Marriott Expands in Sri Lanka

Marriott International, the hospitality giant, continues its aggressive expansion plans and this time, it’s close to home. With 4 new hotels planned for Sri Lanka, Neeraj Govil, Area VP for South Asia, tells Hospitality Insider why they’re not ruling anything out.

In 2018, Marriott International (Marriott) opened a hotel every 14 hours. The plans for the future are no less ambitious.


Neeraj Govil, Area VP South Asia at Marriott International

As part of their three-year growth plan, announced in March 2019, Marriott will be opening another 17,000 hotels around the world and adding between 275,000 and 295,000 rooms to their inventory.

With 30 brands, Marriott has the diversity in its portfolio to suit a wide variety of owner assets. Over the coming years, it will be introducing 3 more brands to Sri Lanka across 4 properties.

The “big red M” as Neeraj Govil, Area VP for South Asia calls it, first arrived in Sri Lanka in 2017 with the opening of Weligama Bay Marriott Resort & Spa.

There are now another 4 properties in the pipeline. The Sheraton Colombo Hotel in Colpetty and Sheraton Kosgoda Turtle Beach Resort are in the pre-opening stages. The Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott, both part of The One project in Colombo, are in the construction phases.

Govil believes that South Asia as a destination is still under served for tourism, and that Sri Lanka is too.

The company’s plans for growth in the South Asia region are robust. Currently, Marriott International operates 122 hotels, with 24,000 rooms in the region. Adding to this portfolio in 2019 will be 24 hotels, approximately another 4,500 rooms. In the first three months of this year, they’ve already opened six.

Locally, the aim is to have both Sheratons up and running within 12 months. However, as Govil quips, “Sri Lanka doesn’t have the best track record of delivering on time, so it’s really hard to put a date on it.”

Until recently, the Marriott International website listed the Colombo Sheraton as due to open in March 2019 and Kosgoda in May 2019.  Late 2019 or early 2020 is now looking a more likely prospect.


Marriott launched Sheraton’s new logo in early 2019.

With 30 brands to contend with, creating an individual personality and identity for each product is a priority for Marriott. Attention has recently been lavished on its most geographically diverse brand, Sheraton. The classic brand’s logo has been resigned for the first time in its 82-year history. The new design still bears many similarities to the old, with the aim of having an ‘eye on the future, while also hearkening back to the Sheraton’s history’.


Location, Location, Location

Three of Marriott’s upcoming properties will be in Colombo. As the gateway to Sri Lanka, Colombo deserves this kind of representation; however, Govil believes the real opportunity in Sri Lanka lies in creating a circuit – having multiple properties in multiple locations.

These locations do not need to be tied to the typical tourist hot spots along the coast and up into the cultural triangle.

As a management company, what matters most to Marriott is that they select the right partnership. The existing Marriott hotel was a case in point, says Govil, “Weligama was not a high-density location, but we found the right partner and we opened the hotel.”

Thus their strategy of marketing the destination, not the hotel – which has worked so effectively in little-known Weligama – comes into play. Average occupancy in Weligama Bay Marriott during 2018 was 72 percent.

“No one can argue with the tourism potential of Sri Lanka,” says Govil, “it’s about getting the short term together.”


Talent Wars

Sheraton-marriott-brand-informationIn the short term, with two hotels about to open, staffing and manpower will be getting a lot of attention. Other international chains, like Hilton, are planning to open multiple properties in the next five years, and the fight to hire (and keep) the hotel’s best talent in Sri Lanka is going to intensify.

The current industry situation often sees existing hotels losing staff to the newest hotel to open up, even if the upside for the individual is only a small salary increment. “Today, people jump ship because they don’t value their career, they value their job,” Govil says. But he believes that, eventually, “people will realise that’s not the right thing to do.”

Getting employees to understand and appreciate the difference between a ‘job’ and a ‘career’ is a cornerstone of their approach to talent. “We’ve got to make sure that the people that we hire are career-managed right from the get-go. For one thing, that means clear career development plans in place.”

“It is critically important for us to develop the talent base in the country. If we want to grow and be successful in Sri Lanka, we’ve got to be a favourite of the locals. That means providing the right employment opportunities and the right career advancement prospects. A company like Marriott can provide overseas opportunities, and can train staff here to get them ready for those jobs.”

In the Weligama hotel, only two percent of the staff are expats. 75 percent come from the local area. Not only does hiring local help to build the culture of the hotel, it’s also cheaper.

Marriott are targeting getting more women into the workforce, recognising the innate value they bring.

Says Govil, “We’re in the people business. We have to have diversity in our workforce if we’re going to take care of our guests, because our guests are diverse.” Simply put, “Having more women in the team helps us take care of our guests better.”

“As a hospitality employer, we have to be versatile and flexible enough to make sure that our people are at their best, when they are taking care of other people.”

The target for women working at the hotel is 35 percent. “Today, we’re close to 20.”

With other international chains also touting their career development plans and overseas opportunities, Govil believes Marriott International’s vast market share means they will still come out on top in the scrum for talent.

“The versatility we can offer allows people to work in different locations, experience different cultures, and grow their careers in 30 different brands. I don’t think too many competitors can offer that.”

Hospitality Insider Issue 4