The past 25 years have been a period of intense change for the hotel industry. Yet through the turbulence, Marriott International’s status as a leading name in hospitality has held steady.
Sandeep Walia, COO Middle East at Marriott International, acknowledges the challenges but says there is an important factor, which has always remained and contains the recipe for future success.
“Our industry has gone through a lot of change, but the core and heart of the business remains the same,” he tells The CEO Magazine.
“As an industry we need to have the heart of an innkeeper while maintaining an entrepreneurial spirit for our operations and business. In our industry there is no substitute for the human touch, and no amount of technology can replace the human element.
“The personal touch and creating memorable experiences for our guests are as vital today as they were decades ago. Building relationships based on trust with both guests and partners has been, and will always be, the bedrock of the industry.”
“I’ve found that when our associates feel personally and professionally fulfilled, they go above and beyond in their roles.”
Since the start of his journey in hospitality, when he began in guest relations, a piece of sage advice has guided Walia: ‘Take care of your people, and they will take care of your business.’
“This wisdom has shaped my leadership style and our organizational culture at Marriott,” he says.
“I’ve found that when our associates feel personally and professionally fulfilled, they go above and beyond in their roles. It’s a simple but powerful principle, which has allowed us to innovate, adapt and grow – even in the most trying times.”
Listening to staff and customers has also allowed Walia to remain open to change, and he believes continuous learning is the key to staying relevant.
“I see continuous learning as a non-negotiable,” he adds. “It’s not just about staying current; it’s about leading the charge. Learning and adapting are ingrained in our culture, ensuring that we not only meet but exceed our guests’ expectations. It’s how we maintain excellence, innovate and continue to be industry leaders.”
There’s no doubt that, thanks to technology, the experience of booking a holiday or business trip has changed dramatically.
“When I started my journey in this industry, bookings were mainly through travel agents. Now, digital platforms dominate,” Walia points out.
“We have seen the rise of digital in our industry for a while now, and there will always be a demand for a more holistic, tech-enabled and personalized experience.”
Technology has not only simplified processes, but has also enriched guests’ experiences, with features like mobile check-in and personalized recommendations becoming the norm. The company continues to invest in technology that adds value – both guest-facing and behind the scenes.
“We have seen the rise of digital in our industry for a while now, and there will always be a demand for a more holistic, tech-enabled and personalized experience,” Walia says. “Guests want options such as mobile check-in, mobile chat and mobile room-keys.”
As traveling has become the norm and more boarders have opened, the expectations of travelers have also changed. Guests today are looking for experiences, not just a room to stay in.
“The trend for localized experiences has pushed us to adapt our services, design and offerings,” Walia says. “Now, more than ever, there’s a focus on integrating local culture, art and cuisine into our properties. This not only enriches the guest experience but also differentiates our brand in a crowded market.
“Guests are increasingly valuing unique, authentic experiences over physical luxury. The ability to offer a ‘taste’ of the local culture within the comfort and luxury of our properties creates a compelling value proposition that many travelers are willing to pay a premium for.”
“Now, more than ever, there’s a focus on integrating local culture, art and cuisine into our properties.”
Instead of homogeneous, cut-and-paste hotels, Marriott creates a unique feel at each of its properties by embracing local culture and championing regional crafts and materials.
Marriott provides local artists and musicians with the opportunity to feature their work in their hotels, a strategy that provides mutual benefit. Furthermore, employees are trained to be local ambassadors who can offer guests insider tips on local experiences, hidden gems and cultural etiquette.
This is a trend Walia observes during his regular visits to the hotels under his jurisdiction, where he speaks with staff at all levels, meets his customers and analyzes their feedback.
Sustainability is increasingly becoming a key interest for travelers. As such, the implementation of green policies has been taken seriously by Marriott as they recognize guests are more likely to choose brands that align with their values.
“We have always been focused on supporting our communities and environment,” Walia says. “With our size and global scale, we have a responsibility to do more, and we are well positioned to be part of the solution.
“With our size and global scale, we have a responsibility to do more, and we are well positioned to be part of the solution.”
“Caring for our world has been part of the way Marriott International does business from the start. We didn’t call it sustainability then, but responsibility to the communities where we operate, connecting guests to beautiful environments and preserving those for future generations.
“Now more than ever, our guests are passionate about this and we are getting more questions about what we are doing and what changes we are making.”
These include focusing on reducing the company’s carbon footprint through a variety of efforts, as they strive to honor a commitment to net zero by 2050.
Part of Marriott’s strategy is about looking inwards, with an aim to increase usage of renewable energy and decrease their plastic consumption and solid and food waste. But they are also looking outwards, with projects of natural capital restoration that include reforestation and coral and mangrove plantings.
“We incorporate long-term goals, but we also set short-term, achievable targets. This approach allows us to be agile and make immediate improvements while working toward our long-term vision,” Walia explains.
“These initiatives not only make business sense but also resonate with our guests and corporate clients, many of whom have their own sustainability goals.”
As Walia looks to the future, he’s hopeful that he will leave an impression on the industry that continues long after he’s hung up his jacket.
“The legacy I aspire to leave behind is one rooted in people-first leadership,” he explains. “I would like to be remembered as a leader who not only drove business success and a balanced scorecard, but also empowered associates to realize their fullest potential.
“I have also had the good fortune of having incredible mentors and sponsors along my career path. They showed me the direction toward success, the stairs leading to growth, and I wish to do the same now.”
“I believe that leadership and learning are indispensable to each other, and I want this philosophy to be ingrained across our teams.”
This is certainly something he’s achieving through his work with the YPO community.
“I also aim for our operations to be a benchmark in sustainable and responsible business practices – to set an example that profitability can coexist with social and environmental responsibility,” Walia adds.
“I wish to leave a culture of continuous learning and adaptability. I believe that leadership and learning are indispensable to each other, and I want this philosophy to be ingrained across our teams.”