With the Asia Pacific region accounting for more than 60% of the world’s population, hotels are increasingly directing their strategy towards Asian tourists – and Chinese in particular. Under the direction of Peggy Fang Roe, Chief Sales and Marketing Officer of Marriott Asia Pacific, the Marriott group is successfully innovating to localize their global campaigns and effectively capture this rapidly-growing market.
Chinese people don’t run in the morning – something that Peggy Fang Roe found out the hard way.
As part of the Westin’s Move Well campaign, the global wellness-focused brand centered around eating well, sleeping well, and moving well and Roe’s job was to make this resonate with a Chinese audience. Advertising for the campaign referenced how people get up for a run in the morning to stay fit and how Westin helps facilitate that lifestyle – a routine that is well established in the west, particularly among business travelers. But when focus groups in China tested this campaign, thoughts included, “Well, I definitely don’t run in the morning – that’s when the pollution is bad” and “Who gets up in the morning to run?”
Roe and her team responded by transforming the campaign to highlight a group of night-runners they found in China, something that connected far more with a population that prefers running at night as it does not conflict with work and involves less serious pollution. But it was an important learning experience for Roe about the difference between eastern and western consumers.
Prior to moving to Hong Kong to take up her current position, Roe spent ten years at Marriott’s corporate headquarters working on innovation and brand marketing. Before that, she gained experience in process management at General Electric’s credit card and insurance divisions. After an MBA at Harvard Business School, she also spent time in small companies, traveling to Silicon Valley to join the start-up Homestead.com, where she helped launch a paid website-building tool, later acquired by Intuit.
During her time at GE, she earned her black belt certification in Six Sigma, a set of techniques applied to improve process management. “Six Sigma training was probably some of the most intense and best training I’ve had in business,” she says. “It taught me a lot about the methodology in solving process problems, with the customer in mind first, and that’s something that has stuck with me in everything I do.” However, she also found that organizations in some cases take more time to implement the process than to fulfill its intended purpose. Despite this challenge, though, Roe says the training has remained central to how she thinks about business decisions every day.
At Marriott, Roe is responsible for the front-end business operations: brand, marketing, sales, digital, pricing, communications, and revenue management. She brings all aspects of sales and marketing together, overseeing a broad organization across all of these functions. Her tasks vary widely, but she describes her role as primarily guiding her leadership team. While she says there is no such thing as a “typical week”, she outlines four goals for her team: building Marriott’s customer base in China, localizing the brands to be compelling for customers in Asia, managing channels where customers want to buy such as mobile and web experiences, and managing pricing and segment strategy for the whole organization.
A New Clientele
With over 700 hotels in Asia Pacific and new properties opening up every week, Roe’s team works to ensure the strategy infrastructure is able to execute and drive the highest performance. In such a massive market, her challenge is deciding precisely where and how to target consumers.
The team focuses on five major markets: Greater China, Japan, Korea, Australia, and India. They begin with localizing for these major source markets while also catering to customers in close to 30 different countries in Asia. While she was in the US, her role was to evolve the brand on a global scale. In Asia, she finds the biggest difference to be the diversity of customers, languages, platforms, and nuances around culture and the way they sell.
While most Americans may see China and Asia as one big entity, the reality is quite the opposite. Roe explains, “When I came in to this role, what we would do was roll something out or build a website for consumers broadly, first in English, and then we would translate it into Chinese.” Although this still occurs occasionally, Marriott has recognized over the last five years that the Chinese consumer is its largest and growing population of future travelers. As a result, her dedicated team of brand and digital leaders are working in China to execute with maximum customization and localization.
Early on in her position, she began working with the global team to build campaigns from a different perspective. Rather than simple translation, she initiated a push to see if they could make a truly global campaign. What she found many times, she explains, “Particularly for China, is that no matter what we did, you can’t just put Chinese people in, or you can’t just put a mix of races and cultures and then the campaign becomes global – it still doesn’t resonate.” Consequently, they took global concepts and tested with associates or focus groups to receive feedback and change the branding.
Some examples, such as the jogging campaign, highlighted striking differences, but Roe says most distinctions are more subtle, such as with the new Marriott Bonvoy loyalty program rebrand, centering around foreign travel experiences. Roe convinced the corporate team that a new name was needed for marketing to China. In order to send a more aspirational message, and knowing that the reference to the French phrase “bon voyage” would not connect with people emotionally in China, they chose a new name in Chinese, which translates as “Marriott Family of Travel Experts”. The chosen name intends to pay tribute to the passion of their members for travel. According to Roe, “Five years ago we would have never done that, and I see our company evolving quite a bit as a result of all the education we have been able to do in bringing the customers to the forefront of the company.”
Marriott is also rolling out innovative technology to engage Asian markets. One such innovation is testing facial recognition for automatically checking-in Chinese travelers domestically, which is already active in a number of China Marriott hotels. Along with technical innovation, Roe’s team is implementing changes on the marketing side, now advertising on WeChat. They also launched a new destinations website with immersive content that allows visitors to understand the difference between all of their locations in Asia and what clientele they each target. For example, she explains, “The W is more catered to people who like water sports and couples, while the Sheraton is amazing for families, especially with young kids. We put a lot of work into positioning our hotels and our brand, trying to figure out how to sell digitally in a more effective way.”
Marriott has also been localizing through partnerships with domestic businesses in China. In the past year, they committed to a joint venture with Alibaba to leverage local knowledge to better serve customers in the region. Together, they have already collaborated to build a storefront site, integrate payment functions, and more, localization initiatives that Roe believes would not have been possible on a global platform.
Catering to Chinese Tastes
Roe has said in the past that good food and a good deal are the two keys to success in the Asian market, something she says still holds true today, especially in China. When it comes to food, Marriott’s reputation in Asia is boosted whenever its hotels put on a successful event, host a celebrity wedding, have Michelin star restaurants, or get a good culinary review. This contradicts the US experience, where most people do not eat in the hotel restaurants.
“The dining trends in Asia,” she affirms, “are moving fast and furious.” With the rise of free delivery services throughout China, especially where bikes can navigate through traffic faster, culinary competition is fierce. As a result, Roe and her team launched a loyalty member spending program in which all members receive a meal discount that rises as your membership deepens. Marriott is also implementing a points system for use even without a hotel reservation, all as part of an initiative to improve food and beverage profits.
The Andaman, a Luxury Collection Resort, Langkawi in Malaysia
Besides domestic marketing in Asia, Marriott is now optimizing the experience for their newest customer base: Chinese travelers abroad. In collaboration with Alibaba, they have created an end-to-end system tailored to Chinese customers, Li Yu, which launched in 2016 and is continuously evolving.
As part of Li Yu, the online booking platform – Marriott Storefront on Alibaba – sells products to Chinese travelers the way they want to buy. When Chinese customers book travel, they normally first decide whether they want to stay in China or venture abroad. This is largely uncommon for Americans, and Roe’s team is tasked with discovering and generating solutions for those nuances. Additionally, the payment options allow Chinese consumers to pay after the visit, rather than at the time of booking, since most do not use a credit card. This system has now been enabled in 1,000 hotels worldwide.
The hotels launching Li Yu were chosen based on demand and trained specifically to welcome Chinese travelers. These customers are given comforts of home such as noodles, room slippers, and Chinese menus. Most recently, Marriott has tested a phone concierge service where a hotel employee can interact with consumers in Mandarin along their whole journey, giving airport assistance and on-call support.
Explaining Asia to the Homefront
While at corporate, Roe remembers thinking about her colleagues in Asia, “They’re going rogue.” When she joined them, however, it didn’t take long to understand how differently things operated overseas. Although communication to global headquarters can always be a challenge, she maintains, “I never blame people on either side, but it’s so hard to see what we see here living in Bethesda, Maryland, and we live it every day here.”
Now, she hires people with the patience and ability to excel in that environment. Additionally, she looks for the ability to create a business case rooted in customer insight, because, she asserts, “That’s how you can make the global company work.” She attributes her effectiveness today partially to her 10 years at headquarters where she learned how to build relationships at all levels. One of her main day-to-day tasks is to unblock barriers for her team so that they can executive more effectively at local level.
Mentoring the Next Generation of Female Leaders
At Marriott, Roe is heavily involved in the partnership with the Asian University for Women. The university is an independent institution dedicated to women’s education and leadership development located in Chittagong, Bangladesh. Women from emerging markets who are the first in their family to attend university, could not afford school, or had no opportunity and are responsible for their family’s finances are encouraged and assisted to attend. Organizations across Asia have built scholarships for these women to go to school while still supporting their families. Three years ago, she joined the board of the Hong Kong Foundation, which raises money for the university.
In partnership with the university, Marriott mentors and provides internships for the students. In addition to the fifty women currently in the mentorship program, Marriott hired a few as interns this year and provides job opportunities for graduates. The program is a great fit for Marriot for two reasons, according to Roe. She notes, “One is the men and women in my organization really enjoy mentoring others. The second is that we are constantly, with our growth, in need of great talent across Asia Pacific.”
Roe finds supporting and meeting the students to be a rewarding experience. “These women are really motivated and passionate,” she observes, “and come out of this university wanting to change the world.” Additionally, they typically want to go home and give back to their own communities through NGOs. Roe and Marriott encourage them to begin learning business skills in a commercial entity before returning to impact their hometowns. “A lot of time, they’re not even exposed to this as an opportunity, so it opens their eyes.”
Roe has also witnessed some of the most prestigious professors around the world pining to teach in Bangladesh. As a result, she explains, “These women are being educated, in many ways, better than some of the other women who are going to universities in established countries, and they come out really raring to go.” Roe adds that there is tremendous satisfaction in knowing that, in the future, many of these women will be strong leaders in companies, NGOs, and governments around the world.
Work-Life Balance in Asia
Roe sees gender diversity initiatives as stemming from two sources: either leadership, or individuals within the company who are passionate about elevating women. “I see success at Marriott [in this area] because you’ve got both,” she says. “The CEO has put together a leadership team that is half women, the Board is half women, and the global workforce at the property level is almost half women.” Roe says she still sees areas for improvement, such as more females at the general manager level, but is pleased to know that the company is actively working on closing the gap.
While preparing to move to Asia, she was somewhat apprehensive about managing her own work-life balance, moving two kids aged three and five to a new continent. She was pleasantly surprised to find that she retained a level of flexibility around her working hours or when she needed to take time to be with her children. Roe accredits that mostly to Marriott’s corporate culture.
When she was younger, she often thought she could not maintain her career path and have a family. She delayed having children, but on reflection now realizes that she was capable of taking on the challenge. “You just have to dive in and see how you react to it,” she urges. And she has one piece of advice to the next generation of women as they grapple with their own work-life dilemma. “My message to people is always to not let anyone else define for you what your work-life balance should be. Don’t let anyone else set that bar for you.”
This article was originally published in the first edition of the AmCham China Quarterly, an executive-targeted periodical focused on policy, business, and technology, driven by C-suite perspectives and insights. To subscribe or contribute to the Quarterly, contact our editor: firstname.lastname@example.org.