The hospitality giant has responded to COVID-19 through the prism of its core beliefs, which begin with taking care of its people.
While the economic devastation COVID-19 has wrought on the hospitality industry is well-documented, its impact extends far beyond any hotel’s front doors.
“What many people don’t realize is that, while we are seen as a big company, our brands are really a collection of small businesses that support other small businesses in the local community,” says Brian King, global officer for Marriott International. “For example, the dry cleaner who comes in every day to pick up the hotel laundry and the person who comes in on Saturdays to DJ weddings, along with the florist—they depend on us as we depend on them.”
The virus has hit Marriott’s larger partners equally hard, from the convention centers, airlines, and car rental agencies to the destination marketing firms.
“If there is one thing we can all learn from COVID-19, it is how tightly and highly interdependent we are as a society—and that’s particularly true in the travel ecosystem. First things first, we all had to do what was best for humanity, such as supporting first responders with complimentary rooms so they could rest and remain separated safely from family. Now we have all pivoted to doing everything we can to safely bring back business,” King says.
Help Your Own—and Others
As the dramatic impact of COVID-19 began to unfold in March and April, Marriott was forced to make significant large-scale decisions regarding its workforce.
“Like many companies in the travel sector, we had to furlough associates. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in 30 years in the business, because the impact on associates was due to something completely outside their control,” King recounts. “Marriott is a global company that’s made up of bellmen, housekeepers, desk clerks, and line cooks. At the core of our DNA is providing opportunity to help people build careers with our company. Getting our teams back to work is priority No. 1.”
Yet, in this situation, there was no simple path forward. “There was no playbook for dealing with a pandemic at a global scale,” King says. “But if you start with just the balance sheet and not the ‘human sheet,’ I don’t think you’re leading.”
Marriott began to lead with a focus on the human sheet, establishing a Marriott alumni network to help current and former employees remain connected. The Marriott HR team quickly worked with large companies that were hiring and created regionalized websites to help direct associates to part-time and full-time employment opportunities.
To help mitigate the number of furloughs, King worked with Deloitte to help transition Marriott call center employees to assist the State of New York with its exploding number of unemployment calls. (During a six-week period in the spring, New York received over 1.4 million claims.) Within seven days, Marriott associates who had previously been handling reservation cancellations were retrained and successfully began processing unemployment claims for New York.
Marriott also moved quickly to repurpose its assets to assist in the fight against COVID-19. The company used its meeting spaces to host more than 150 blood drives during a critical period this spring and summer, when access to traditional sites was unavailable.
“Because we shrank very quickly, we all had to become Jacks and Jills of all trades,” King says. “We were throwing people at tasks they’d never done before and upskilling them in days, not weeks. Decisions were made rapidly and ideas evaluated with an eye for quick deployment. Many ideas did not work, so we just scrapped them and moved on. You can’t be navel-gazing at a time like this.”
Hospitality in the Next Normal
With a growing list of contactless initiatives including keyless room entry and room service accessible via text message, Marriott is positioned to be trusted during the pandemic and after. The entire end-to-end guest journey is made up of hundreds of digital and physical touchpoints for a customer during a typical hotel stay, according to King, so responding to what item will become hotel guests’ new expectation has required a cross-functional approach.
“As we rethought contactless experiences, we brought together a team of digital, operations, and finance experts,” he says. “Each of these hotels is a small business. They work as a cross-discipline team, and that percolates up to how corporate works. By being reflective of field operations, we can help support our hotels from an R&D perspective.”
At the same time, digital contactless solutions in this industry can call into question the core definition of “hospitality.”
“The heart of a lodging company is being hospitable and connecting with customers no matter what the circumstance. So, what does it mean to be hospitable in a contactless environment?” says King. “I’ve always said that digital is hospitable when done right. Right now, we’re rushing to clinical, rational solutions to ensure there is no transmission of the virus, but ultimately, those solutions may be less user-friendly. As soon as possible, we have to circle back and make sure they have emotional resonance with the customer too.”
A Core Mission
King remains optimistic about the future for Marriott, despite the pandemic’s outsized impact on the travel industry, in part because of the company’s value system.
“We have 30 trusted hotel brands, but the most important one is our employer brand,” he explains. “Hospitality is about people, not buildings. One of the reasons I think we’re going to weather this storm is because of our culture. It comes down to the smart approach of our founder, JW Marriott, Sr.: ‘Take great care of your associates, and they’ll take great care of the guests, and the guests will come back time and time again.’”
—by Dr. Gerald C. Kane, professor of information systems and faculty director, the Edmund H. Shea Jr. Center for Entrepreneurship, Carroll School of Management, Boston College; and Anh Nguyen Phillips, senior manager, Deloitte Center for Integrated Research
Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of conversations with leaders for an upcoming book, “The Transformation Myth,” a collaboration between Deloitte and academics from Boston College and Northwestern University, to be published in 2021 by MIT Press.