat every guest like the 98%, as opposed to the 2%.

Craig Smith
Gourmet offerings have been ramped up as part of the Marriott Bonvoy programme.

Any time someone writes a complaint letter to me, I assume they’re telling the truth and I give them the benefit of the doubt. I’d rather be wrong and kind, even towards the 2%, than make the bigger mistake of treating the wonderful majority with wariness I also make it a point to answer all the complaint letters we get from our guests and associates. Then I usually ask someone closer to the business to investigate and contact me/them with a solution. I’ve had some extreme ones — guests blaming Marriott for the weather, or associates writing me about the food in the staff canteen — but this also keeps me grounded in what is important. As you promote up, it’s easy to lose touch with the real business.

Based on wider industry performance (over the past two to three years), what aspects of the customer experience has your team identified to be the most important to guests? Particularly when it comes to seasoned luxury travellers - what does it take to keep them coming back?

We are focused on three things: Food & Beverage; Technology; and Design.

Customers today want better quality of food, better presentation, and more authentic experiences. This is not just a millennial phenomenon — it crosses all generations.

All customers, luxury travellers included, are using technology for convenience. They don’t want to wait in line. They communicate to us (even when on property) using their phones, tablets etc. This is why you can now make requests to the front desk on your Marriott Bonvoy app: I use mine to order food while en route from the airport. Saves time.

Craig Smith
The relaxed, loft-like atmosphere of the new St. Regis Hong Kong comes courtesy of referential local architect André Fu.

Design is the biggest change. In the old days, when I started in the business, consistency was the most important factor: every room in the same brand has to look identical. A Marriott in London looked like the Marriott in NYC and Cancun. Today, design has been elevated 200%. We use more high-end designers and on most occasions we even have a separate design company for the restaurants. Room size is less important, but the design element has to be sexier. We also localise the design much more to show key characteristics of the local market.

Are there any identifiable trends in the kinds of products/experience that customers (of both Bonvoy and similar programs) are spending their points on? Is there a particular reward category that is doing especially well in Asia?

Experiences. Guests used to only redeem their points for rooms. Our relationships were more transactional. Nowadays, customers are saving up to acquire experiences that can’t be bought. For example, more recently, as part of The Ritz-Carlton’s partnership with Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport, we hosted some Bonvoy members at a surprise meet & greet with Lewis Hamilton. Other members got to take a stroll in the pitman and watch the race from the team garage (with a headset and live audio from the drivers). Earlier this year, we invited a few lucky members to fly on a private charter plane with the Manchester United team from Singapore to Shanghai. These are all experiences it’d be difficult to otherwise get.

Craig Smith
‘Sport’ is one of the three key pillars of the Bonvoy membership program, giving Marriott customers access to experiences as high-octane as a meet & greet with Mercedes-AMG Petronas drivers.

Aside from sport, we also offer exclusive Marriott Bonvoy culinary/entertainment experiences: including meet & greets with famous musicians; as well as once-in-a-lifetime masterclasses with famous chefs. In today’s world, the desire for unique experiences is undeniably outpacing the purchase of products.

You've been President of Marriott International (APAC) since 2015 - what's the most challenging project you've worked on in that time?
Craig Smith
Along with St. Regis, the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong (pictured) is now at the forefront of Marriott’s drive to carve out a piece of the luxury travel market in the region.

Our acquisition of Starwood. Bringing two cultures and companies together is never easy; and combining the systems, hotels, leadership and loyalty programs was definitely tough. Bringing together teams of people who used to compete and work differently was one of the biggest challenges I’d faced in years — the human side of these transactions is always the toughest, most important part. I’d like to say I got it all right but I didn’t. However, I firmly believe we ended up with a stronger and better company in Asia. I also ended up with higher blood pressure! But hopefully with some great learnings too.

As a noted alumnus of the Harvard Business School, what's one lesson you've learned on the job that you weren't able to pick up in the classroom?

‘Shake the tree.’ This was a concept taught over and over by Professor Ranjay Gulati. As we promote up in the organisation, we do so because we may be smart, capable and experienced. But as you grow into a more senior role, it becomes increasingly important that you listen to those around you. In fact, you need to ‘shake the tree’ in order to get the best ideas on the table. If I speak first, or give my opinion first, that may not happen.

I allow plenty of debate within my team. They argue back to me. I’ve learned that the best ideas come out this way. It also encourages everyone to come to the table with their point of view and listen to one another.

Marriott International has an extremely diverse portfolio of brands - last I checked it was something like 30. That's a significant number, all with their own strengths and identities. How are you able to achieve a degree of consistency between brands like, say, Sheraton and EDITION, whilst ensuring that each remains unique and individually engaging to customers?
Craig Smith
Views from the reservation-only Punch Room at the Shanghai EDITION.

Each brand has its own unique physical design and selling points. We rely on our teams at all levels of the organisation, but we especially require that all of our hotels deliver ‘the brilliant basics’. I love measurement, and we spend plenty of time measuring all facets of customer satisfaction: for example, by assessing the results of the Guest Satisfaction Survey (GSS) sent to guests following their stay.

You've previously said you're "very confident" Marriott International is on track to open 1,000 new hotels by 2020. What do you do to manage an expansion strategy of that magnitude? More importantly, what do you do to minimise risk?

Good leaders are key. We now have over 160,000 associates working across the Asia-Pacific. It’s a scary number — I get nervous thinking about how to make sure we grow without losing our edge. But I believe the key is to focus on developing leaders across all levels of our organisation.

As an individual guest, name three of your all-time favourite hotels to stay at. Bonus points if they're not operated by Marriott International!

That’s like asking me to pick my favourite child (and I have 5)! I prefer different brands for different occasions. Outside of Marriott, some of my favourite hotels include the Sundance Resort in Utah, the Hotel Del Mar in San Diego, and of course…my mother’s house.

To learn more about the Bonvoy membership program (and to register for free) visit Marriott Bonvoy online.

Randy Lai
Watches Editor
Having worked in the Australian digital media landscape for over 5 years, Randy has extensive experience in men's specialist categories such as classic clothing, watches and spirits. He is partial to mid-century chronographs and a nice chianti.