Marriott’s focus on personalization and privacy gave it an advantage during the pandemic

June 24, 2021, 6:00 PM UTC
Twin Palms, also known as the Frank Sinatra House, is a mid-century modern house in Palm Springs.
Courtesy of Marriott International

When Marriott International launched its Homes and Villas rental program in 2019, it was simply a new offering for the Fortune 500 company, a way for guests to book houses in various locations around the world. The team had observed the desire for rental homes growing, and they wanted to offer a similar service with the Marriott touch: private, luxury accommodations with top-quality amenities, and access to Bonvoy loyalty points in high-end destinations. Marriott has nearly 25,000 homes available on the platform, including Frank Sinatra’s famous Palm Springs house with a piano-shaped pool, and an 18th-century Italian villa in the heart of Tuscany.

Marriott didn’t, like many, expect that a global pandemic would make private travel the top priority. Thanks to more than a year of social distancing, requests for the rental program are through the roof: up 720% from the first quarter of 2020 to the first quarter of 2021. One of the top asks? Private pools.

Inside Frank Sinatra’s Twin Palms estate, with his original recording studio still in place as well as a pool house and four bedrooms, each with en suite bathrooms.
Courtesy of Marriott International

For some in the hospitality industry, the coronavirus pandemic drastically altered how they view travel altogether. For Marriott, it was simply reinforcement that its efforts around personalization, experiences, access, and exclusivity were here to stay. The popularity of private travel, especially among people who would not have opted for it before, proves the suspected evolution in the desires of the traveler. That traveler seeks local culture, but with a caveat: They want to share that experience with friends and family with them rather than anyone or everyone around. That’s exactly why the company dived into private home management.

“An excursion with a group of friends is more of a private moment today than it was five years ago,” explains Julius Robinson, chief sales and marketing officer of the U.S. and Canada for Marriott International. “People are more interested in traveling with five or six people that they know well, where they can all share special moments.”

Robinson likes to use the term “alone together” to describe today’s travelers. These vacationers seek the energy of the community and culture but want to experience it in a more personalized fashion. Gone are the days of big group excursions, he says, in exchange for more intimate activities that feel unique, eccentric, and personal. Part of that is the result of social media, and it was bubbling up prior to the pandemic. Everything we have undergone in the past year has only accelerated the trend.

It’s also in line with the shift Marriott is seeing on its properties, too, with guests increasingly booking the residence options that are part of hotels and resorts. These are two- or three-bedroom cottages that offer the seclusion of a personal home with kitchens and those much-requested private pools. But they also allow guests to lean into the pampering of a hotel experience: daily housekeeping, culinary experiences at hotel restaurants, laundry services, and other conveniences.

The Sky Residences at W Aspen.
Courtesy of Marriott International

Robinson highlighted the W Aspen as a prime example of the type of demand for hotel residences. The multi-bedroom homes include features like barbecue grills, outdoor fire pits, valet service, gourmet kitchens, hot tubs, and most importantly, quick access to the slopes. The company can’t keep the places vacant if it tries. Guests normally book the sky residences at the ski resort for anywhere from 30 to 120 days, and they are often sold out months in advance.

“You have the luxury of being in and among a beautiful property, with the service and high-end design that the hotel offers,” Robinson says. “But at the same time, you’ve got your own slice of the pie that allows you to just be with the people you’re there with.”

Privacy in travel has never been the most affordable way to see the world. Private jets cost much more per seat than economy on a major airline, and villas and personal cottages tend to be priced much higher per night than a standard queen room. But that’s changing too.

Robinson explained that today’s travelers are much more likely to spend up for the private, personal experience, and Marriott has developed options for every type of guest—at any price point. Maybe a family won’t shell out thousands for a seven-bedroom, oceanfront villa on a beach trip, but they will book a private meal for four at the J.W. Marriott Los Angeles to dine in their own custom-built cabin.

The lake house at the Ritz-Carlton Reynolds, Lake Oconee, just outside Atlanta.
Courtesy of Marriott International

At the Wailea Beach Resort in Hawaii, there is even a floating cabana dinner experience with a personalized five-course menu. Dinner starts at $450 for two and is consistently booked. That story is repeated at so many properties that Marriott is now looking at how to keep the igloos and cabana dining going, even after pandemic restrictions are lifted.

For all the focus on personalization, guests are also looking for another key factor to be a part of current-day travel: ease. Guests are seeking out the St. Regis properties for their famed butler service for one. But they are also, possibly surprisingly, looking at all-inclusive travel options. So much so that Marriott has now added 32 all-inclusive properties in its portfolio in the past two years, making it one of the top 10 providers of all-inclusive hotels globally.

Robinson echoed the idea that guests want to stop thinking when they are on vacation. If you’re constantly counting dollars against your budget, well, that’s far from relaxing. With the new all-inclusive experience, guests get a Marriott-level experience without having to think about anything upon arrival—beyond, for instance, what cocktail to order at the pool bar. “People want freedom of choice, but also not to think about anything,” Robinson says. “They want to make choices that are not tied to a cost-value proposition.”

The Marriott Bonvoy mobile app.
Courtesy of Marriott International

Marriott is rolling out the all-inclusive offerings at select W properties as well as vacation hotspots, like the Westin Reserva Conchal in Costa Rica and the Colony Club by Elegant Hotels in Barbados. Plus, the company has acquired 20 Blue Diamond Resorts to join the Marriott portfolio.

Ease is actually trickling through every element of the Marriott experience. In January 2021, the company also released refreshed features on its mobile app, which acts as sort of a contactless concierge. Through the Marriott International app, guests can check-in virtually, have access to keyless room entry, make hospitality requests, order room service, ask for more towels and pillows, get a shoeshine, and pretty much have an entire stay sans in-person interaction. Marriott has rolled it out for 4,300 properties.

Some of those features were on the product road map, but Robinson says others were added in reaction to the demands of the pandemic. They have simply made it easier to not see a human while staying at a Marriott property, and any personal amenity a guest needs can be had at the touch of a button.

“People have a very clear vision of what they want their experiences to look like, and they’re expecting us to help them achieve that vision,” Robinson says. “What the pandemic has done is really change people’s apprehension to some of the technology tools out there. What we have to do is to continue to leverage privacy, choice, and technology together. Hopefully, the things we’ve learned [during the pandemic] will benefit the way we look at providing a great experience.”

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