SPOTLIGHT ON Gamal El Fakih, Vice President of Operations, Luxury, Caribbean and Latin America, Marriott International

W Hotels Punta de Mita

Gamal El Fakih shares his insights on topics ranging from sustainability and guest-centric strategies to cross-functional collaboration and the exciting projects shaping the future of luxury hotels.

Guest experience is paramount in the luxury segment. How have you implemented guest-centric strategies to enhance satisfaction and loyalty in luxury hotels?

I love that question because I think that luxury is all about going back to the basics. It’s about embracing the essence of hospitality and the true spirit of innkeeping that originated centuries ago. In medieval times, innkeepers were responsible for every aspect of the guest experience. The husband would cook in the kitchen and handle maintenance, while the wife would serve tables and attend to the rooms. This mindset of innkeeping is where hospitality truly began.

In today’s world, some hotels have become very transactional, with different departments working in silos, lacking communication and collaboration. This can create a fragmented and impersonal experience for guests. However, I firmly believe that in order to enhance satisfaction and loyalty in luxury hotels, we need to bring back that innkeeper mindset.

When a guest visits our hotel, it should be like welcoming them into our own home. Just as we would prepare our home for guests by cleaning and ensuring a pleasant atmosphere, we should do the same for our hotel. We need to pay attention to the smallest details and present our best selves to our guests. And when our guests arrive, we should be there at the front door to warmly welcome them and guide them into our “home.”

Gamal El Fakih, Vice President of Operations, Luxury, Caribbean and Latin America, Marriott International

This culture of hospitality and being a true host is what drives the guest experience in luxury. It doesn’t matter the size of the hotel or the number of employees. If we can translate this mindset and culture into every aspect of our hotel operations, we will be able to deliver the luxury experience that our guests are seeking.

For me, it’s about going back to the basics, embracing our roots as innkeepers. It’s about creating a personal connection with our guests, going beyond the physical amenities and services that are expected from a luxury hotel. It’s about making our guests feel genuinely cared for and valued.

Building loyalty in luxury hospitality goes beyond having a beautiful hotel or exceptional facilities. It’s about creating that personal connection and fostering a sense of love and belonging. We strive to cultivate this personal relationship with our guests in our luxury brands at Marriott. We want them to feel like they are part of our family, and that’s what keeps them coming back again and again.

How have you fostered a culture of innovation within your teams to drive continuous improvement in luxury hotel operations?

In a large company like Marriott, where we have over 9,000 hotels and a diverse portfolio of brands, fostering a culture of innovation can sometimes be challenging. With corporate structures in place to ensure brand integrity, decision-making processes can always be slower in very large organizations. At Marriott, we are conscious of that risk so we continuously strive to instill a mindset of innovation and encourage our teams to step out of their comfort zones and try new things all the time to consistently engage with guests at all levels. 

We believe in being agile and taking calculated risks, even within the framework of corporate guidelines and standards. We understand that in order to drive continuous improvement in luxury hotel operations, we need to cultivate a hunger for change. This means embracing new ideas, exploring unconventional approaches, and challenging the status quo.

As a lifelong learner myself, I strongly believe in the importance of staying informed and continuously learning. It’s easy to get absorbed in the day-to-day operations of a hotel and lose sight of what’s happening outside the industry. However, in the luxury segment, it is crucial to be aware of the broader luxury landscape and how it evolves.

Our guests in luxury hotels are often the same individuals who frequent high-end fashion houses, purchase luxury brands, and indulge in exclusive experiences. Understanding their changing preferences and behaviors allows us to curate our products and services accordingly.

JW Marriott Los Cabos Beach Resort & Spa

To facilitate continuous learning and innovation, we organize monthly webinars in my region, specifically in the Caribbean and Latin America. These webinars bring together our general managers and operational leaders. However, these sessions are not focused solely on reporting metrics and scorecards. Instead, we invite guest speakers from various backgrounds, such as travel agents or professionals from other luxury industries, to share their perspectives on the evolving luxury landscape and changing trends worldwide.

By learning from each other and embracing external insights, we strengthen our luxury teams in our hotels. This commitment to continuous learning and innovation empowers our teams to be proactive in adapting to the evolving needs and desires of our discerning luxury guests.

Opening a luxury hotel involves coordinating various departments and stakeholders. How have you successfully collaborated with cross-functional teams, including design, engineering, and marketing, to achieve the desired operational outcomes during luxury hotel openings? 

Currently, we are in the midst of reviewing and reinforcing our hotel opening process, specifically focusing on the practices we have implemented in the Caribbean and Latin America for our luxury hotels.

The hotel opening process is a significant endeavor that typically spans between 24 to 48 months, involving various departments and stakeholders. It all begins with the crucial initial contact we establish with a potential owner. When signing a hotel management agreement, we are entering into a long-term commitment that lasts around 25 to 30 years. Therefore, clear communication and alignment with the owner from the beginning are paramount.

As we evaluate a potential project, we have the advantage of having 32 brands within Marriott to choose from. This allows us to determine which brand best suits the specific project, whether it’s a Ritz-Carlton, St. Regis, W Hotel, or another brand that aligns with the property’s characteristics and market positioning.

Solaz, a Luxury Collection Resort, Los Cabos

Throughout the process, we involve various stakeholders, including feasibility experts who provide financial projections to ensure realistic return on investment expectations for the owner. We have representatives from development, legal and many other individuals within Marriott who contribute their expertise to shape the project’s direction.

Once the commercial terms and agreements are finalized, we conduct a kickoff call involving all relevant disciplines, including food and beverage, brand, procurement and operations. During this call, we outline the entire process and keep the owner informed of the upcoming milestones and timelines.

Global Design (our team of architects & designers) plays a crucial role in coordinating the technical aspects of the project. Our specialists work closely with contractors and consultants to create detailed drawings and plans. They also call upon us for operational insights, to ensure that the back-of-house areas are efficiently designed and that the food and beverage concepts align with the brand and market expectations.

As the opening date approaches, we assemble an opening team that includes trainers from around the world. These trainers, around 50 per hotel, specialize in different disciplines and bring the brand experience to life. They provide support to the property leaders, assist in hiring the general manager and executive team, and train the associates who will work at the hotel.

For our luxury hotels, we follow a 14-day countdown process leading up to the opening. We organize a grand ceremony and celebration, culminating in the symbolic handover of the key to the general manager. It’s an exciting and meticulously coordinated process that involves subject matter experts from various disciplines.

To ensure smooth progress and adherence to brand standards, we have implemented gate pass cards as checkpoints. These checkpoints serve as milestones that require specific approvals and fulfill necessary requirements before moving on to the next step. This helps maintain brand integrity and involves decision-makers from different departments, all working together to ensure the hotel aligns with brand expectations.

Overall, the hotel opening process is a determined and structured workflow, with numerous individuals and decision-makers involved. Our goal is to deliver a property that perfectly embodies the brand and meets the expectations of guests and owners, as well as the team who will be responsible for its operation after the opening.

In the Caribbean and Latin American markets, luxury hotels cater to diverse cultures and preferences. How do you plan to adapt your operational strategies to meet the guests and your team’s expectations and preferences in this region? How would you ensure the authenticity and local relevance of the luxury experience while maintaining Marriott’s global brand standards?

The Caribbean and Latin American market is a fascinating landscape to navigate because even within the Spanish-speaking part of the continent, there are significant variations. Each destination, whether it’s a city hotel in Mexico City or a resort in the Caribbean, presents unique dynamics and guest profiles.

To ensure that our operational strategies in the region meet the expectations and preferences of both guests and our teams, we rely on a collaborative approach. In our luxury hotels, we have established advisory board members who are our local intel, composed of general managers and hotel managers based in each market. They are the ones who have their pulse on the latest trends, customer preferences, and cultural nuances in their respective destinations.

These advisory board members play a crucial role in keeping us informed about the local luxury landscape. They share insights about the latest trends in luxury, the types of clients visiting the area (whether it’s more local or international, leisure or business-oriented), and even the artistic and culinary highlights of the region. This information allows us to customize our programs and adjust our strategies for products and services accordingly.

We strongly believe in involving our properties and leveraging the expertise of our on-the-ground teams, rather than managing solely from the corporate office. We also make it a priority to travel frequently, visit the properties, and gain a deep understanding of what is happening at the destination level. By doing so, we can identify emerging source markets, stay abreast of changing travel patterns, and understand the preferences of our guests.

For instance, if there is a shift in the source markets, such as more American clientele traveling to Europe in the years following the COVID-19 pandemic, we take note of that trend. This information helps us adapt our strategies and offerings accordingly. It’s crucial for us to have our finger on the pulse and understand the evolving guest dynamics, whether it involves shifts in source markets, guest preferences, or emerging travel trends.

By gathering insights from our advisory board members and our properties, we can create products and services that are tailored to each destination. This customization is essential in luxury, as it ensures that we provide an authentic and locally relevant luxury experience while upholding Marriott’s global brand standards.

We understand that a copy-paste approach wouldn’t do justice to the unique characteristics of each destination. It is through this collaborative and agile approach, leveraging the knowledge and expertise of our local teams, that we can deliver a luxury experience that resonates with our guests while maintaining the authenticity and local relevance of the destination.

Sustainable practices are becoming increasingly important in the luxury hospitality industry. How have you integrated sustainability into luxury hotel operations, considering aspects such as energy efficiency, waste reduction, and community engagement?

Absolutely, sustainability is a critical focus for us, and it has been for quite some time. Marriott, like many other large companies, recognized the importance of sustainability back in the 1990s, and since then, we have continuously fine-tuned our processes and integrated sustainability into our luxury hotel operations.

One of the key tools we utilize is our sustainability scorecards. These scorecards are implemented across all our hotels and enable us to track and record important metrics such as energy and water usage. General managers, directors of engineering, and other property operational leaders have specific targets outlined in their balanced scorecards, which form a part of their yearly performance objectives. Over time, these objectives have become more sophisticated, addressing areas like CO2 emissions and striving for zero carbon emissions.

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Tambo del Inka, a Luxury Collection Resort & Spa, Sacred Valley, Peru

While we focus on high-level sustainability goals, we also pay attention to the basics, such as recycling. However, in some destinations, particularly small islands in the Caribbean, there may not be clear legislation or infrastructure in place for recycling. In these cases, we actively engage with local governments to develop sustainability legislation that supports recycling efforts not only within our hotels but also beyond our properties. It is essential for us to ensure that sustainability practices continue even after the waste leaves our hotels, contributing to the broader community’s well-being.

Social responsibility is another crucial aspect of our sustainability strategy. We have a program called Serve 360 that operates across all our properties worldwide. Through our business councils in different markets, we engage in various activities and initiatives that foster connections with local communities. Building strong ties with the communities where our hotels operate is integral to our overall strategy, regardless of the segment, but it gains even more significance in the luxury segment. Sustainability has become a prominent focus for luxury guests, and we recognize their desire for sustainable practices and responsible business operations.

Sustainability is an ongoing topic of discussion for us. Whenever we gather to strategize and set long-term goals for the company, sustainability is a key component of those discussions. We understand that the luxury segment, in particular, places great importance on sustainability, and we are committed to meeting and exceeding the expectations of our luxury guests in this area.

Do you have any exciting projects in the pipeline that you can share?

We have a multitude of exciting projects in the pipeline that I’m thrilled to share. The company’s increased focus on luxury has led to the creation of luxury structures across all continents, including the Caribbean and Latin America. Currently, we have a remarkable total of 32 luxury hotels in this region, encompassing various luxury brands such as Ritz-Carlton, St. Regis, Edition, W, The  Luxury Collection and JW Marriott.

Over the next two and a half years, we anticipate opening 24 additional hotels, which is an astonishing rate of development. Among the projects, what excites me the most is the number of Ritz-Carlton Reserve properties in the pipeline. Ritz-Carlton Reserve is our ultra-luxury brand, known for its bespoke and highly personalized experiences. Currently, we have two Reserve properties in the region, located in Puerto Rico (Dorado Beach) and Mexico (Zadún, Los Cabos). However, we have four more Reserve projects scheduled to open in the next three years, further enhancing the luxurious offerings in the region.

One of the unique aspects of Ritz-Carlton Reserve properties is their deep connection to the local traditions and destination. Each project is tailored to reflect the essence of the locale, creating intimate and private enclaves for our guests. The highly individualized nature of Ritz-Carlton Reserve properties makes them a truly captivating product, and I am genuinely excited about the upcoming additions to the region.

In addition to our hotel developments, residential components play a significant role in our luxury projects. We have recognized the synergy between luxury and residential offerings. Approximately 70% of our luxury projects are integrated with a residential component. This business model proves advantageous for both hotel owners and us. The residential component provides a quicker return on investment for owners, as they can sell the residences and generate cash flow. Furthermore, it allows us to leverage the power of our brands and broaden our inventory. When owners are not utilizing their residences, they often contribute them to our pool of inventory, enabling us to sell them to other guests. It’s a win-win situation that has become a prevalent trend in the industry, not only for our company but for many other hotel brands as well. It is also our opportunity to foster brand loyalty among residence owners, so they can stay with us when their travels take them around the globe.