In conversation with Marriott International Area Vice President – South Asia Neeraj Govil
By Jithendri Gomes
Marriott International is a US-based company in existence for over 90 years, present in 180 countries with a portfolio of 30 brands. The company doesn’t invest capital in their hotels and therefore, do not own their properties outright. Instead, they offer the brand, and the prestige that comes with it, and manage the property for its owners.
The expertise of successfully running a property and sharing that success with the owner is what Marriott brings to the table.
In the South Asia alone, Marriott has a total of 123 hotels with an inventory of over 23,000 hotel rooms. They hoped to open an additional 24 hotels globally this year, out of which six were already launched –and it’s only March. Two of these hotels will be properties in Colombo.
According to Govil, they open a new hotel globally every 14 hours! We had the pleasure of speaking to him recently at Weligama Bay Marriott Resort. Here are some excerpts from the interview.
Why do you think tourists are attracted to Sri Lanka? Why were you attracted to open a property here?
We cover India and all the countries that surround India. Asia Pacific is one of our fastest-growing regions and South Asia is the fastest within Asia Pacific.
We are keenly involved here as we see tremendous opportunity for growth. Today, Sri Lanka is extremely well positioned when it comes to global tourism and there are number of reasons for that.
As a county, your offerings are pretty special. You are able to offer tourists a great number of diverse experiences within the island – one can experience both the hills and the beach within a five-hour drive.
It is also safe here. Even with the political turmoil, the initiative taken towards developing the tourism industry hasn’t changed. The Board of Investments (BOI) has done a great job.
Sri Lanka has developed a number of potentials and it is one country that everyone is talking about now, with Lonely Planet giving that accreditation as well.
Your hospitality is phenomenal; the people are warm and genuinely service-oriented. The skill level is also improving with a lot of Sri Lankans coming back home. And the food, obviously!
There is a rapid increase in tourist arrivals in Sri Lanka. Do you think we are equipped to handle it?
The tourist arrivals of 2.3 million last year was incredible! A double-digit growth rate is always a good thing and it will get staggered over the years.
You just have to be patient so that you don’t stress out all your resources at once. For the longest time, Sri Lanka didn’t have that kind of supply, and now you do. It will correct itself over time.
The airport extension plan is a good initiative in handling that. The country is now well connected with the world and your infrastructure has improved considerably.
I think Sri Lanka is able to handle those numbers. Any country can do more, but by and large, I believe Sri Lanka has been dealing with it rather well.
Some people enjoy travelling to an exotic destination where they won’t be disturbed during their stay, a sanctuary almost, and we must not ruin that. There are other instances where there have been too many tourists, but I think the Government is doing a good job managing that.
We don’t really pick the location as we are a management company, but when our partner presented an opportunity here, we collaborated.
We always look at the value proposition of the location and figure out what kind of brand will work there. We don’t really have a control on specific locations. Currently, this is our only property (Weligama Bay Marriott Resort), but the Ritz Carlton and the Sheraton will open soon in Colombo.
We are optimistic that we will be able to open them soon!
We market the destination and we see potential here to have multiple properties because there is so much diversity here. Nuwara Eliya is different from Kandy, and Kandy is different from Weligama.
When it comes to expanding to areas that are not densely populated with tourists, it’s all about finding the right partner. We consider all the requests that come our way, but the final call is made depending on the feasibility of it. We are very happy with our progress here in Sri Lanka.
What do you consider is your greatest service to the country and its people?
We offer employment! We are very passionate about that.
We like to make sure that the locals are recruited from the country including for senior positions. We make sure we support them. When it comes to target ratios, we firmly believe that the majority of the employees must come from the locality.
From the local employee population at this property, around 75% are from Weligama and surrounding areas. It is also critically important for us to build a talent base in the county if we are to grow and be successful here.
We need to benefit the locals by providing great work opportunities, career advancement prospects, and even overseas opportunities as we have over 7,000 properties worldwide.
More importantly, we also offer training here.
For locals who want to come back with their families, we can offer that same stability and opportunity to them here – we have done this in every county in which we have opened hotels.
We also train our employees as base-level on how to interact with people. We want to be known as the preferred company for people to work, train, and grow with. That’s very important to us.
We also want to encourage women to enter into the industry, especially in the Asian region. We eventually want to get to 35% representation.
Currently, we are around 20%. We believe in having diversity in our workforce in order to best take care of our guests, because our guests are also very diverse. They come from different nationalities and are diverse in who they are. Having more women in the team helps us cater to that. And to get women on the team, we understand that we need to be more flexible.
What do you look for when hiring an employee?
When it comes to employing people, we follow one simple principle. We hire for attitude and train for skill. Attitude in our industry is priceless. You have to have a passion to work in this industry. Skills can be taught. We want people who genuinely like interacting with others and contribute toward creating great experiences for our guests.
The genuine warmth of people here is amazing and they work hard as well. We just have to give them the right environment. I am very confident that we can develop our own talent base here. This is one country that is brimming with talent!
How do you handle retention? Especially with the establishment of so many properties and chains, along with the shortage of talent?
We have to make sure that what we stand for and say is deliverable upfront. We have to make sure that the careers of the people we hire are managed right from the get-go and that they have clear career development plans in place.
We have one of the lowest levels of attrition, even here in Sri Lanka. We have to be versatile and flexible as well when taking care of staff, especially as they look after other people.
From the moment they realise that we genuinely care for their grievances, it makes a huge difference. Because of our portfolio, we are able to accommodate many of the requests regarding career progression and shifts. We even offer them the chance to switch between our brands. It’s really about doing what we say we will do.
Responsible tourism is a major concern now. What are some of the ways in which the Marriott chain has contributed to manage tourism responsibly?
As a company, we have our own rules about being environmentally friendly. There are both long and medium-term goals that have been set for us. There is a sustained effort into making sure that we get rid of plastic and its consumption.
There is a lot that we do in the heart of the house as well. Sustainable engineering within the heart of the house, reducing energy consumption from sources that are not natural, getting rid of plastic, and conserving water are some of the things we do.
We also go to the extent of monitoring the carbon footprint left behind by the products we use, how much travel our food has gone through, whether we are buying local produce, whether we use global produce responsibly, and so on.
Marriott has also recommended actions to be followed when building the property. We also assess how passionate our partners are about this, and we insist that these practices are incorporated from the beginning of the plan.
Education of the workforce is very important to us. Our associates are trained in this subject and our senior executives walk the talk as well, making sure our customers also adhere to these practices. Everyone needs to get together and make a joint effort to make it work.