There’s a little known fact in the luxury hotel industry—with 175 luxury properties sprinkled throughout the world and brands ranging from The Ritz-Carlton, Ritz-Carlton Reserve and Bulgari Hotels & Resorts to JW Marriott Hotels and EDITION—Marriott International is the largest hospitality operator in the luxury space, in addition to being the largest publicly traded U.S. hotel chain. And with 27 additional luxury properties around the world in the pipeline to open by 2015, representing a combined total of 9,000 rooms under development, the Bethesda, Md.-based company is undeniably emerging as the leader in establishing trends and setting the standard for the industry.
Pursuitist recently had the opportunity to sit down with Tina Edmundson, Marriott International’s Global Officer for Luxury and Lifestyle Brands, to discuss the company’s vision and strategy for its luxury brands. Ms. Edmundson oversees the global brand and operations strategy for the company’s luxury and lifestyle portfolio, which includes more than 400 hotels in 38 countries. Marriott International currently has a robust development pipeline of over 200 luxury and lifestyle hotel projects around the world, reflecting more than $15 billion of investment by its owner and franchisee partners. Over $6 billion should be invested in 75 hotels that are expected to open in the next two years.
Pursuitist: Tina, how are Marriott’s luxury brands evolving?
Tina: The goal of global luxury hotel brands used to be to offer consistency—the same product, ensuring its loyal guests would have the same quality experience no matter where in the world the property was located. Marriott International’s strategy has evolved to stay relevant with the changing customer needs, taste and preferences in an everchanging consumer landscape, however while it is still offering the same quality of service its clients have come to expect, each of its properties will soon reflect the culture and environment in which it is located.
We are seeing that across the brands, particularly in the luxury and lifestyle space, it is much more about the experience. Nobody wants that prototypical feeling from a design perspective anymore. They want to go to Hong Kong and feel like they are in Hong Kong.
Pursuitist: How does Marriott accomplish this?
Tina: Marriott accomplishes this in several ways. We do it through design, such as visual keys. We do this through service, too. For example, there is a higher touch level of service in some places, such as Asia, versus the U.S. We also weave in cultural nuances throughout the experience, including food, which is important especially for those guests who want to be immersed in the culture. Beyond that, our concierges understand the nuances of their needs in whatever destination. So they can curate, if you will, an itinerary that will be really compelling to a guest’s interests and tastes.
Pursuitist: How is business travel evolving?
Tina: More and more, business travelers use travel as an opportunity to enrich their lives. If you are going to a place, you want to take home a bit of the experience, especially if it is a place you know you won’t visit anytime soon due to distance or personal commitments. They want to return home and share stories about their experience. As a hotel company and within our luxury and lifestyle portfolio, we want to help facilitate this kind of experience. We are very focused on creating experiences for our guests. We don’t want to be the place that is just for a good night’s sleep. We want to be about creating memories and having an emotional connection with our guests.
Tina: JW is approachable luxury, while The Ritz-Carlton is more iconic luxury. They both service a luxury customer, though JW is more focused on well being, so there will be a lot of programming and services (including the cuisine) that will be focused on well-being. The Ritz-Carlton, on the other hand, is more focused on creating indelible moments and giving its guests experiences that stay with them long after they check out. The Ladies and Gentlemen of The Ritz-Carlton are fundamental in creating these emotional connections and are at the core of the brand’s service delivery and standards, while also serving as curators of memorable experiences for guests.
Pursuitist: Can you discuss how the life cycles for these two brands differ?
Tina: Initially, Marriott did not think of JW as a brand. It started out as a tribute to J.W. Marriott Jr.’s father, J.W. Marriott, Sr. It is still growing up. The Ritz-Carlton is very established and legendary. The expectations of its guests are fitting for what we are trying to do.
Pursuitist: How does your company engage its clients when they are not guests at one of your properties?
Tina: We establish brand loyalty with our guests through our rewards programs. Even when our guests are not staying with us, we are communicating with them. In addition, each brand offers special events that are geared toward their customers. For example, JW Marriott might reach out to its local clients and invite them to the Essex House in New York for the unveiling of a new art collection in New York. We don’t just want to communicate with you about promotions, which feels inauthentic. Rather, we want to tell you about experiences.
Pursuitist: Tell us about Ritz-Carlton Reserve and how these properties offer once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
Tina: Ritz-Carlton Reserve started out as an expansion of the brand, but it is now its own brand. They are meant to be in really precious, amazing locations, in fact, Sanctuaries. The sweet spots are remote locations that are very indigenous of the locale where they are located, paired with very high end accommodations and amenities. Ritz-Carlton Reserves offer a high touch, immersive experience for the global affluent traveler. These are generally not quick trips and they are not easy places to get to. It takes some planning in advance.
For example, at Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve in Puerto Rico, the spa experience takes your breath away. The five-acre spa is built around a giant heritage banyan tree. The spa’s entryway is planted with a wide variety of herbs for guests to pick. The spa also offers massages in custom build treehouse platforms so guests can experience relaxation among nature. Just by being there, you feel connected to the place you are in.
The second Ritz-Carlton Reserve that is open and operating is Phulay Bay, which is about 45 minutes from Phuket in Thailand. The Phulay Bay property facilitates an immersive experience by offering a variety of activities on the water, from canoeing to fishing. The cuisine is very authentic. There is a baby elephant living on the property. It knits together an interesting and new experience for the global affluent tribe.
We have expansion plans for the brand and there are four or five more Ritz-Carlton Reserve properties in the pipeline, however, we will never have a large number of them. We will end up with potentially around 20 of them, or thereabouts. The next ones to open will be in Bali, Indonesia, Los Cabos, Mexico, Tamuda Bay, Morocco, Muscat, Oman and Pearl Island, Panama.
Pursuitist: Can you tell me about other expansion plans for Marriott International’s brands?
Our partnership with Ian Schrager includes two EDITION hotels in London and Istanbul. There are ten others on the docket and a great deal of interest in this brand.
We also envision more growth for the JW Marriott brand. In fact, we are opening one in Venice soon, our first property in Italy. The resort will be on the private island of Sacca Sessola, located in the Venetian lagoon, just a short boat ride from the beautiful city of Venice. We will open a new 300-room JW Marriott Hotel in Puerto Los Cabos in 2015.
In Shanghai, we have more than thirty different properties. Even so, we opened a seventh Renaissance property there last year. We opened The Ritz-Carlton, Rancho Mirage, Ca. on the 15th of May and we recently opened in Aruba, Bangalore, Herzliya (Israel) and in Kyoto, Japan.
Pursuitist: Tell us about Marriott’s entry into the luxury lifestyle space in 2007.
Tina: When Marriott decided to go into luxury lifestyle space, we wanted to do it with Ian Schrager, who is the person who invented the category. We did not want to do something that was “me too.” The luxury lifestyle space has become so crowded and to enter the space in a big way it was important for the company to find the right partner.
Pursuitist: I understand that Marriott initially purchased the buildings, which is unusual in the hotel management industry. Can you discuss that decision?
Tina: We wanted to get the project started and we wanted to do it right. As a company we initially invested close to $800 million, but we have since then sold the buildings. In September 2013, we opened The London EDITION. It was really well received by critics and guests. We have a restaurant there headed by Chef Jason Atherton, who is an up-and-coming Michelin-starred chef in London. The restaurant, Berners Tavern, is so popular that it is impossible to get a reservation for dinner.
In addition to London, The Istanbul EDITION is already open. We have ten more EDITION hotels on the books for opening. In the fall of 2014, we will open one in Miami Beach and in April of 2015, we will open an EDITION in the historic Clock Tower building in New York.
Pursuitist: What else will make EDITION hotels standout from the rest of the pack?
Tina: Ian Schrager curates the entire guest experience. He is involved with everything the guest will see, from the uniforms to the food. We will have a Michelin-starred chef at each property. In Miami Beach, there will be seven restaurant and bars. EDITION is between a JW Marriott and a Ritz-Carlton.
The London EDITION offers a private lounge called the Punch Room, a second lounge called The Lobby Bar and a nightclub called the Basement. It is an interesting ecosystem. Locals and guest alike go to the Lobby Bar, and then go to The Basement to dance, and have after-dinner drinks at the Punch Room. Ian talks about how disco is not dead. He believes that fundamentally people like to dance.
Images Courtesy of Marriott International; Photos by Nikolas Koenig, Don Riddle and Christopher Cypert