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

You spoke very passionately to emerging leaders at the Future Leaders Forum conference [this month]. What are the key messages you want to get across to those who may be starting out in their hospitality career?

For me, growth for our people is so important, because as we’ve grown over the years there have been many who mentored us and took risks on us as individuals, and I think it’s our responsibility to do the same, particularly when things have been so hard for the last couple of years. People have, to some extent, become disillusioned or lost interest. And keep in mind, for much of the younger generations, this is really the first real crisis they have experienced in an Australia context. So it was important to remind them that this is part of life and it’s better to take the bull by the horns and turn it into an opportunity versus running away from it.

There has been a lot of talk [during AHICE] about how the industry can address this major skills shortage and looking at ways to attract people to a career in hospitality. What is your viewpoint on that?

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

At Marriott, we did two things [for our people when the pandemic hit]. One, we kept their names as our alumni on our list. Second, in many cases, our whole Talent Acquisition team during the crisis became a talent outsourcing team. As we had to make some hard decisions, we had our talent team reach out to some of our big partners like the Amazons of the world and other major companies, to get jobs for these folks that were leaving us jobs. As a company, we’ve always talked about taking care of our people, and here was a real situation that we couldn’t take care of some of our people, so it was very important for us to be fair, do the right thing by them. It was incredible because there was about 25 or 28 companies that actually gave priority to Marriott associates. Now that our industry is bouncing back, a lot of our alumni associates want to come back, and we want to bring them back. On this labour crunch issue, there is no one magic bullet. It really is about all of us getting out there and just beating the drum about what a great industry we are part of and how they can come back and build incredible careers.

Can you explain a bit about how the various markets under your remit in APEC are recovering from the impacts of the pandemic?

Broadly, Asia excluding China was pretty much the first to enter into the crisis right after China, and pretty much the last to come out of it, to call the spade a spade, because most of our countries, 22-odd markets, have generally remained closed to international travel but also with domestic restrictions. However, having said that, a decision we made right after the Starwood acquisition, which has just been a godsend, was putting most of our resources closest to the markets that we were operating in. When we took over Starwood in Australia, Sean Hunt and team were property based. They were running a hotel and they had regional responsibility, so you can imagine you’re spending 60-70% of your time running a hotel and 30% running the region. We took Sean out of the hotel, put him in the area office, and he’s got an entire team around him, almost 70 people here, that are just available to run the business of ANZP. Similarly, we set up offices in Seoul, Korea, Tokyo, Indonesia, Jakarta, Bangkok, we’ve got three offices in India. When COVID hit, my team and I in Singapore could only do so much, but having our teams on the ground, they were in the front row. They could engage with our owner partners, they could engage with our associates, our hotels, and just really be on the ground making decisions very, very quickly.  I’ve used a term called hyper localisation, which is something we focused extensively through COVID and it gave us some incredible results.

Our toughest market today is Japan, because it’s one market where borders are still quite restricted. Only 10,000 people are allowed to enter Japan every day. I think at the peak of [travel], it was close to about 170,000 people [entering Japan] every day. That’s the one market that is taking longer than others to open up, but broadly many other markets are now either fully open or are in the process of fully opening up in the next two to three months. As a result, in markets like say Australia or India, for example, we are changing the rhetoric from recovery to 19 to growth versus 19, because we’ve done that, we’re now on the growth trajectory.

What travel trends are on your radar right now?

Some trends have just become much bigger following the crisis. Case in point is intra-Asia travel, which was growing exponentially pre-COVID, and it’s going to continue. Leisure travel was growing 4X that of business, transient travel, and we all know how it’s just blossomed, this concept of ‘bleisure’. Also, with COVID, people have had time to self-reflect, and I think as they travel there is definitely a stronger focus on sustainability and the contribution they make individually to give back, to do 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 resorts were trailing it. For example, at the Sheraton in the Maldives, you could work with a government-appointed NGO on replanting coral, and we’d put a little tag with your name on it – that has exploded that whole desire to travel and give back. We are launching it across Asia Pacific now because we generally see that as something that people want to do, particularly for leisure travel.

What are you most excited about for Marriott in 2022-2023?

Growth for us remains very, very strong across Asia Pacific and across the world. We [recently] released our first quarter earnings and announced that we’ve signed record rooms in the first quarter, and similarly in Asia those numbers just continue to grow. To me, that also means growth for our people. This year, in the fourth quarter, we’re going to open our 1000th hotel in Asia Pacific. When I joined the company 21 years ago Marriott had less than 50 hotels in Asia Pacific – to go from under 50 to 1000 hotels is incredible, and that’s open hotels with an incredible pipeline of another 500-700 hotels.