Hundreds of the travel industry’s most-forward-thinking executives will gather for our third annual Skift Forum Europe in London on April 30. In just a few years, Skift's Forums — the largest creative business gatherings in the global travel industry — have become what media, speakers, and attendees have called the “TED Talks of travel.”
Focusing on responsible travel practices and other key issues, Skift Forum Europe 2019 will take place at Tobacco Dock in London. The Forum will feature speakers, including CEOs and top executives from British Airways, IHG, Thomas Cook, Booking.com, TripAdvisor, Silversea, Uber, and many more.
The following is part of a series of posts highlighting some of the speakers and touching on issues of concern in Europe and beyond.
When Marriott announced it was purchasing Starwood and all of its brands, no doubt the first thing Tina Edmundson must have thought was: What are we going to do with 30 different hotel brands?
As Marriott’s global brand officer and luxury portfolio leader, and a former Starwood executive herself, Edmundson was uniquely positioned to answer that question, and to help define the company’s brand strategy at a time when brand saturation seems to be at an all-time peak.
She’s also had to contend with a changing luxury and lifestyle consumer. The Starwood acquisition in 2016 made Marriott one of the world’s largest luxury hospitality providers and, as Skift has explored before, it’s a great opportunity for Marriott to be the biggest, but there’s also plenty of risk in a sector where smaller and more bespoke brands can thrive.
For Edmundson, all of this is a prime opportunity to prove the value of brands, and the value that travel and hospitality brands can bring.
“Just looking at what is happening in the world socially and culturally is exciting because we’re in the hospitality business,” Edmundson said. “When we read articles that talk about how important travel has become as a conduit for things that people want to become or accomplish as part of their lives and you think about what role hospitality plays in that, that’s really exciting. We’re forcing ourselves to think of ourselves as more than just a provider of a place to sleep. The transformation, which I think has started a few years ago, will accelerate above that even more over the next few years as we define our role and what that means for the traveling public.”
At the upcoming Skift Forum Europe in Berlin on April 26, Edmundson will discuss whether brands still matter, and how today’s luxury consumer is reshaping the way hospitality is both delivered and experienced.
What follows is an edited version of a recent Skift interview with Edmundson.
Skift: One of the most common questions people had regarding the Marriott-Starwood merger was “What are they going to do with all those brands?” More than a year later, do you feel like you’ve been able to answer that question?
Tina Edmundson: You know, this has been the thing we’ve been working on even before the merger. Our answer, 18 months later, is still the same. We are going to keep all 30 brands. The task in front of us is clearly differentiating them and tiering the brands where it makes sense so we don’t cannibalize one another and, in other cases, making sure we appeal to a differentiated audience. We continue that work but our mission continues to be to still keep all 30 brands. There’s no brand at this point that we think doesn’t make sense to be a part of the portfolio.
I’ll give you an example: Pre-merger, Tribute Portfolio was created by Starwood, basically as a competitor to Autograph Collection. Post-merger, we have decided to tier the collection brands with the Luxury Collection as a leader in the five-star space, Autograph in the four-star space, and Tribute tucked underneath Autograph Collection in the three- to four-star space. We more clearly defined where these brands will play and, using that as an example, we’ve done that in several different places.
Skift: As Marriott works to craft together a combined loyalty program, what are some things you hope are taken most into consideration? What do you want to ensure remains as part of the new program, and what are your general thoughts on the current state of travel loyalty programs today?
Edmundson: The very cool part of the companies coming together is we now have more than 110 million members. The brands are such an important part of the loyalty program. Strong brands generate strong loyalty programs, and vice versa. Strong loyalty programs help brands get stronger, and the forefront of our thinking is how do we nurture that symbiotic relationship?
Overall, the purpose of the program is to deepen the relationship that we have with our members and now we can do that more meaningfully with all the brands and destinations we have. Both Marriott Rewards and SPG [Starwood Preferred Guest] have set benchmarks in the industry. The hope is that the combined program will not just take the best of both programs but will bring the new program to new heights. I’m very excited about what’s to come.
Skift: Marriott is now one of the biggest luxury hospitality players in the world. Given that today’s luxury consumer is very different from the luxury consumer of the past, what are you doing to make sure that Marriott’s luxury brands remain appealing to both older and newer luxury guests?
Edmundson: We are continuing to look forward and make sure we have our finger on the pulse of what’s going on with today’s luxury traveler. What we know today continues to evolve. We want to make sure we know what is happening socially and culturally and guiding and motivating this luxury traveler. The fact of the matter is that luxury — what it means today — is completely different form one person to the other. It’s become much more individual.
In addition to experiences, and people will talk about experiences and highly personalized service, but thee reality is that today’s luxury is adding this notion of personal development and transformation as part of their repertoire and part of what they want to accomplish. Travel is an important conduit for achieving that. That’s where we see our role. It’s a material shift in the affluent traveler — they want to take their travel experiences home in some way. They want to have it inform their lives in some way. This is changing the conversation.
For us, it changed the role of the luxury hotel. In the past, we were just the deliverer of the experience. Now we’re almost in this position of being enablers in these transformative experiences they are seeking out. Our strength lies in the fact that we have these very diverse luxury brands in our portfolio — breadth and scale and strength of the company to deliver more ably to this new luxurian. To focus on well being. Technology is creating seamless experiences. There’s extraordinary access to destinations, things that money can’t buy, if you will. Partnering and making sure that we are reading the tea leaves, if you will, is our goal, to stay ahead of what’s coming and to deliver this all in a meaningful way.
Skift: In what ways do you think technology should enhance the guest experience, and in what ways do you think it should be, perhaps, limited? What new hotel technologies are you most excited about?
Edmundson: I’m really excited about this Internet of Things pilot room that we have here in our headquarters office. It takes us past mobile check-in and check-out, and things we’ve been talking about in hospitality for so many years.
We want to lead in the digital space. Of course, we continue to offer basic things like mobile app request and there are lots of chats going on for service requests on the Marriott Rewards mobile app. One of the things we want to make sure of is that tech is supposed to remove the transaction from the experience so it frees up our associates to engage in a more emotional and personal way with our guests. We don’t want technology to replace high touch with high tech. It has to be high tech and high touch, if you will.
Skift: Many of your hotel peers have also expressed a deep interest in wellness and wellbeing — but many seem to have more of a surface-level investment in that space. What kind of an investment is Marriott making into this space, and why is it so important to the company going forward?
Edmundson: We have a few brands that are pretty deep into this space. What we’re seeing is that today’s traveler is no longer just seeing wellness as part of the physical self. Wellness has been redefined as wellbeing; it’s about emotional and mental health. Travelers are now investing much more in their wellbeing when they’re on the road. It’s the one thing you can control.
If you think about the JW Marriott brand, we have a partnership with the Joffrey Ballet, called the Behind the Barre program. It’s on-demand workouts and stretches so it’s available on your in-room TV; it’s really terrific vignettes of workouts. It’s born from the exercises that the ballet dancers do to keep themselves physically and mentally grounded. It comes from a place of authenticity and it has worked really well.
Almost a year ago now, Westin announced a partnership with Peloton. We have Peloton bikes in 60 Westin hotels in the U.S. We have, of course, had running concierges for a long time and a gear lending program as well; once you do that you are absolutely hooked because you never have to bring your things.
The W Union Square has a monthly silent yoga. We play this amazing music on headphones. We also recently brought in director Ava DuVernay of the movie, “A Wrinkle in Time,” and gave our guests access to a terrific conversation with her at another W property. W Miami collaborated recently with Daybreak, a giant dance party workout on the roof at 7 a.m. which is definitely something we’ll try to do at other hotels.