Interview with Louise Bang, Vice President of Sales & Distribution at Marriott International Caribbean and Latin America.
In 2019, tourism completed a decade of continuous growth. According to the World Tourism Organization, the sector grew 4% last year, but behind that average there are segments that grow much faster. Tourism in the Middle East grew 8% and the luxury segment grew 12%, said Louise Bang, Vice President of Sales & Distribution at Marriott International Caribbean and Latin America. “The ultra luxury [sector] will be growing equally, or more,” she added.
The executive, who has a huge experience in the luxury market, explained how Marriott is surfing that wave of tourists willing to put a small fortune on their vacations or on their leisure and business trips. What is very clear is that to succeed in that niche you need more than just uniformed employees and white gloves.
Some trends have changed radically. Do you want to be surprised? The travel and vacation decisions of the people of generation X are largely defined by generation Z. For those who already lost track of the generational alphabet soup, those belogning to generation X were born between 1965 and 1979, that is, they are between 41 and 55 years old, and those in generation Z were born between 1995 and 2015, that is, they are less than 25 years old today.
The change of decision maker also happens with great frequency among luxury tourists, the executive said. A few years ago they made their decisions asking friends, family members or their travel agents for recommendations, or followed the opening of luxury hotel chains. Today, the opinion of those who have more information weighs heavier in the selection. That’s why Gen X parents ask for advice about destinations and activities for their Generation Z children and they, in turn, look for travel ideas and experiences on their mobile phones, she said.
While the tourism industry has not lost authenticity and creativity as the two main elements to attract the luxury segment, no doubt the game has new conditions, she added.
Today, the biggest influencers are values, hobbies and personal or family passions. Gastronomy and culture are among the main ones. There is a great interest in exploring the unexplored, to see something that nobody else has seen. Nature programs and wellness plans are activities that have clearly gained ground. “But what everyone is looking for is authenticity and creativity. Those will continue forever,” she added.
Louise Bang described the particularities of the ultra-luxury tourism segment. In some cases these clients have very little free time. “They have a lot of success in their business and they take all their time.” Therefore, Marriott hotels such as Dorado Beach, Ritz-Carlton Reserve in San Juan, and one that will open in Pearl Island in Panama or Papagayo in Costa Rica, have designed plans to escape from their super tight schedule, so that they can do something they are passionate about over a long weekend or a week.
They don’t offer hotel rooms, but experiences. A press release from Hosteltur Latam, for example, points out that Pearl Island has 150 species of birds, 15 species of corals, 700 species of fish and 16 of mammals, a small, intact natural paradise.
Another important thing. The ultra-luxury tourists, whether they only have a weekend or a lot of leisure time available, want to be surrounded by like-minded people. With their same vision and interests.
Similarly, they are particularly reserved people. “They don’t want their information, their data to be known and they don’t want anyone to be on top of them either. They want privacy. Our associates have to know how to interpret, almost from a distance, the needs of each person and adapt to each one. It is a very, very personalized and very individual segment”.
Is white glove attention and courtly formality still necessary? “There are guests who want that and guests who don’t. Some arrive in jeans and t-shirts. You have to know, be intuitive and you have to know a lot about your guests”. In ultra-luxury hotels, they ensure that they have a detailed knowledge of the passions, preferences and habits of the guests that are arriving, to ensure a perfect experience. “They are used to having that at home. They want to have that attention elsewhere”.
The information that employees of an ultra-luxury hotel should have could remind us of “Fantasy Island,” the seventies television series in which actor Ricardo Montalbán made a very precise account of the interests and expectations of each of the guests who arrived on their island in a seaplane.
But today the collection of this information is done with a combination of sensitivity and technology. “We have the Marriott Bonvoy loyalty program. It really helps us a lot to understand our guests and to better anticipate their needs”. The data of modules such as Mobile Check-in, Mobile Dining or Mobile Chat, combined with the empathy of the associate can create an experience much more adjusted to the interests of the guest. “Knowledge, technology and a trained team,” Louise Bang summed.
The ultra-luxury segment has a crucial component, without which a hotel for such clients will never work: the manager.
Guests want the general manager of their hotel to be like a butler, the person who is opening the door to their private home, he said. “The level of empathy of our associates who work in these luxury brands is really very pronounced. They must have the ability to be intuitive about what the guest will want or is wanting and anticipate that data at an incredibly personal level.”
In this segment, the manager is not just the person who makes things go well, that everything is on time and in perfect conditions. All that is necessary but not enough.
Louise Bang gives a concrete example: “George Sotelo, the manager of Dorado Beach, Ritz-Carlton Reserve, knows his guests. Many of those clients follow George because they are friends. George already knows what their needs are and anticipates those needs. ” Something similar happens, she said, with Sandra Estronell, manager of Zadun, Ritz-Carlton Reserve in Los Cabos. They trust her because they have known her for years.
How to sell the ultra luxury segment
To sell in the ultra-luxury segment, Marriott ensures its well-trained and informed sales teams know about each of the hotels in that segment. They should know the number, design and where each of the rooms of each hotel are located, even the view each room has. Detailed knowledge is crucial to serve that clientele.
On the other hand, the chain must make sure to have hotels in the destinations to which ultra-luxury customers want to go. “That is super important. Hence we are looking at many destinations in the Caribbean.” Again, with Bonvoy they have a good amount of information. “Knowing where they have stayed with us, we can anticipate which new hotels may be of interest to you.”
As well as places, hoteliers have to offer the experiences in the activities that their clients want. “Whatever your passions at home are will be what you are looking for on a trip,” she said. Within them, gastronomy and wellbeing are very important.
In gastronomy, the Ritz-Carlton of Grand Cayman organizes an annual cookout in which attendees pay to be with some of the most famous chefs in the world, such as José Andrés, Eric Ripert or Emeril Lagasse.
Wellbeing is much more than health, Bang explained. “We have the W Fuel Weekends, in which people take part in high intensity sports. After the detox of the day, at night you are enjoying good cocktails, new mixes that the bartenders have designed with local products that you would not get anywhere else”. The next day, the health routine is repeated, but it is also a way of having a local experience.
Latin American luxury
The luxury segment grows more than the holiday tourism in general. This is because there is a middle class that is growing and because more people want the Hollywood star treatment. “Many people have less time and fewer resources, but when they have them they want to enjoy it. They don’t necessarily live a life of luxury every day, but they want to save up for a weekend in Peru”.
Latin America brings together many of the facets that can make it a good destination for this type of tourism. The Caribbean and Latin America is home to approximately 10% of Marriott International’s global luxury portfolio with nearly 50 luxury properties in 6 of the 8 global brands, W Hotels, The Ritz-Carlton, The Ritz-Carlton Reserve, JW Marriott , St. Regis and The Luxury Collection. “You have incredibly diverse cultures, you have history – the first civilizations occurred in this part of the world – the color, the kindness and that almost homely hug that people get when they welcome a customer when they are arriving at the hotel,” said the executive. Latin Americans make people feel that they are welcoming tourists home. “They have a lot of passion for their country. They love seeing tourists arrive and are exploring with them and want to open their home to them and show them the way”.
In addition, there are many very competitive destinations. Beach and nature destinations can compete with those in Southeast Asia. It is also surprising that you can be on Panama Beach and in a few hours skiing in snow in Chile. “All options exist in the same continent,” she concluded.