At a time when the pandemic has slowed down business travel, Bruce Rohr, vice president and global brand leader, JW Marriott, says the “work from anywhere” flexibility has helped the brand grow as it was quick to recognize travelers’ increased focus on wholistic wellness and the need to travel as a family.
“Family travel has always been an integral part of the JW Marriott experience, particularly at our resort destinations,” Rohr told HOTELS last month. “Family by JW programming, which includes multi-generational activities and adventures as well as our new Family Suites, are inspired by the legacy of our founder J. Willard who always made time for family.”
With a significant presence across the Asia Pacific, the JW Marriott brand is growing in other markets and Rohr sees potential in expanding further into markets like the Middle East and Europe. It also has properties set to open across the world in Berlin, Germany; Istanbul, Turkey; Guadalajara, Mexico, Xian, China; Bengaluru, India; and Jeju in South Korea.
In conversation with HOTELS, Rohr spoke about achieving the milestone of opening the brand’s 100th property, continuing the legacy of J. Willard Marriott and redefining wellness in a post-pandemic world.
HOTELS: The pandemic has changed the way people travel and gather for social and business meetings. In such a scenario, how has JW Marriott been adapting and how will its ongoing development projects adapt?
Bruce Rohr: We are fortunate that most of our JW Marriott properties have ample space for social distancing. Whether for an outdoor wedding at the Whisper Creek Farm at JW Orlando, Grande Lakes, or a shareholder meeting in the ballroom of JW Marriott Shanghai Fengxian, our hotels have been able to safely cater to travelers’ needs over the past two years. Many of our hotels had to get creative like JW Marriott Los Angeles L.A. LIVE, which created private dining greenhouses on their expansive patio. They’ve proven to be so popular that the hotel may make them a permanent fixture.
Fortunately, JW Marriott’s design playbook is guided by our ‘Whole You’ philosophy. As a result, many of our hotels have a JW Garden where guests are invited to take a breath in a sanctuary that reminds us of the beauty of the natural world. With wellness becoming more important to all travelers, we will see breakout sessions in our gardens and other outdoor spaces. In addition, we will continue to develop our meeting spaces with the latest technologies to ensure remote participants are as dialed-in as their gathered counterparts. The world has changed and we’re changing along with it.
H: How has the brand been performing as the industry rebounds, and where has it seen strength and continued weakness? And how are you addressing weaknesses?
BR: Domestic, regional travel across our portfolio has been strong during the pandemic and continues to be a significant part of our business. This includes American travelers visiting our newer properties such as JW Marriott, Anaheim Resort in California and JW Marriott Savannah Plant Riverside District in Georgi. Overseas, JW Marriott Hotel Nara [Japan], which opened in 2020, has been very popular amongst Japanese families.
JW Marriott has also benefited from the new ‘work from anywhere’ flexibility, a trend we believe is here to stay. We’re seeing couples and families booking longer stays, working for several hours in a cabana before diving into the pool. That’s the type of work/life balance we think is not only good for the industry, but for travelers’ well-being.
As for weaknesses, it’s no secret that meeting and convention business is still not back to pre-pandemic levels for anyone. However, we are seeing those bookings bounce back, too. And we believe our brand is poised to meet the needs of post-pandemic group business travel. The pandemic has shown us how important holistic well-being is and our brand’s commitment to the well-being of our guests’ mind, body and spirit offers the balance we recognized as important even before 2020. However, we now live in a world where we can go to a business conference and then stay behind for a few ‘work from anywhere’ days as never before.
H: Bigger hotels are hard to develop right now. Since JWs tend to have bigger footprints, how does the brand work as a potential conversion brand for developers?
BR: Our pipeline shows no sign of slowing down and we are close to signing several new deals in the coming months across the globe. We have seen great interest in many potential conversion opportunities because owners understand the power of a brand like JW Marriott and the ROI that comes with it. This includes urban areas where owners realize the business traveler is very familiar with us, as well as large resorts for leisure travel.
H: Are you thinking about converting multiple rooms into bigger suites to accommodate bigger groups or families traveling together? What else are you doing to cater to the multi-generation traveling groups?
BR: Multi-generational travel was on the rise before the pandemic, but we have seen it explode over the last two years as families hit the road together. There has been growing demand for larger, family-style rooms, particularly at our resorts. Rather than simply connect guest rooms, we wanted to provide families with spaces where they could gather together and create memories.
Recently, JW Marriott Orlando Bonnet Creek Resort & Spa in Florida introduced four Family Suites, a first-of-its-kind room type for the brand. Each Family Suite sleeps up to nine and features two bedrooms: one with a lofted, queen/full-size bunk bed as well as one with a king bed and pull-out, twin sofa sleeper. There are also two bathrooms with bathtubs and separate showers as well as a common living area with a guest bathroom and additional sofa bed. As part of our Family by JW brand programming, the suites also feature kid-friendly design elements.
The Family Suites also demonstrate JW Marriott’s commitment to well-being and offer sleep amenities for the entire family. They feature an exclusive “Sleepy Snack” in-room dining menu that incorporates ingredients recommended by the Sleep Foundation to promote relaxation and sleep.
H: The JW Marriott Tampa Water Street became the 100th property in the brand’s portfolio. What does this milestone mean to you and Marriott?
BR: JW Marriott is a tribute to the patriarch of the Marriott family and the founder of Marriott International, J. Willard “J.W.” Marriott. The opening of JW Marriott Tampa Water Street as our 100th property was a very proud moment for not only myself and the thousands of other JW Marriott associates around the world, but for everyone at Marriott International. However, no one would have been more surprised, or humbled, at that milestone than J. Willard himself.
We know J. Willard would be proud to know that JW Marriott is guided by many of his principles and standards. For example, J. Willard practiced a number of daily habits and rituals that helped him recharge and reflect, which in turn allowed him to be present with the most important people in his life. While it wasn’t a word used in his day, these practices, like his daily walks in nature, stargazing and daily journaling, are what we call “mindfulness” today — which is at the heart of the JW Marriott hotel experience.
H: How is JW Marriott adapting to this increased interest in wellness outside the typical spa experiences?
BR: JW Marriott is inspired by principles of mindfulness and our hotels are havens designed to allow guests to focus on feeling whole — present in mind, nourished in body and revitalized in spirit. While wellness practices were on the rise before the pandemic, they are now seen as essential. It is no longer merely about providing guests with a gym (although that’s still important). We aim to go one step further: to accommodate the traveler who meditates before her morning coffee, does breathwork before their meeting and practices mindful eating. For example, many of our hotels have created intimate, tranquil spaces on property — be it a bench under a tree or a quiet corner near a fireplace — that provide places to pause, reflect and take a moment.
Our JW Garden program is growing and soon every JW Marriott hotel will feature one, whether on a rooftop on a bustling city street or a private grove at one of our resorts. Each JW Garden is planted with seasonal fruits, vegetables and/or herbs which are then harvested and used by our chefs in our food and beverage offerings. For example, the JW Garden at JW Marriott Hotel Hanoi grows 28 ingredients, including rosemary, which are woven throughout the hotel experience from rosemary-infused tea offered upon arrival and oils used at the Spa by JW to a rosemary mist at turndown.
While our Spa by JW experiences continue to pamper and ease tired bodies and minds, our hotels are expanding their offerings beyond the treatment table. For example, JW Marriott Edmonton ICE District now hosts well-being retreats, two-and-a-half days of one-one-one sessions with professional coaches, group fitness sessions, curated menus and spa treatments for people of all fitness and experience levels.
H: Give us an update on your pipeline now and what do you expect it to look like in three to five years.
BR: Our JW Marriott pipeline is very exciting. This year, we are on track to open properties in locations including Berlin, Istanbul, Guadalajara, Xian, Bengaluru, and Jeju, where our JW Marriott Jeju Resort & Spa is set within an UNESCO Natural Heritage Site on the southern coast of Jeju in South Korea.
Looking ahead to 2023 will see the debut of JW Marriott Dallas Arts District, JW Marriott Madrid and JW Marriott Mena House Cairo. We are also close to announcing several upcoming properties in the early half of this year.
H: How is the brand doing from a development standpoint across global theaters? What are potential emerging markets for the JW brand?
BR: We see huge potential for JW Marriott in Europe and the Middle East as well as throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. And in Asia Pacific, where our portfolio is already so robust, we know there is potential to expand further in markets like Japan and Australia… We also have a major announcement coming in 2022 that we can’t mention quite yet, but will definitely be a new market for the brand.
H: How have you personally adapted your management style over the last two years?
BR: If this experience has taught me anything, it’s that life is too short to have work feel stressful or overwhelming. Associates need to feel valued, but they also have had time to reflect on their priorities at work and in life. Some of those priorities are different now than before the pandemic. So, we need to understand the shift in what’s most important to them.
I have a personal goal that my team knows how valued they are by me and our company, that their input and contributions matter more than ever before. And because life is too short, I make sure we have fun. If we are missing opportunities to laugh and enjoy time together as a team, then I’m not authentically leading.
H: Your biggest takeaway/learn from the past two years and how are you best trying to apply it?
BR: During the pandemic, I was furloughed, a humbling experience which gave me the chance to spend time on myself, learning to value the importance of things like silence, time and gratitude. Prior to the pandemic, I think we all thought we had a work/life balance, but the last two years have been eye opening. I am fortunate to lead a brand that understands the importance of mindfulness — the need to pause, reflect and breathe. Now I can say I walk the walk and embody the principles of the JW Marriott brand more than ever before.