A group of Marriott’s top corporate clients gathered last week to hear the hotel company’s president and COO, along with other executives, talk about the state of the company—and tackle some tough questions.

Some 135 corporate travel managers and meeting planners came together with 165 Marriott sales associates, general managers, and executives for the 25th Annual Marriott Corporate Partnership Conference, held at the Renaissance Esmeralda Resort & Spa in Indian Wells, Calif. The resort showcased its 100,000 square feet of indoor/outdoor meeting space along with Executive Chef Greg Picard’s culinary creativity and the famously reliable Palm Springs weather.

Addressing the economic downturn at the outset, William Shaw, Marriott’s president and COO, said, “We laid out three contingency plans last December, and we went through all of them by June.” Many heads nodded in agreement as he continued, “We’re now on our fourth and fifth plans.”

Shaw was quick to add, however, that he had seen three previous downturns in his 34 years with the company, and after each of those, Marriott came out stronger.

Each time, he said, the company looked for ways to reduce expenses without affecting the customer experience and continued to focus on improving market share. Despite its own downturn in recent quarters, Marriott has 130,000 new rooms in the development pipeline worldwide as of the end of the second quarter. Half of those are under construction and an additional 10 percent have financing secured. “Our philosophy in good times and in bad is that we want to outperform the competition and increase market share,” Shaw said.

Amy McPherson, executive vice president, global sales and marketing, reviewed some recent initiatives such as Sales Force One, the company’s major sales reorganization. Designed to provide customers with one primary point of contact for all of their Marriott needs, from group to transient to extended stay; the first phase of Sales Force One was rolled out a year ago.

In an interactive forum with executives, planners asked about reaction to the new sales organization. McPherson responded that all stakeholders are solidly behind the strategy—that is, making the sales force more customer-centric than hotel-centric. But she acknowledged that the process faced challenges when customers with longstanding sales relationships were reassigned to new salespeople. Marriott is keeping this as a major area of focus, she said, as the company rolls out the program in additional markets this year and next. She also pointed out that since the implementation of Sales Force One in Washington, D.C., the first market to work with the new strategy, those hotels are generally outperforming the market.

The Future Is Green and Global

Ed Fuller, president and managing director, international lodging, suggested that for larger companies, the future of meetings is a global future, and planners should be looking to leverage their meeting buying on a global basis. Fuller said that Marriott will open the most new properties over the next two years in India, China, and the Middle East, which will contribute to a total international portfolio of 400 hotels in 75 countries.

He noted that while the global economic downturn is lagging the U.S. downturn by about five months, in the area of environmental consciousness, Europe is a couple of decades ahead of the U.S. The green wave is here, Fuller said, and companies across industries must get involved in community relations and environmental responsibility.

Marriott has been going after the “green” theme, launching the “Spirit to Preserve,” which springs from its longstanding Spirit to Serve philosophy.

Having measured its global carbon footprint, the company has set a goal of reducing that footprint by 25 percent in 10 years. “And Marriott is actively looking for green supply chains and green vendors,” said Kathleen Matthews, executive vice president, global communications and public affairs, citing as one example the recycled and recyclable Bic pens that are making their way to all hotels.

In a project addressing both environmental and social concerns, Marriott last spring signed an agreement with the Brazilian State of Amazonas to commit $2 million to an environmental management plan administered by the Amazonas Sustainable Foundation. The project will support employment, education, and healthcare for the 500 residents of the Juma Sustainable Reserve and help to preserve 2.4 million acres of rainforest—“the lungs of the planet,” Matthews said.

Now, meeting planners have a chance to contribute to the foundation as well, when they book programs at Marriott brands. The bookings must occur between now and December 31, 2009, for meetings taking place through December 31, 2011. For qualified meetings, participating hotels will make a cash donation, in the name of the group, equal to five percent of the total cost of the group’s guest rooms.

Also from the Marriott news file:

  • The Great Room: Marriott is pushing its “great room” concept—a rethinking of lobby space as a place for ad-hoc meetings or where a traveler might catch up on e-mail while enjoying coffee and a snack. The company expects to roll out great rooms at 150 to 200 full-service hotels by the end of 2009.
  • Courtyard’s Lobby Reinvention: Designed to bring guests out of their rooms for relaxing, working, and meeting, Courtyard by Marriott properties are introducing a recreated lobby that is welcoming and flexible. Free WiFi, ample electrical outlets, a printer, and computer terminals for checking flight status are available. A signature lobby feature is the Courtyard GoBoard, a 52-inch LCD touch screen packed with local information, maps, weather, and news headlines. And casual, flexible seating is available for dining with healthier options for breakfast; snacks, wine, and beer for unwinding at the end of the day; and The Market, open 24/7 for snacks, beverages, and sundries.
  • QuickBook: Meeting planners can source and book meetings of 10 to 25 rooms online anytime, checking availability at more than 3,000 hotels worldwide. A simple online contract is all it takes.
  • Inventory Technology: Marriott is developing a consolidated inventory system that will show transient sleeping rooms, meeting space, and group sleeping rooms all in one place. The system will make checking availability easier and more accurate, and will allow planners on site at a meeting to see everything that’s going on there in one place.
  • Marriott Rewards: The program has added features such as an online community with 100,000 members who share travel experiences, and the company recently announced that there are no blackout dates for redeeming points for hotel stays.
  • Marriott.com: The site is being upgraded with multi-language capability and better search options, again with the customer in mind. Rather than search rates and dates, for example, a user could search for all Marriott resorts with golf on site.

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