Some may consider JW Marriott a bit stodgy, but the luxury brand knows what it is and who its guests are, and it is busy curating experiences to win their passions. With only 63 hotels currently, and another 35 on the way, JW Marriott must be doing something right.
Luxury brand JW Marriott Hotels & Resorts is all about attracting “Accomplished” travelers, and exercising their “passion points,” which global brand manager Mitzi Gaskins describes as “culture, culinary and wellness.”
To execute on these goals, JW has partnered with the likes of the Joffrey Ballet and Christies, and is in the midst of redesigning spas and curating in-hotel experiences to make things both more accessible and customized at the same time. Skift caught up with Mitzi Gaskins to discuss trends at JW Marriott, and excerpts from the interview follow:
Skift: What’s keeping you busy these days? What are some of the big brand initiatives that you are working on for 2014?
Mitzi Gaskins: Probably the biggest thing that keeps us busy right now, outside of the brand initiatives, is our growth. We have 35 hotels in our pipeline with 63 existing hotels. When you are opening that many hotels we are doing a lot of design reviews and just getting these hotels ready so they open up on brand and on strategy. We are also focusing a lot on developing our service platform. That’s something we’ve been focusing on, probably for the last three years. And we are cointinuing to build foundation. We are really looking at how we attract talent and acquire that talent, how we develop it, how we recognize them. How do we stay modern in today’s world. With everyone using smartphones and mobile devices and how do we integrate tools into that, as well.
We have a lot of brand partners who can really give our guests guidance around their passion points, which are culture, culinary and wellness. The funny thing about it is we’ve been actually been able to use these partners in different ways. Joffrey Ballet, for example, is one of our partners. We’ve been using them to do trainings on how to teach our associates to hold themselves at point and grace. They use their ballerinas and dancers to help instruct those and do training vignettes so it’s been a really fun year working with our partners, and being able to leverage them in different ways.
Skift: When you talk about guests’ passion points being culture, culinary and wellness is serving that a differentiatior for you?
Gaskins: Yes, I would say that it is. We focus on our target guests, which we call the Accomplished. They are not ones necessarily that go around and collect experiences for the sake of being able to brag about them and talk about it. They are really about learning and curiosity and going deep into they things they are really interested in.
We did research, we found out that culinary, culture and really overall well-being was what they are most passionate about. So how do we provide this experience for them in the hotel and how can they live the life on the road that they do at home? I would say we are really good at culinary.
The other ones we might not be. We’ve partnered with people like Christie’s on the art side, on the culture side with Joffrey’s Ballet, also with Keri Glassman, who’s a nutritionist and did our kids’ menu. And Treasury Wine Estates with which we’ve developed a wine club that allows guest to do tastings and select their wine.
We felt like these things would really help us stand apart in addition to all of the content they provide us with things like JWM Magazine, which is our in-room magazine which is really based off the passion points of our guests, as well as social media and everything else.
Skift: How are the so-called passion points of your guests reflected in some of your tech initiatives? I understand you are about to release a new app? How do you enhance the travel experience through the new app?
Gaskins: The new app is called CUR8. It allows the guests to take the videos they’ve recorded while on their vacation or a trip, the pictures, some assets and the music that we provide them. It is super simple. You can do it in about a minute if you really wanted to. You can just throw it all together or you can spend a lot more time on it. And it creates a little 30 second to a minute video. We expect that people will use it to talk about the food experiences that they’ve had or an art gallery that they may have seen or something that they’ve done at the spa.
Skift: Does this app supplement other apps that you have? Where does it fit in?
Gaskins: It is a standalone app for JW. We have the Marriott app, the kind of booking app. This is more experiential for JW.
Skift: Is this JW Marriott’s first app?
Gaskins: Yes, the first customer-facing app. We’ve developed an app internally called Orchestrate. We encourage the behaviors that we set forth for service training. We also have daily rehearsals of service harmonies. For example, be present, pause and engage. And, that’s just reminding our associates that they will always have to be present and in the moment, and looking and trying to read the cues of the guests. When you think about what a difference it makes when someone is passing you, say a housekeeper is passing you in a guest corridor, and you see them and they just say good morning and they keep walking. But if they actually stop, acknowledge you, say good morning, and then allow you to pass, then that’s a much more impactful experience. And it also allows the associate to read the cues of the guest if they need anything.
Skift: You mentioned that you have all of these new hotels in the pipeline. What is new and exciting about hotel design at JW Marriott and what does that do for your brand positioning?
Gaskins: One of the new things we’ve been working on over the last year and a half is our new spa concept. Being a luxury brand means many of the hotels have a spa of some sort. We wanted an experience that is more aligned with the brand, and to have consistency across all of our hotels. We talked to people all over the world – not just spa goers – but hotel travelers, and we found is that a lot of times the reason they weren’t going to the spa is because they felt it wasn’t approachable, it wasn’t that accessible.
And so created this whole new concept. We really focus on the front part of the spa. We open it up into a high-trafficked area. There will be experiential retail. There will be a spa lobby lounge. You can come in and have quiet time, and enjoy some food and beverage in there if you’d like. It is an extension of the lobby, but much calmer.
We are also working on how we approach public space. A lot of the brands in the lower quality tier, you think about their lobbies and they are very programmed. Ours will be very customized. But it is more about how we bring the passion points to life in the hotel. Doing things such as the way we design our central food and beverage bar and doing that in a way that feels like a really high-end artifact bar. It also has some great food.
It’s not as though we are trying to be everything to everyone. We are going to figure out one thing that the hotel will do really, really well. In a lot of hotels, when you walk in the bar the first thing you see is the line of TVs. We really want to curate our experience and make it much more more high end.
One of the curated experiences you’ll see is the concierge library. A lot of our guests do a lot on their own, but this will be great little library-like space, but having a concierge there who kind of roams around versus sitting behind a desk. It will be set up like a library. Say it is in D.C., then the books and everything that are in the library, in addition to some of the technology, will be maybe books on U.S. presidents, the Smithsonian or other things that you can do in D.C. that give guests access to more knowledge about the local area.
Skift: What is JW Marriott doing to attract the next-generation corporate traveler or are you trying to do so? Or are your efforts to attact someone different than the typical corporate traveler?
Gaskins: Everyone has to attract the next-gen traveler, right? We’d all be in trouble if we didn’t. When you look at the demographics of our target, we do tend to be a little bit older than maybe some of the other targets. When I say older I mean business travelers, and they are all in their late 30s and early 40s. That’s kind of where we fall.
We are still targeting the up-and-coming generation, especially when you get into different countries. About 45% of our hotels are in Asia-Pacific in the next three years. Looking at that and looking at travelers from the younger generation, you really have to be appealing about going after them.
So a lot of that is through technology. Like our other brands, we’ve launched the mobile check-in. We’ve launched things like meeting planner apps which allows our meeting planners to communicate directly with all the people in our hotel to say things like, “it’s too cold in here,” or “we need more bagels. There are a lot of things that Marriott International in general is looking at across all of our brands to make sure we are very focused on attracting that next-generation traveler.
Skift: Are there any changes in how you are offering Wi-Fi? Is free Wi-Fi a possibility?
Gaskins: I think things like free Wi-Fi are probably always market-driven. We will always wait and see. Our focus now is just making sure that our experience in our hotels is that we have the right bandwidth, that we are really servicing our guests in the right way. That they are able to do the things they want to do. Think of just five years ago how people were using WiFi in hotels. It was completely different. A lot of our focus is just making sure that we have the infrastructure for guests to do what they want. If they want to stream video or whatever it might be, so that can happen.
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Photo credit: Mitzi Gaskins, JW Marriott's global brand manager. JW Marriott