Marriott International: Dealing with COVID-19 | In Practise

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Marriott International: Dealing with COVID-19

Current Area Director of Operations at Marriott International

Why is this interview interesting?

  • Comparison of Paris attacks and coronavirus disruption to travel
  • Outlook on the impact to business travel
  • How hoteliers can adapt room and food and beverage operations post-Covid
  • How to think about the evolution of ADR and occupancy during a crisis
  • Potential impact on the operational cost structure of running hotels after the coronavirus crisis

Executive Bio

Karim Gharbi

Current Area Director of Operations at Marriott International

Karim has over 20 years experience as a hotelier. He is currently the Area Director of Operations at Marriott International where he is responsible for four countries: France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden. He runs a team that supports each General Manager of the 35 properties that report to him throughout Europe. He previously spent 10 years at Four Seasons Hotel across Europe as Director of Rooms and General Manager. Read more

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Interview Transcript

How do you think consumer behavior will change, post-Covid? Maybe split it up between leisure travelers and business travelers. How are you looking at that, today?

That’s a very good question because, before, we were expecting the behavior of the customers to be really focusing on the service and on the quality of the service and the brand name. Now they will be focusing a lot on health and safety, despite the fact that they know that the brand they were travelling to before, is very strong in making the hotel safe for them. I think they will be looking, first, at the new procedures that the hotel is putting in place and that’s where we communicate a lot with the customers. We remain in contact with them, even though the hotels are closed now, and make sure that, when we reopen, they are fully aware about what we are going to put in place, in terms of procedures for cleanliness of the rooms, for example, or at the check-in.

In terms of type of customers, with the business customers, there is not much interaction with them, when they come to the hotel. Most of them they arrive, they leave early in the morning, they go out doing business, for the whole day and they come back in the evening. I’m sure that, first of all, we will have the leisure customers coming to the hotel, because of the whole lockdown and people would like to travel again. They would like to come out from this lockdown and just enjoy life, outside of their homes. They are where we need to make sure we answer all their questions, in terms of health and safety, by the procedures that we will put in place, then just continuing business as it was before. Making sure that we anticipate their needs and that we make them feel comfortable at the hotel.

Do you see larger declines in, potentially, business travel, versus leisure? I assume, then, conference and events in the hotels will be the hardest hit?

Yes; that will definitely be ramp-up time, after we open the hotels. First of all, we will definitely have a lot of locals and we will focus on the local business, because planes are not yet flying. The borders in Europe are closed to Schengen. The United States doesn’t want their citizens to travel abroad. So first of all, we will have local customers. Also, with all the technology that is now available, a lot of people are doing what we are doing now. I didn’t travel to London; you didn’t travel to Paris, to meet and talk. I think a lot of companies, because they were also hit financially, they will review their travel plans. They will probably ask some of their business people to not travel, where before they were travelling. You have a two-hour meeting; don’t travel. Just do it by Skype or by Zoom. Then they reduce the costs and it will be as efficient as it was, face to face. We have now put everything in place to make it successful. It’s a new way to do it.

Do you think that it’s a permanently smaller market then, the business travel market?

During the year, you can see, in the main cities in Europe, how the market is. You can see that, in the summertime, it’s mainly leisure travel. The rest of the year, especially end of September, October, November, and then January, February, March, it’s more for business travel. That’s where we are going to see reduced travelers. I think, on the business side, we will see reduced travelers. On the leisure side, I think we will have more and more people travelling.

So most of the demand for business comes in Q3, Q4?

Usually, yes. It’s Q3, Q4 where most of the business is. Usually, Q1 is very slow, historically speaking, in hospitality. We will see, probably this year, Q3, Q4 slower in that type of business.

How can you, as hoteliers, encourage the traveler to stay in hotels? What are you doing, to make the hotel seem safer, be cleaner and really encourage both leisure and business travelers, to stay in your hotel?

I think the first point is really the brand name and the brand is very strong. All the travelers that used to travel to the brand before, they believe in the brand, so they trust the brand and this is the very important point; the trust between the traveler and the hotels. That will be very key, for the success of opening the hotels and having the traveler coming back to us.

The second point is the strong procedures that will be in place. We have proved in the past, for example, if you see in Paris, in September 2015, what happened with the attack. Travel stopped a little bit but then when they saw that the hotel has put all the security measures in place, they started travelling again and coming back to the hotel. I think it will be the same approach, making sure that the travelers are aware of what we are putting in place, to make sure that our employees, our assets but, most importantly, the customers, are safe in the hotel. Also adapting the food and beverages that are offered to them, and not making them feel, okay, I’m going to go to the hotel, but I cannot go to the restaurant because it’s going to be crowded and there is no distancing. No, you can come because we have put everything in place, to make you feel comfortable and safe. That’s where we are going to be able to attract the traveler again.

How did you see demand change, post the Paris attacks?

Post the Paris attacks, demand was very slow, immediately after. Particularly as it happened in September, and it was at the end of the year, with all the holidays and we only started seeing a bit of ramp up in Q2, 2016. People started travelling, because business travelers had to travel, at that time, for meetings and business. The demand started with the business traveler, first. Then in the summertime, we saw an increase in the leisure business.

So from Q3, to the summer next year; almost half a year, nine months, for leisure travel to bounce back. But business travel was what ignited the Paris demand, post the attacks. That’s a bit of a different situation from today, because we have Zoom, for example, which wasn’t prevalent back then?

Exactly. Now we have Zoom, we have all the different platforms that we can use. As I was saying before, I think the business traveler will not start travelling again until Q4 or Q1 next year. That’s what I foresee, for now. The leisure traveler will start travelling again, especially the locals. But the business traveler probably won’t be until the end of Q1, next year.

Could you elaborate more on how you cultivated trust, post the Paris attacks. What did you do with security, to really tell the travelers, look, come and trust our brand; you’re safe here?

First of all, by really staying close to the customers, even if they are not travelling to the hotel. People who are on board on the loyalty programs, they receive newsletters and they are informed. Just last week, there was a press release, sharing with everyone what we are doing, in the company, for procedures and for cleaning. That makes the customers feel more secure, knowing exactly what the company is putting in place.

In terms of the security measures you put in place in Paris, how much did that cost? What was the real change in running the hotel, after Paris, compared to what you expect today?

We had to keep it very transparent, because we didn’t want to scare the customers, when they came to the hotel. The security was increased and, of course, there was an increase in the cost, because you need more people. In some hotels, you had metal detectors and that was an extra cost. But it was very well-received by the guests. They sometimes even thanked the employee. Thank you very much for doing this, because I can come to your hotel and I feel very safe and I can have lunch, dinner or even stay, because you are putting all this in place. There was a cost but it was worth it, because it keeps your employees safe, it keeps your guests safe and that was the most important thing.

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Marriott International: Dealing with COVID-19

May 1, 2020

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