HOME > Latest News > Article > SPOTLIGHT ON Richard Brekelmans, Southern Europe Vice President, Marriott International
Latest News
Article

SPOTLIGHT ON Richard Brekelmans, Southern Europe Vice President, Marriott International

By Sharon Hirschowitz, Global Head of Media & Communications for The International Luxury Hotel Association
23 June 2021
10 min read
Share Article
The Gritti Palace

A positive view of the return of leisure travel as Europe still battles the pandemic and unpredictable markets. However, it is clear that although consumer behavior has changed, there is strong demand as soon as it is possible to travel.

What are you seeing in terms of recovery in Southern Europe? Do you anticipate travel will be open for summer?
Richard BrekelmansOver the past year, we’ve seen a huge shift in travel and hospitality that has altered consumer behaviours and forced hoteliers to relook at their business models. Arguably, our industry has seen more change in the past year than decades before. Yes, we’ve survived wars and financial crises – but this pandemic has undoubtedly caused a major paradigm shift in the world of travel.

Saying that, one important factor we must never forget – is the power of travel. Despite what the world throws at us, the joy we all feel from exploring breath-taking destinations, experiencing new cultures, or simply travelling to meet our loved ones will never diminish.

However, it is important to recognise that the consumer mindset has changed, and the consumer we thought we knew is no longer the same.

As we emerge from this crisis, it’s clear that the leisure market will be the first to recover. After almost a year of restrictions, people are itching to travel again. At Marriott, we believe consumers will be far more considered with their travel plans. Rather than short weekends away, we expect to see bigger holidays, to remote and perhaps undiscovered locations, where families are joined by friends or wider family members. We also believe that consumers will gravitate towards brands they trust. In fact, research from Accenture showed that consumers are more than twice as likely to buy from brands they know and trust.

However, one thing is clear – the demand for travel remains. People are eager to take trips, visit their friends and families and enjoy a well-deserved holiday break. I have no doubt when the time is right and people can travel again across our markets, our industry and our business will thrive again. We are optimistic that there is significant pent-up demand for travel, and we saw some of that last summer in Europe with travellers taking road trips and getaways as soon as the travel restrictions lifted, and corridors opened up. Country and beach locations were understandably popular as people looked to escape to the coast or the countryside for a sense of space and freedom. Members of our travel programme, Marriott Bonvoy, were redeeming their well-earned points and also taking advantage of our great offers to earn more.

Europe isn’t quite there yet, and we still have several markets with hotels closed and where leisure stays are currently prohibited e.g. Germany and the UK. There will no doubt be some more bumps along the way. But there are clearly glimmers of hope for the world of travel.

The Ritz-Carlton Abama

How are your hotels preparing for the return of travel in such an unpredictable market?
We are now focused on looking at our hotel offering and how to appeal to a domestic leisure traveller, in a way that some of our hotels have not needed to consider prior to COVID-19. We have a very creative team of hoteliers in Europe and have seen some really innovative concepts and ideas come from our operational teams, which has been extremely rewarding to see after the challenges of the last year. From a service expectation perspective, the hotels that will have a ‘good’ season are those whose people exemplify the true spirit of hospitality. The past year has been tough on everyone – both emotionally and physically draining. Many have been isolated and missing daily interactions with friends and family. While digital technology has become critical in many parts of our business, our industry is built on our commitment to care for our customers and go the extra mile. As we welcome our guests back, they’ll be looking for empathy and that warm and intuitive service they’ve missed over the past year.

We are now focused on looking at our hotel offering and how to appeal to a domestic leisure traveller, in a way that some of our hotels have not needed to consider prior to COVID-19. We have a very creative team of hoteliers in Europe and have seen some really innovative concepts and ideas come from our operational teams, which has been extremely rewarding to see after the challenges of the last year. From a service expectation perspective, the hotels that will have a ‘good’ season are those whose people exemplify the true spirit of hospitality. The past year has been tough on everyone – both emotionally and physically draining. Many have been isolated and missing daily interactions with friends and family. While digital technology has become critical in many parts of our business, our industry is built on our commitment to care for our customers and go the extra mile. As we welcome our guests back, they’ll be looking for empathy and that warm and intuitive service they’ve missed over the past year.

The key consideration for us is to ensure we can offer our guests as many options as possible to engage with us, to choose how they interact with our hotels in whichever way they feel most comfortable. Our mobile technologies, such as Mobile Check-in, Mobile Check-out, Mobile Key, and the opportunity to speak with hotel associates via the Marriott Bonvoy App, provide reassurance and social distancing options for our guests that favour this approach. In approximately 4000 hotels worldwide, phones can be used to check-in, access rooms, order room service, or request common items, and the app is now available in Italian, Portuguese, Russian and Arabic.

Our staff is also on hand to offer in-person service for those who prefer this, but the contactless technology has understandably been very popular this year when people have been able to travel again for business or pleasure. More and more of our 145 million members of Marriott Bonvoy are using the Marriott Bonvoy Mobile App, which offers mobile check-in and checkout, Mobile Requests, and, wherever available, Mobile Key which has been very popular this year.

In participating hotels, guests who opt into the Mobile Key service via the app can receive a virtual key to their phone, without the need for a traditional plastic room key. Guests receive an alert when their key is activated following a Mobile Check-In. Most of our hotels in Southern Europe are now live with Mobile Key, with more preparing for their implementation during 2021.

Marriott International

What have been your biggest challenges over the past year and what has been your biggest lesson?
Over the last 12 months, we have worked hard to look after our staff and to keep as many hotels open as we can, and as many employees working as possible, even though the situation was very uncertain, with continuously changing restrictions and measures.

While like all hospitality businesses we have had to make some difficult business decisions, which has been tough, the wellbeing of our employees is so important to us.

The travel industry as we all know has suffered tremendously as a result of the pandemic, with stay-at-home guidance and border restrictions limiting our freedom to travel, both domestically and internationally.

As hoteliers what we have witnessed over the past twelve months, from when the world of travel came to a standstill to today, has been eye-opening. We have seen so much change, and have had to close hotels, open them, and then close again in many markets – we have had to make some difficult decisions and adapt our operations as the situation evolved.

One of the biggest challenges has been to keep the right balance between the interest of the main stakeholders (customers, employees, and our hotel owners), within the volatile environment with continuously changing legislation, travel restrictions, and related customer behavior.

A year on while things continue to evolve and many restrictions on travel remain in place, we have seen that adaptability and innovation are key to our business’ future. While we’re not quite there yet, we are optimistic that recovery is coming.

We know there is so much pent-up demand for travel. While many of our markets across Europe remain at the mercy of government restrictions, the spikes in booking activity that we see when a travel ban is lifted, clearly show us that the demand is there. We saw this several times in 2020, and a great example of this is the Canary Islands. As soon as travel corridors were established between the Canary Islands and destinations such as the UK, Netherlands, and Germany in October of last year, we saw our booked room nights from across the region to the Canaries increase by 161% compared to the previous month.

One of the key lessons is how important it is to adapt. For example – we know that the leisure traveller will return first. So, our teams are laser-focused on answering the needs of this traveller. We have a strong presence in renowned leisure destinations already, especially within our extensive luxury portfolio in Southern Europe. We are so ready to welcome eager holidaymakers back to our resorts such as The Ritz-Carlton Abama, Tenerife; Pine Cliffs, a Luxury Collection Resort in the Algarve; the Malta Marriott Hotel & Spa, and our stunning resorts in the Greek Islands and on Sardinia.

When I look back at the past year, I’m proud of the agility, endurance, and sense of responsibility of our teams in the hotels. It is amazing how they have tirelessly been flexible, agile, and adapting to the circumstances.

How are you managing staffing levels and attracting staff back to the industry?
Increasing Government measures and travel restrictions as a result of COVID-19 have had a significant impact on the European hospitality sector for the last 12 months. It will be some time before business levels return to those seen pre-pandemic.

As many other hospitality companies have done, we have used the furlough scheme on many of our hotels. At the moment, we are focused on taking care of our people – whether they are working or on furlough. However once restrictions ease and travel becomes possible once again, we need to be ready to welcome our guests and give them the service and hotel experience they have been missing. This means that as a hotel company we must have teams in place to look after our guests. In the longer term, we are confident that travel will return and many of our destinations such as Spain and Italy will resume their position as some of the most popular holiday destinations in Europe.

As travel returns, the well-being of our associates will remain our top priority. We nurture our culture and grow our people, after the challenging year everyone has had, professionally and personally.

Over the coming months and years, we’re looking to provide opportunities for training and new learning initiatives, designed to enhance skills and foster wellness within the workplace. We’re also focused on introducing new career opportunities and fast-tracking local talent as the next generation of hospitality leaders.

Looking ahead, as we emerge from this, it will be key for both our sector and the governments to invest in education and training for hospitality employees, to retain existing talent – and to attract new talent to the sector. It would be a positive step to also see government support for innovation and creativity for the sector. This situation is an opportunity to develop new ideas and new concepts for the future of travel and hospitality.

MORE FROM The International Luxury Hotel Association