Exclusive: Marriott APEC Chairman Rajeev Menon Talks Rebuilding and Recovery

At AHICE 2022, Marriott’s International President for Asia-Pacific excluding Greater China (APEC), Rajeev Menon, sat down with HRuth Hogan (M) to discuss COVID recovery, attracting talent to the industry, and what to expect next year.

You spoke with great passion to emerging leaders at the Future Leaders Forum conference [this month]. What are the key messages you want to convey to those starting out in their hotel career?

For me, the growth of our employees is so important, because we have grown over the years, many have mentored us and taken risks on us as individuals, and I think it is our responsibility to do the same, especially when things have been so difficult over the past two years. People were, to some extent, disillusioned or lost interest. And keep in mind that for a lot of the younger generations, this is really the first real crisis they’ve experienced in an Australian context. It was therefore important to remind them that this is part of life and that it is better to take the bull by the horns and make an opportunity of it than to run away.

There has been a lot of discussion [during AHICE] on how the industry can address this significant skills shortage and how to attract people to a career in hospitality. What is your point of view on this?

There aren’t many industries where you can, in the case of Sean Hunt (AVP), start out as a butcher and end up running the Australia, New Zealand and Pacific business, or, for that matter, me in as a middle class kid in India, doing hotel management, building my career, coming to Australia and eventually ruling all of Asia-Pacific [for Marriott]. It’s a special industry from that point of view. I think it’s good to go out there and remind people of the career opportunities that can be created in our industry.

At Marriott, we did two things [for our people when the pandemic hit]. First, we kept their names as old on our list. Second, in many cases our entire talent acquisition team during the crisis became a talent outsourcing team. As we had to make tough decisions, our talent team reached out to some of our big partners like the Amazons of the world and other big companies, to find jobs for those people who were leaving jobs for us. As a company, we have always talked about taking care of our employees, and there was a real situation where we couldn’t take care of some of our employees, so it was very important for us to be fair, to do what is necessary with them. It was amazing because there were about 25 or 28 companies prioritizing Marriott associates. Now that our industry is rebounding, many of our former associates want to come back, and we want them back. On this labor crisis, there is no magic formula. It’s really about all of us getting out there and beating the drums about the great industry we’re a part of and how they can come back and build amazing careers.

Can you elaborate a bit on how the various markets under your jurisdiction within APEC are recovering from the effects of the pandemic?

Basically, Asia excluding China was pretty much the first to enter the crisis right after China, and pretty much the last to come out of it, to call a spade a spade, because most of our countries, some 22 markets, have generally remained closed to international travel but also with national restrictions. However, having said that, a decision we made right after the acquisition of Starwood, which was just a godsend, was to bring most of our resources closer to the markets in which we operated. When we took over Starwood in Australia, Sean Hunt and the team were based on the property. They were running a hotel and they had regional responsibility, so you can imagine that you spend 60-70% of your time managing a hotel and 30% managing the region. We got Sean out of the hotel, put him in the regional office, and he’s got a whole team around him, almost 70 people here, who are just available to handle ANZP business. Likewise, we have established offices in Seoul, Korea, Tokyo, Indonesia, Jakarta, Bangkok, we have three offices in India. When COVID hit, my team and I in Singapore couldn’t do much, but having our teams on the ground, they were front and center. They could dialogue with our owner partners, they could dialogue with our associates, our hotels, and really be on the ground to make decisions very, very quickly. I used a term called hyper localization, which we’ve been focusing on a lot thanks to COVID and it’s given us amazing results.

Our most difficult market today is Japan, because it is a market where the borders are still quite restricted. Only 10,000 people are allowed to enter Japan each day. I think at the top of [travel]it was nearly about 170,000 people [entering Japan] every day. This is the only market that is taking longer than others to open, but overall many other markets are now either fully open or on track to fully open in the next two to three months . As a result, in markets like Australia or India, for example, we’re changing the rhetoric from recovery to 19 to growth versus 19, because we’ve done that, we’re now on the growth trajectory.

What are the travel trends on your radar right now?

Some trends have just become much more important following the crisis. For example, intra-Asian travel, which was growing exponentially before COVID, and it will continue. Pleasure travel has increased 4x compared to business and casual travel, and we all know how it just blossomed, this concept of “bleisure”. Also, with COVID, people have had time to reflect on themselves, and I think when they travel, the focus is definitely on sustainability and the contribution they individually make to give back, to do something something for the community or for the environment. In late 2020/early 2021, we tested a program called Good Travel with Marriott Bonvoy. At that time, 17 stations followed him. For example, at the Sheraton in the Maldives, you could work with a government-appointed NGO on coral replanting, and we’d put a little tag with your name on it – it blew up all that desire to travel and give back. We’re now rolling it out across Asia Pacific because we generally see it as something people want to do, especially for leisure travel.

What excites you most about Marriott in 2022-2023?

For us, growth remains very, very strong in Asia Pacific and globally. We [recently] published our first quarter results and announced that we had signed recording halls in the first quarter, and similarly in Asia, these numbers continue to grow. For me, it also means growth for our people. This year, in the fourth quarter, we will open our 1000e hotel in Asia-Pacific. When I joined the company 21 years ago, Marriott had less than 50 hotels in Asia Pacific – to go from less than 50 to 1,000 hotels is incredible, and that’s open hotels with an incredible pipeline of 500 to 700 other hotels.

Nicholas E. Crittendon