It’s all about people, says Marriott COO

Sandeep Walia

Marriott International has more than 190 hotels operating in the Middle East and the number is constantly rising. The umbrella brand has 105 signings, with 60 per cent in the pipeline still to come. With some headline-worthy reflagging projects in its kitty, the brand is rapidly focusing on branded residences and extended-stay products. 

We speak to Sandeep Walia, Chief Operating Officer Middle East, Marriott International, to know more about the state of Mice business in the Middle East.

“The good news is that we are seeing Mice business starting to crawl back,” Walia tells TTN. “Green shoots of recovery can be seen in different parts of the Middle East, on the back of travel easing up. The fact that one can now travel without PCR tests and constantly proving vaccination status, especially here in the Middle East, is creating that excitement and openness for Mice business to increase.

“At the end of the day, people are the most important part of any business.

“We don’t own hotels, especially here in the Middle East, but we own brands and it’s people who bring these brands to life. We believe in connecting people and are constantly travelling to meet our own people – and that is happening with other companies too.

“Small and medium-sized companies are leading the way in this regard, and larger conglomerates are following.”

Walia tells TTN that they spot a lot of regional travel going on with a focus on travelling well rather than being well travelled. “People are travelling to connect with people, for a meeting or an incentive, but when they're coming, they're adding a bit more time. It's longer stays, less frequent travel, which makes complete sense - I find that very productive myself. Similarly, the old ‘bleisure’ trend continues to get stronger, with people are travelling for business and adding another weekend to relax.”

In Saudi Arabia, there is a focus on government and pharma groups. “In January, for instance, the government had a defence show and a huge event around that - a whole lot of businesspeople travelled to Ritz Carlton, Riyadh and it was a big success. It’s great to see that these events are starting to come back.

“Qatar is trying to proactively work towards attracting Mice business. Qatar Tourism has joined forces with Qatar Airways to promote Doha as a base for conferences and exhibitions. They're building conference centres and other venues to support this growth. The recently concluded inaugural Qatar International Exhibition For Travel & Tourism is a good example of the country’s efforts in this regard. We are also seeing a lot of sports events and small groups in the lead up to the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022.”

The new Bahrain International Exhibition & Convention Centre will be the largest exhibition and convention centre in the Middle East when it opens mid-2022. Jordan, which is completely open this year, is starting to focus on pharma and consulting business, says the COO, while Egypt has also remained relatively open over the period.

“The UAE did a brilliant job managing the whole Covid-19 situation and a World Expo at the same time. We got a lot of small groups for national days that were celebrated at the Expo and for several events in and around the six-month Expo period. Expo 2020 Dubai has put a stamp of approval and trust on the destination as a perfect place for hosting Mice events of this calibre.

“The proof is in the pudding. The occupancy in leisure, beach hotels was high even last year in Dubai but to have high occupancy in hotels like JW Marriott Marquis, which is essentially a business/Mice hotel, that's heartening to see.”

Group and Mice business has returned to Turkey too, including military and government consulting. Turkey, Istanbul in particular, benefits from its central location halfway between Europe and Asia and excellent connectivity with the flag carrier - that's going to be a big benefit for the Mice business, says Walia.

Going forward, technology will continue to be a key focus, in that the keyless technology is something that is highlighted, especially in the wake of touch-light requirements experienced during the pandemic. More than 60 per cent of Marriott’s portfolio in the Middle East now has keyless, mobile check in. Other than that, it's the connectivity of the device to everything will continue to be a focus both in the room and into the meeting space.

The Mice segment is seeing some rapid changes and blurring of lines as digital nomads can be travelling to anywhere in the world and doing hybrid work, people could be travelling for a break and working or going on for work and taking a break.

“It's all getting mixed up. And it's good news for our industry because irrespective of what their motivation to travel is, it means they stay at hotels. From a Mice business perspective, however, it’ll always come back to connecting people. 

“Yes, keyless technology is happening in a big way but people still want to check in, have a conversation, go to the concierge. You can book online and you can go through the Bonvoy app, which now has over 160 million members, but you will always need that human touch,” says Walia. 




FROM the meetings, incentives and conferences perspective Marriott International has three key imminent openings. The recently opened Jeddah Marriott Hotel Madinah Road has six state-of-the-art flexible meeting spaces, a grand venue ideal for large conferences and lavish occasions of up to 600 guests, more than 690 square metres of event space is available, featuring contemporary styling and state-of-the-art technology, and an abundance of natural light, making it the ideal venue for business and social events.

Opening on May 1, 2022, The Ritz-Carlton Amman offers world-class meeting and event facilities, ensuring unmatched experiences. This is combined with the legendary service of The Ritz-Carlton Ladies and Gentlemen attending to every need, creating lasting memories through tailored events for every occasion. Four meeting rooms and three boardrooms, and a 1050-square-metre Ritz-Carlton Grand Ballroom round up its facilities.

Further down the summer, Marriott Resort Palm Jumeirah, Dubai, which will open on September 1, will also have comprehensive meeting facilities complemented by expert catering and audiovisual resources and outstanding catering capabilities to enhance weddings, social events and theme parties. With 2,100 sqm of event space and 11 flexible event venues, including 1,000 sqm sea view outdoor events terrace, you don’t need to look any further.