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‘India Is An Extremely Important Market In Our Global Growth Strategy’

As domestic travel increases and Indian travelers continue to demand more sophistication in terms of both quality and experience, the company has significant opportunity to grow its brands across India

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With marriott international’s acquisition of Starwood Hotels and Resorts in September 2016, Mike Fulkerson (42) has become a busy man. As Vice-President, Brand & Marketing, Asia Pacific, Marriott International, with a focus on premium and select brands in the new Marriott International portfolio, Fulkerson is responsible for ensuring appropriate localisation of the brand experience and marketing to achieve each brand’s business objectives. He is a strategic marketer with over 15 years of experience across industries and geographies. In 2011, he moved to Hong Kong to build the regional marketing team for Mattel, Inc., the world’s largest toy company.  

He joined Marriott in July 2015 where he began his career in the hospitality industry as the vice-president of brand and digital marketing in Asia Pacific.

In a freewheeling chat with Smita Tripathi, Fulkerson talks about the importance of India for Marriott International, its growth strategy and the changing luxury consumer. Edited excerpts:

How important is India as a market for you?

Extremely important. In Asia Pacific, India is our second largest market after China. There are a couple of ways to look at that. One, we are now the largest hotel company in India. The significance of that is that we would like to see all our hotels busy. We are now seeing more and more Indians travelling within India. The more they travel and experience the hotels, the more we see the revenues increase from an outbound perspective. They build the loyalty, they enjoy the experience, so then they can stay with us when they travel outside the country. So the scale of India and the opportunity that we see here is significant.

How many more hotels for India are in the pipeline?

India remains an extremely important market in our global growth strategy; we have close to 80 hotels in the pipeline in the next five years. India is one of the fastest growing markets in the Asia Pacific region. We currently have 86 hotels under brands such as The Ritz-Carlton, St. Regis, The Luxury Collection, W Hotels, JW Marriott, Renaissance Hotels, Marriott Hotels, Le Meridien, Westin, Sheraton, Aloft, Courtyard by Marriott, Marriott Executive Apartments, Fairfield by Marriott and Four Points by Sheraton. Our expansion plans across categories will see us further consolidating our portfolio in established tier-1 cities and entering tier-2 and -3 cities. We will also be opening hotels in markets such as Vishakhapatnam, Coimbatore, Jodhpur, Srinagar, Indore, Coorg and Siliguri.

Could you please tell us a little more about Marriott’s luxury brands and how you plan to expand them in India?

Today, our guests are more global and better connected than ever before, with their approach to luxury decidedly less formal, entirely more personal, and defined more by their interests and mindset than their geography and demographics. W Goa opened with much buzz in December last year, which marked the arrival of the iconic W brand into India. Prior to that, we debuted the St. Regis brand in India with the opening of  The St. Regis Mumbai in September 2015 and the Ritz-Carlton brand with the Ritz-Carlton Bengaluru in 2013. Our future pipeline is equally robust; in the next five years, we are scheduled to open The Luxury Collection brand in partnership with ITC Hotels, JW Marriott Jaipur, The Ritz-Carlton, Mumbai and W Mumbai. Luxury is also no longer confined to set parameters and the definition of luxury now varies vastly.

Are the preferences of the luxury customer changing? How is the luxury customer in India different (in his or her expectations/ behaviour) from those in the rest of the APAC region?

As domestic travel increases and Indian travelers continue to demand more sophistication in terms of both quality and experience, we have significant opportunity to grow our brands across India. While we see the growth of our luxury brands primarily in the main metro cities, there are significant opportunities in resort destinations. Cities such as Jaipur, where we are opening a JW Marriott this year, or Mussoorie, where we already have a JW Marriott Resort and Spa, are case in point.

Indian travellers are inspired and influenced by global travel trends. Indian travellers prefer the confluence of tradition and modern which makes them stand out from other travellers today. Travel is becoming an instrument of discretionary expenditure, giving a major boost to luxury travel and stay. It is also being observed that people have started placing more significance on the overall experience rather than just paying a visit to the place.

Which are the Marriott brands that have not yet come to India? Are there any plans of getting some of them to India over the next five years?

Out of the 30 global brands, we currently have 15 brands in the country. We are bullish and we plan to debut new brands in India as the travel interest keeps growing in the country. Some of the brands that are currently not in India include Ritz-Carlton Reserve, BULGARI, Delta Hotels, Moxy Hotels, etc.

What are the challenges that Marriott’s luxury brands face in India?

Since the idea of luxury is constantly evolving in the traveller’s mind, one of the challenges that luxury brands today face is to emulate the traveller’s expectations. Also, since luxury is phenomenal, finding the right kind of location, infrastructure, and partners also add to the challenges one faces while setting up hotels in India.

How do you perceive the Indian consumer?

When we look at a country, one of the things we look at is trip purpose — the reason why people travel. The marketing guys like to discuss demographics, but the reality is, if we get stuck in demographics we lose sight of how different people travel. As marketers we need to look at the trip differences. Someone with a family will have completely different requirements from someone travelling for work as compared to when he/she is travelling for leisure.

Some people when they book a hotel they want to be status driven. And we find a lot of our Indian guests are like that. Others look for other aspects such as wellness. The JWs in India play highly on the wellness aspect. The JW in Bangalore has an entire floor that is dedicated to wellness.

There are so many different reasons why Indians travel. So many different things they look for. So it’s very difficult for me to peg one brand there and say this is it. Because who is it that I am talking to — is it a business traveller, is it someone travelling with their family, or is it someone extremely wealthy looking for an over-the-top experience. Or may be they want a more intimate experience.

Could you tell us a little more about the Starwood and Marriott merger and how the synergy of it is working out?

It’s working out incredibly well. It has helped us become the largest hotel company in India and that scale helps us do many things such as ‘Shaadi by Marriott’.

For instance, Bali is a big wedding destination for Indians. But the problem with a destination wedding is always the food. Food is so specific and representative and you never know if it is going to be prepared right. So one of the things we have started doing with our hotels in India is that if someone is in Mumbai and they are planning their wedding in say Bali or Thailand, they can go do a food tasting at JW Marriott in Mumbai and if they are happy with the food, and decide to have a destination wedding at any Marriott property across Asia Pacific, the Indian chef whose food they have tasted will be flown in for the wedding. This is the benefit we can have because of the scale we have.

On the one hand, it’s a massive integration. In Asia Pacific, Starwood was larger than Marriott. So as Marriott employees, all of us had to deal with our company doubling in size overnight.  

But honestly, the process has been much smoother than I expected. Of course, there have been bumps on the way, but we have seen a much better performance in Asia Pacific. We have seen extremely strong business results, which means our guests are recognising the benefits of these two companies coming together. They have seen the benefit of joining the loyalty programme and the scale that it brings. And they recognise all the different experiences that we are able to bring to them.

How do you distinguish yourself from the homegrown brands such as the Taj and the Oberoi?

The Taj and The Oberoi really exemplify Indian hospitality. But they are single brands providing that experience for those guests. Of course, they do it very well. We fundamentally believe in Indian hospitality. We fundamentally believe in the importance of food and beverage and make sure that it is the highest quality.

A lot of our leadership team in India comes from these hotels. So they have been able to merge the uniqueness of our brands with the experience that meets the needs of locals. We are not cookie-cutter hotel outlets. The hotels we build are built for local markets, so when we build a hotel in Mumbai we look at who is going to stay in that hotel. That always plays in the strategy. We know we have to leverage Indian hospitality. It’s the differences on these points that really separates us.