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Putting people first: Marriott International’s approach to building better hotels

Fran Roberts
|Jun 3|magazine15 min read

Originally from Switzerland, Ralph Frehner, Vice President, Food and Beverage, Asia-Pacific at Marriott International has enjoyed a diverse career that has seen him working across 12 countries for some of the world’s most prestigious companies and high-profile individuals – all of which gives him vast experience to leverage on in his current role.

“Hospitality, obviously, is a people business and it's focused on a lot of relationships but also interacting with guests, associates and team members. Having a diverse career helps you in adjusting to the different environment fairly easily and quickly. The second thing is, it also gives you a lot of experience on how to interact with different people in different countries from different cultures,” Frehner comments.

“I think it was really helpful for me to adjust to these markets very quickly. It was very important also, to learn the culture of different countries and really understand how these cultures work. Respecting the local culture is very important. Really, once you live in the country, it's very different than when you just visit because you really understand the culture. Today, I think it helps me a lot.”

In addition to overseeing the food and beverage operations, Frehner is in charge of design development for Asia-Pacific. “When I look at design development, it has taken me the experience from all these countries in Asia I’ve lived in to actually build better restaurants and build better hotels, which are much more tailored to the local customers, rather than just everything for everybody,” he explains. “That is very important. It's a diversity of experience which helps me fulfil my position today and it's very interesting but, ultimately, that always comes back to people and with that, the experiences you’ve had in the past.”

Engaging with customers differently

Tailoring to local markets and being able to adjust to different cultures is key to any multinational business, especially when it comes to customer service. “Obviously, every business needs to have a vision, so we created a vision for food and beverage today for the company in Asia-Pacific. Then we had supporting pillars and one of those pillars is marketing. If I look at the marketing of our business, it's about how to engage with customers differently because the generations are changing, like the millennials,” Frehner comments.

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Having a diverse career helps you in adjusting to the different environments fairly easily and quickly

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Marriott International’s food and beverage vision is to the favourite destination for local residents to eat, meet and drink. This is supported by three pillars – Go Local, which looks at growth coming from domestic customers, F&B Marketing, which as mentioned is focused on attracting millennial customers, and Talent Development.

“We are building the business much more to the local market than we used to do in the past. We obviously study local markets. Customer service for us is number one. I think I would say, if you take care of your associates, they will take care of your customers.” Around Asia-Pacific, there are 50,000 food and beverage associates, working in 2,700 restaurants and bars across more than 620 hotels.

Creating momentum in the market

Marriott’s reputation for superior customer service dates back to J. Willard Marriott’s original goal for his business: good food and good service at a fair price. Over 90 years on, the team continues to uphold this reputation and business ideals.

“I think the most important thing is for a company of our size is that you create an image that your food and beverage reputation is something that attracts people and you create a momentum in the market,” Frehner advises. “I think your actions need to speak louder than words. The thing is, with the actions we take, we try to do things a little bit differently.”

The Canvas concept lab is illustrative of how Marriott International does things differently. “We look at underutilised spaces in the hotels and we see how we can bring these spaces to life and make money with it. In return, we're looking for the latest entrepreneurs in the market, who can actually operate these spaces,” observes Frehner. “Rather than hire an associate, which is normal for hotels, we have a different approach, where we put these spaces into the market and say, ‘we have the money, you have the expertise, if you would like to be considered for the entrepreneur opportunity, apply here’. Then we ask people to present their ideas for it.”

Once a panel of judges has decided the winner, Marriott gives them the space and builds it for them according to their demands. “They then run that space as an entrepreneur,” Frehner advises. “We let them run it the way they want to. It's a lot more in line with millennial thinking. We’ve had areas turned into a secret bar. We have food trucks attached to hotels, we have rooftop bars by different entrepreneurs and so, we're creating momentum for the company. This is only one initiative, where we're telling the market that we are doing things a little bit differently.”

A culture of care

Marriott International has 30 renowned hotel brands in 122 countries around the world. Therefore, maintaining high standards throughout its operations is key. “I think Marriott has a long-standing culture of taking care of people,” Frehner comments.

“I think even today, we are still living by that culture, that we are actually taking care of people now and we are working closely as a team. To us, it's very important to take care of each other. Here, any action we take in terms of our associates is normally built around this philosophy and its culture. This culture is very much alive and this was set up by Mr Marriott originally. I must say, Marriott really lives by these standards.”

These standards are reflected in the fact that within Asia-Pacific alone, Marriott International has 12 Michelin-Starred restaurants. The beverage offering at Marriott International’s Asia-Pacific properties doesn’t lag behind, with The Other Room, situated at the Marriott Tang Plaza in Singapore, ranking 35th in Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2017 rankings.

Huge opportunities

Looking ahead, Marriott International expects to continue building on this and expanding its portfolio in the region, with numerous projects currently in the pipeline. “The future, I think, is very bright for us. We are the largest hotel company in the world, so I think we should also have the largest pool of ideas. We had a merger with Starwood Hotels at the end of 2016 and there's a lot of integration going on. I think we are still in the integration stage going into the second year. Obviously, we have huge opportunities for a much larger team, which has a lot more expertise, and bringing two companies together is obviously exciting because we can learn from each other,” Frehner concludes.

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