INSIDE THE BEST INTERNATIONAL HOTEL GROUP

Entrenching its position in Sub-Saharan Africa as a leading hospitality provider in the region, Marriott International bagged two major hotel category awards at the Business Traveller Africa Awards late last year

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Voted as the Best Business Hotel Group and The Best International Hotel Group in South Africa, the hospitality giant has been recognised for its strong footprint, quality and consistency of service and range of business facilities provided across its portfolio.

The Business Traveller Africa Awards is a further endorsement of the extensive industry recognition enjoyed by Protea Hotels by Marriott, which has previously won the World Travel Award for the Best Hotel Group in Africa, the Sunday Times Markinor Top Hotel Brand Award and the Sunday Times Generation Next Award for the Coolest Hotel Brand.

Volker Heiden, VP of Protea Hotels by Marriott, Marriott International, Middle East and Africa said, “We are thrilled by this recognition, which underpins the goals we have set for ourselves. Our strong presence in South Africa is demonstrated through the popular Protea Hotels by Marriott brand. We have focused on providing consistency in what we offer, both in services as well as in the facilities, together with value for money and we are truly glad that our guests have recognised and appreciated this. In the light of the stiff competition, the value of our loyalty programme and our diverse portfolio of brands gives us a competitive edge.”

Marriott International also operates Marriott Hotels, Sheraton and Westin in South Africa.

And to find out more about this mega brand on the move, Gregory Simpson caught up with the knowledgeable Volker, who started out working at the Hilton Park Lane in London as a Restaurant Cashier before moving to Mexico as an Internal Audit and Operations Analyst in a hotel, en route to an upper management position at Marriott in Miami, Florida before relocating to Cape Town.

You were in Miami a year ago, what’s the hospitality scene like in America compared to South Africa?

In America, you have a lot more branded products than in the rest of the world, but the rest of the world is catching up very fast. It’s a lot easier to develop hotels in the US, typically you have fewer individual owners, you have more institutional investors and they usually look for brands. In the Marriott world, there is so much demand for our brands right now that we don’t actually look at new ownership. We roll out a new brand, we go to our existing owners and they carve up the territory within the US to represent our brands—it’s quite amazing, we’re in a very good position. As an example, when Marriott acquired the AC brand a number of years ago, the initial thought was only to have AC in Europe and then we tested it in the US and, because it’s a European brand and quite stylish and new, it became the fastest-growing brand in the US for the last couple of years.

Marriott has been acquiring a number of brands over the past few years and I understand the portfolio is currently at about 30 different brands all over the world. These brands range from 3 star to 5 star properties. How do you decide which star rating you will apply to each hotel?

Marriott focuses on an approach to categorisation that speaks to guest needs, rather than a pure concentration on star grading. We talk about luxury, upper-upscale, upscale and then mid-scale and budget. Our 30 brands are segmented in that way. I know that, in some countries, star ratings are important but we try to move away from it because it really depends on the location. In some countries, for a star rating, you need to have a pool, or you need to have a gym, you need to have this and that—and this makes the rating possibly inconsistent when one has a presence in multiple countries and regions. Some hotels will cater to the corporate or business traveller and others to a leisure traveller. By default the amenities in these hotels will vary but it does not mean that the quality or standard necessarily changes.

What would be the difference between a corporate style hotel and a more family-friendly tourist type of hotel?

The physical hotel would not differ that much. Obviously, if you build a new hotel, we would look at how much meeting space you would need, so that’s one criterion, but other than that, our hotel service might slightly be different in terms of how we deal with larger check-ins (if you have more tour groups). Typically, hotels are empty during the day because everybody is out touring the sites. The government or corporate customers tend to stay in-house sometimes to conduct their meetings and, of course, they then use the meeting space. Other than that, from a physical product point of view, I don’t see a big difference. A leisure hotel would have a little bit more focus on a pool and a gym area, but today corporate guests are also looking for hotels that make them feel at ease during their travels so areas like gyms, spas and public spaces are just as important to them. Our hotels take this into consideration.

Apart from the regular amenities, how has the design of the hotels evolved over the years from an environmentally-friendly and energy-efficient standpoint? Is this something that Marriott is focusing on?

It’s come a long way. It’s very interesting how things have evolved, for example, in terms of technology, people are becoming less reliant on the TV offering and moving towards more online services like Netflix and Showmax. This explains our focus on continuously upgrading our WiFi service for guests.

Now, over the last couple of years, a lot has moved to mobile, to our apps, which have come up very fast. Everything is moving to the mobile phone, including how we communicate with customers in terms of chats—ordering room service, pre-arrival check-in and check-out and so forth. And we’re testing something in the US where you can open your room with your mobile phone instead of using a key.

With regard to energy, as we go through new territory, we have installed the latest technology in terms of boilers, air-conditioning—typically, the lifespan of this equipment is about 20 years. So, as the hotel ages, we work with our ownership group to update those systems as well to make them more energy efficient. Of course, there’s a water crisis here in Cape Town—water is the highest priced commodity and we have installed a lot of technology in order to save water.

I’m sure it has not been easy running hotels during the Cape Town water crisis. How do you manage your guest’s expectations and the balancing act of getting them to save water whilst still getting the message out to customers that there is water in your Cape Town hotels and you are open for business?

As you can imagine, after the water crises became global news, we started to communicate directly with customers. We receive a lot of emails and requests, “Do you have water?”, and our answer is, “Yes, there is water”. We have implemented a number of measures in order to save water in our hotels. Cape Town is open for business. There is a small degree of impact, for example, we closed our pools, which most customers appreciate, so it does affect the customers somehow, but not significantly. Our guests have actually been very understanding and co-operative about all of the measures that we have put in place which has enabled all of our properties to reach their water usage reduction targets.

Do the fortunes of the Protea Group in South Africa present promising times and a great boom in Cape Town’s tourist industry?

Marriott acquired Protea in 2014 and, first of all, Marriott was not represented in Africa other than a couple of countries in Northern Africa. So, that really gave us a good footprint on the African continent. The chain is positioned in the mid-scale segment, which would probably translate into a star-rating of between three and four stars. Yes, we’re not only looking at the key tourism destinations like Cape Town or Victoria Falls, for example, we are also well represented in secondary markets. A good example would be Bloemfontein where we have a number of products; we get a lot of government business as well in terms of groups and transients. In Johannesburg, of course, we have a lot of corporate business. Here, in Cape Town, it’s more tour series and leisure but also corporate segments.

Do you feel the impact of the cruise ships docking at the harbour here?

Yes, especially Cape Town, which has become quite a predominant cruise destination. Given the remoteness, of course, of Cape Town, it will never compete with the Miami or Mediterranean cruise but it has a niche and hotels do benefit from pre-imposed cruises where people extend their stay in certain locations. But also, cruise lines are generally in competition with the hotel industry, especially in the Caribbean and in the Mediterranean, where people go on cruises instead of staying in resorts. We need to make our resorts attractive and focus on delivering a different kind of experience that cruise lines can’t deliver.

Skills development is vital for your business growth, how do you maintain the high standards within the chain?

Marriott is known for training. Just to give you an insight: we have a training platform, which is called My Learning and it’s online training. We have about 4 000 different training classes on there.

We also have a lot of classroom training—we do a lot in terms of developing talent from within, depending on the level. There is a lot of skills training for housekeeping and service staff, but there is also a lot of online training where we develop people for management positions, such as general managers, regional managers and so forth.

The tourism industry in South Africa is robust. We’ve gone through some lean years politically but yet the tourists still come?

Yes, even the last season or the current season have seen record numbers of arrivals. I believe South Africa is a very attractive destination as long as people feel safe—that’s a little bit of an issue in South Africa, especially in Johannesburg, there are some issues. But overall, it’s a very attractive destination. Between Cape Town, some of the national parks, you have the Garden Route—I don’t see that changing, on the contrary, it’s going to grow. Airport authorities are working on implementing more non-stop flights to Cape Town. From my perspective, it will be fantastic to get a non-stop flight back to the US from Cape Town, which will really be what’s needed. Cathay Pacific announced a non-stop flight to Hong Kong from Cape Town, starting in October, and globally, the big transit travellers are Chinese and Indians, and South Africa won’t be any different. These are the emerging markets for travel.

Are you seeing more transformation in the hotel industry in South Africa within management positions?

Absolutely, yes. First of all, there’s a big push because of legislation, but we are also really trying to identify talent. We also sponsor hotel schools—specific students every year—so they go to school and then do an internship at our hotels. We try to identify potentials and then offer them jobs upon finishing school.

There is a lot of talk about the impact that Millenials are having on the travel industry. Do you find that Millennials travel and operate differently?

To a certain extent, yes. Marriott is doing a lot of research in terms of Millennials. The biggest difference is how they look at loyalty. Marriott has the largest loyalty programme in the hotel industry, and we have about 110 million members—that is, combined members of the SPG and the Marriott Awards programme. The company conducted research on how Millennials look at rewards. In the old days, travellers would save their points for one or two years and then spend a week with their family in a resort. Millennials look at instant rewards, so we’re looking at how points can be used to buy coffee or get an upgrade instantly versus having to save up—that’s a big change in our system.

Finally, has Airbnb impacted on your business?

Certainly, it has had some impact. The pure numbers of Airbnb offerings in some of the markets, especially in Cape Town, is a prime example. But the needs of travellers today are evolving, and hotels and Airbnb cater to different needs, which means that there is place for both offerings.

There are many people who prefer the hotel environment because they have a good idea of what to expect when they book into a hotel. The loyalty programmes offered by large hotel groups like Marriott are a big drawcard for people to choose hotels, and hotels are often more appropriate for the business traveller, with their business centres and services suitable to the business traveller. The availability of room service in the hotel environment is another attraction of hotels. 

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