A few months back, Marriott International hosted a contest in China for entrepreneurs, with the winner getting to incubate a food and beverage concept inside the JW Marriott hotel in the city of Shenzhen. "You have the idea, we have the space," Marriott said in its pitch. The company also promised budding restaurateurs support on things from a budget to regulations to marketing. By backing an F&B startup, it cleverly nodded to Marriott's own debut, back in 1927, as a root beer stand.
The winner opened a contemporary tofu boutique serving updated versions of recipes in her family for generations. And Marriott's "food and drink concept lab" contest has been rolling out in Shanghai, Singapore, the United States and beyond, one example of how Marriott is experimenting as it tries to appeal to young global consumers.
Marriott has almost 200 hotels in Asia out of its global roster of over 4,200 properties, and it's planning to expand there fast. Next year it will open over 50 hotels in Asia, or about one a week. And in three years, its current number of Asian hotels is expected to double.
"It's a lot of opportunity to think differently," said Peggy Fang Roe, chief sales and marketing officer for Marriott International in Asia Pacific. As Ms. Roe notes, 61% of the world lives in Asia Pacific. "There are already 100 million outbound trips a year out of China, and in the next five years it will double to 200 million," Ms. Roe said. Among the big questions she's asking is how the company will help Chinese travelers see the world, and how it will cater to their family trips.
An innovator comes to Asia
Ms. Roe, who moved from the U.S. to Hong Kong nearly two years ago, is one of Ad Age's 2015 Women to Watch China for using startup-style thinking at an established brand. Throughout her 12 years at Marriott, Ms. Roe has focused mostly on innovation work. While in the U.S., she led the redesign and rebranding of long-stay TownePlace Suites, now Marriott's fastest growing brand in the U.S.
More recently she worked on a strategic project around meetings and events; one big experiment, inspired by the sharing economy, rents out workspace by the hour in over 400 Marriotts in the U.S. That effort stemmed from the insight that hotels had conference rooms that weren't being used, while at the same time people were looking for places inside hotels to work or have meetings. Ms. Roe expects the company to experiment with sharing economy initiatives in Asia as well.
Food and weddings
One thing Ms. Roe keeps in mind in Asia is the importance of food to local customers. That's sometimes how they discover a hotel brand, by eating at its restaurants. In Shenzhen, for example, the tofu concept from contest winner Estella Pan is bringing new traffic into the hotel as locals seek out her contemporary take on tofu, like tofu tacos.
In general, food – catering and restaurants – brings in a higher percentage of hotel revenue in Asia than in the U.S. "In the U.S., it's more about filling room nights, it's all about conventions, and that's less the case in Asia," she said. "In the U.S. you might have one restaurant in a hotel, and in Asia you might have four."
Meetings and events, especially weddings, are another key way for Asian consumers to discover hotels. Marriott has a Pinterest-like platform aimed at event planners called Meetings Imagined, in various languages including Chinese. It has an inspiration gallery heavy on photos of decorations and food at different kinds of events, from corporate gatherings to family celebrations.
"The idea is we can help you not just with meetings and food, but we're here to inspire you with ideas, like how to set up the food, or how to set up a room," Ms. Roe said. "Whether you do a meeting at Marriott or not we want to be a thought leader in helping you design a better meeting."
The Women to Watch China Questionnaire
Home city: Atlanta, Georgia.
Hobbies: Entertaining. Dinner parties and events are what I like to do in my spare time, in addition to spending time with my kids.
First job: As a photographer taking people's pictures at a theme park.
If you could have dinner with anyone, who would it be? It would actually be my mom – she makes the best Chinese food, and I still prefer her food over everyone else's.