As part of my duties to help bring the next PointsU to Calgary, I’ve been meeting with some potential sponsors to help bring this conference to life. As part of that, I was given the opportunity to tour the new In-Terminal Marriott at YYC and speak to the Director of Sales and Marketing, Steven Walton.
Steven was gracious enough to sit down with me and chat about all things Marriott so I wanted to share his thoughts and specifically, Marriott vision for the Canadian and Alberta market.
I’ll provide a high-level review of the In-Terminal airport in a follow-up post based on the tour that was given to me. With a little luck, this will serve as a preview of what’s in store for PointsU attendees.
Introducing Steven Walton
Steven Walton has worked in hospitality for over 20 years and has worked across many aspects of the industry. Beginning in free standing restaurants and bars and everywhere in hotels from banquets to his current role as a member of the executive team as a director of sales and marketing, Steven has seen it all. As an employee of Delta, Fairmont and now Marriott, he has worked across key brands and will head up the Sales and marketing division of the new JW Marriott in Edmonton’s ICE District, slated to open in January of 2019.
Thanks for sitting down with me Steven. Let’s jump right into it … can you tell me what we can expect from the new JW Marriott in Edmonton?
Absolutely! As I had mentioned in our earlier chat, we’re not putting a spaceship in downtown Edmonton that’s going to feel out of place. A whole lot of the design elements come from Alberta. So, the contrast of the seasons, the contrast from prairies to mountains to the badlands to Elk Island, those are things we are going to see throughout. We really want to zero in on the idea that it’s okay to be proud of Edmonton. Proud Edmontonian, proud Albertan and proud Canadian – the JW will really exude that all while being approachable and bring a level of modern hotel sophistication that has never been seen in Edmonton and frankly, Alberta. Approachable luxury is what JW is all about.
In the lobby, we see 20+ foot ceilings, hundreds of pot lights and ice marble. Our owner has called it the living room of Ice District. The lobby of a JW is very similar to a lobby of a Marriott with more upscale feel and finishings. It’s alive. There’s a large sitting area, it feels welcoming, all day dining, a lobby bar, upscale restaurant and lounge and a number of other key design features.
We’ll have 346 rooms. 211 of them will be king bedded. Another 111 will have 2 queens, which really just speaks to conference/business travel while still being able to accommodate leisure. If we have a concert going at Rogers Place or if there’s a hockey game going one, we need to be able to have that leisure component overlayed with the business travel and group convention side of things. There’s also a casino attached to Rogers Place and ICE district plaza will have constant year round programming so the leisure aspect is significant.
The King Rooms will have a 50” TV, a great working desk and plenty of surface space and areas to relax, so it’s a large room. They will all have stand up showers.
There’s a 4th floor Patio that services our spa. The entire 4th and 5th floor are completely dedicated to the spa and health club. As you can imagine, it’s going to be quite breathtaking when it’s done and likely be THE place to be fitness and spa wise in Edmonton.
We are 22 floors of hotel, the top level housing the executive club lounge and there are another 32 floors of residence, which are almost all sold out.
The first floor is our lobby. The second floor house our 10 breakout and a central event HUB. The third floor is where our main ballroom is. 9,800 square feet with 20-foot ceilings, wrapped in windows, prime real estate, overlooking Ice District. Rigging points in the ceiling will allow for speakers, projection and lighting to be suspended, thus reserving the floor space for the events themselves. We also have a smaller ballroom on the 3rd floor which is 2,500 square feet and these ballrooms share 4,800 square feet of pre-function space. This floor and its spaces will have no equal in Alberta and rival anything in Canada.
For weddings, I would say we can comfortably accommodate 550 people. The ballroom divides into 3 but if we were doing a main event, we could probably put 60 tables in there comfortably brining potential attendance up to the 600-650 range. We can of course accommodate theatre style, reception and other seating arrangements. There will be a total of 17,500 square feet in meeting space amongst two floors not including close to 7,000 sq. ft. of pre function space. We are also connected via ped-way to Rogers Place and will be the only modern luxury hotel in Edmonton.
The first buildings including the arena in ICE District started in 2014 so we will go from parking lot to the largest entertainment, mixed use development in North America in only 6 years. There’s really nothing like it speed and scope of construction wise outside of Dubai (not comparing TO the scale of Dubai of course). Also, right by the hotel is the cultural district with the new Royal Alberta Museum, City Hall, the currently renovating library, Citadel Theatre and the Art Gallery. We are also only a 15 minute walk to the River Valley (the largest urban parkland in North America) where you can go canoeing, horseback riding, cross country skiing and any other outdoor activities you may want to pursue.
While Steven shared some of the initial design mockups, they are not for public consumption as of yet. I can tell you that from what I have seen, the hotel is absolutely gorgeous and will be the premier hotel in Alberta, bar none.
The hotel is stunning! I’m interested, when does the design of the hotel become finalized?
Right at the beginning. Everything is set and it would have happened quite a while ago. Before you bring on property people, there’s a lot of work done beforehand. There is typically a year or more of discussions regarding the branding, design aspects, architectural plans, and everything else. We are fortunate in many ways. Marriott knows what they’re doing when they build hotels and our owner, Daryl Katz, has really put his resources, heart, and vision behind it. The Oilers Entertainment Group had said a long time ago, if you help us build this arena, we will build you a district for it. And now he’s building a hotel and has provided partnerships and relationships to help build out this concept of ICE district.
So Daryly Katz actually owns the building?
He owns the hotel and Marriott manages it in exchange for management fees which are based on a number of criteria including level of brand, hotel size, amenities and everything else. When an owner is building a hotel and putting so much into it, they’re going to want a brand that can manage it. Marriott brings a loyal customer base and global reach so the exposure that Marriott has brings a lot to the equation.
So will there be a lot of co-branding opportunities between the hotel and the EOG?
I would imagine there would be. We are already working quite a bit with the Rogers Place Management Group on the international and high profile events that are coming through because our hotel will typically be where a lot of these groups will stay. We’re also laying the groundwork for how we will work together to house A list entertainers, professional sport and other segments. There’s quite a bit of convention interest in Rogers Place now. In some ways, it competes with the Shaw Convention Centre. There was a large convention that was just in Edmonton that rented out Rogers Place for a couple of days. The concert aspect and sports aspect are ones that are obvious but there are other aspects of conventions that Rogers is bringing. The JW opens up more ability for the city to host international events and they are actively recruiting events to come to Edmonton.
What kind of clientele is the JW expecting to attract?
In Edmonton, it’s the only modern luxury hotel, so we’re after your Gen X and Millennials without a doubt. That’s who we are focusing in on but we are a luxury brand and what we offer is approachable luxury. We will be after the entertainment side, so if it’s happening at Roger’s Place, we are after it. We’ll be positioned at the top of the market. We’ll be up there and quite likely higher than the Fairmont Macdonald. My role with this hotel is to set the new market high point for hospitality in the city.
In your opinion, what makes the JW brand unique?
I think it’s the best of that classic luxury that a Ritz or a Fairmont would provide with that modern feel and technology that something like a W would provide. Approachable luxury that’s not intimidating with all the tech and experiences that the modern luxury consumer wants. It has a lively feel but with that extra sophistication, refinement and class that attracts a luxury client or guest.
While Steven is the Director of Sales and Marketing for the JW Marriott, he is currently on assignment at the In-Terminal Hotel at the Calgary International Airport.
How well received has the in-terminal hotel been since it’s opened? Calgary is not typically a connection hub so are you seeing a lot of capacity filled at the hotel?
It’s not where we want it to be but there are a lot of factors. Just inside a year of opening the hotel, right next to another in-terminal hotel in a down market, I don’t think there’s any secret that there are struggles. The area itself has grown so much in supply, there are hotels opening all over the place by the airport. All of those factors considered, I think the hotel has done quite well. The economy will improve and we’ll be back to business with both hotels (Marriott and Delta) getting the occupancy they need and want, but even outside of demand, it takes time to get the awareness up. People are not only learning about this hotel but, also in a lot of ways, about the Marriott brand and that is the next frontier for us. We have a really strong base of clients and an amazing product not just as an airport property but rivaling anything in Calgary, so people that experience this hotel are blown away and I expect that to continue. We just need to continue to raise the bar on how we get the message out.
There seems to be a very big expansion in Alberta with Marriott. Is there any underlying reason why?
Marriott wanted to expand its presence in Canada and I think Delta was the first part of that. I’m not at the high brand level to be able to answer that 100% accurately but logic would tell me that the Delta acquisition was a way to get into the Canadian market and then grow the Marriott brand in Alberta and the rest of Canada. The Alberta market is a great place to do it because if you look at the other major markets, they’re pretty saturated with a whole bunch of different brands and thousands upon thousands of hotel rooms. Marriott has a real opportunity to carve out their niche in Alberta as they expand.
After talking about the hotel business, we moved into some questions around loyalty and the Marriott Rewards Program
How has the acquisition of Starwoods affected Marriott?
My experience is fairly limited but I’ve worked in a couple of different brands within Marriott so I’ll try to answer to the best of my ability. From what I’ve seen, Marriott is very good at bringing out the best aspects of each brand and expanding on those things. While Marriott will always be true to their own brand, from my experience, they have never been a brand that says, you must assimilate to the Marriott brand. They seem to be very cognizant of the positives that all these other brands bring and I’m sure they will try to adopt best practice with anything they do. At the end of the day, we are all Marriott and they have their well thought out and proven tactics on how they want their brands to be positioned though.
We’ve heard that as of January 2018, the SPG program will be retired. Do you have any insight as to what to expect or is that a closely guarded secret?
It’s pretty well kept information at brand level. If I knew anything 100%, I would love to share it but they don’t share that kind of stuff with me at this stage and it wouldn’t be my information to share anyway. In keeping with the previous answer, I would expect that they will try to keep the best parts of both programs but I’m not an authority on it and don’t speak officially for the brand when I say that. The loyalty level that Starwood has is not something that Marriott is going to want to lose. For those SPG loyalists that have experienced Marriott Rewards, I think they are quickly finding that Marriott Rewards is a top notch program. Marriott’s end goal, and it hasn’t been a secret, is to be the best hotel brand in the world. We are already the biggest in the world and a big part of that comes with loyalty recognition so I don’t see them investing as much as they have without investing a lot in the loyalty program in the future and ensuring it is the best out there.
How important are loyalty members to Marriott?
To me, they are the most important aspect. You have to earn the status as a client and from the hotel’s perspective, you have to believe that clients will keep coming back because they enjoy what we offer. By doing so, our clients earn their rewards so it’s mutually beneficial. Loyalty is a funny word to me. I think any business, whether it’s a hotel or someone selling cars, you need to have a loyal base. Loyalty is a two-way street and I don’t think you would have a loyalty program if those people didn’t matter to you and you didn’t provide value and experience that they would put a high level of priority on.
In your experience, what percentage of people that check in are Marriott Rewards members?
I don’t know the statistics exactly for this hotel but I know that reward redemptions are high here and at a lot of properties. It really depends on the market and where you are in the market. The Delta South in Edmonton has very high Marriott Rewards redemptions for example. People are certainly using their points for redemptions and they should. Behind the scenes, it’s extremely important how we are recognizing people when they come in. There’s even a higher level of attention on making sure that we are very aware of people that are using points for an award stay. I’ve experienced it at other branded hotels as a guest where when you hit that maximum loyalty level and cash in some points for a free stay that you get a sense that the redemption is not overly appreciated.
You mean if it’s not a paid stay, it’s not contributing to the revenue of the hotel and thus maybe a bit of a burden?
Yes exactly. At least that is the feeling I got. I’ve seen that first hand and it’s the reverse here. We go over and above to make sure that these people feel welcome. I mean we’re not doing what some other brands have done where we roll out the red carpet and have management clapping as they check in but I think there’s a way to personally touch those people as they come through in a meaningful way. You have to. You just have to.
The last Delta I was at, the GM there, he even took it to the next level. When you redeemed your loyalty points for an earned (free) night stay, the GM there said, let’s make sure they get the best room available. If there’s a suite available, I don’t care if they’ve redeemed for a standard room, if they’ve earned it and they’re at that level, let’s make sure they have the best room available. Let’s make them feel like they matter and let’s make sure they are taken care of during their stay.
I think it can be dangerous for anyone that has a loyalty program to just assume that people feel appreciated because they’ve hit a certain level. It’s not enough, you have to personally recognize them.
How well versed are Marriott employees with the Rewards program?
I would say they’re pretty well versed. I don’t know all the ins and outs of the program myself I’m still learning, mind you, I’ve been in 5 different hotels in the last 9 months since I joined Marriott so I’ve spent more time on diving into learning the nuances of this brand on the marketing and sales side than the loyalty side. I can tell you that the focus on the front desk is laser focused. So that is covered. There’s always room for education though. I think I would be lying if I said you could go to any colleague in any Marriott, ask them about the Rewards program and they could give you all the ins and outs of it but what they do know is the levels of the program. That is ingrained. You don’t necessarily need to know the ins and outs either. There’s a very distinct visual connection with the various levels. It doesn’t necessarily mean you treat one better than the other but it puts you on point. At morning standups, what line team members focus on is who is going to be in house.
So you know who’s going to show up and what level they’re at?
Yes, what silver we have coming in, what gold, what platinum. When are they coming in? What rooms do we have them in? What preferences do they have? Why are they coming? What research can we do before hand to learn about the guest(s) and we talk about that every day. Our colleagues may not know how many points you need for this or that but they know who’s in house for sure. Ultimately that’s what’s important. I would hazard a guess and say that the client knows more about the program than we do. We just make sure you’re treated right and get the perks you have earned.
What’s the difference between working with Marriott vs Fairmont
Fairmont is an amazing brand and will always have a special place in my heart. The talent level that you work with is really spectacular. In a lot of ways, it still has that small family feel to it. Marriott is a big brand. They have a lot of hotels in a lot of cities with numerous different brands under the Marriott umbrella with a lot of layers. In my short time, I’ve had the pleasure of working with and meeting some great talent and brilliant minds in hospitality as well. As a professional within hotels, I would say the biggest difference is size and scope. But you learn to navigate it. Fairmont has great people, so does Marriott. Fairmont cares about their clients. Marriot does as well. Everyone cares about their clients. Every brand has its own distinct, identifiable characteristics in how they want to market and who they’re marketing to. What demographic they want. Doesn’t matter what brand you’re in, as long as people’s hearts are in the right place which is with the guest experience than they have most of the battle covered already. You can’t fake hospitality, I mean you can get by for a little while but the people that really succeed in a level of brand like Fairmont or Marriott are true hospitality professionals and genuinely enjoy the service of others and the company of others. If anything, there are more similarities than difference. We are different brands but we’re after the loyalty of the same client for the most part. I try to do that through genuine personal connections.
Walk me through a day in what you do as the Director of Sales and Marketing
It’s different every day. My day typically starts with my family in the morning and ends with them in the evening. I have two little ones so try to be home for Dinner as much as possible as within a work week I’m lucky to see them 7-8 hours total. That’s not meant to be a complaint, it’s the nature of a 365 day, 24/7 business. Hotels are always open. Marriott is exceptional in understanding the importance of work/life balance and are very supportive. When I get into work, I like to be the first one in on the sales side. That’s not necessarily the competition in me but that first hour before the sales team shows up, you can get a lot done. I find that I can make some more operational connections when I am in that early. I like to stop in at the front desk and say hello and maybe make it to Events, hopefully. At 8:30 AM we start our sales morning stand up. We talk about what’s going on for the day, what business we have in the pipeline, what clients are we recognizing, meeting with, connecting with, are there any challenges I need to assist with. What kind of barriers are there? And by barriers I mean, are there barriers that the sales team has that I need to remove or anything like that. That usually takes 30 minutes in the morning.
Then I go to the operational meeting. The executive team and all the leadership team that’s on property attends that meeting. Rooms Leaders, Housekeeping Leaders, Restaurants and Event Leaders, Executive Chef, Accounting, Human Resources, etc. We talk about what the arrivals and departures, what were the challenges and opportunities from the night before, what’s the follow up? And then we move onto the events side. Do you have sales clients coming through? What are the unique, identifiable things that we are doing for them? That’s 30 minutes or so, plus any follow up related to sales afterwards.
Back to my desk and I probably have 20-30 emails from the first two hours of the day. The East Coast wakes up before we do and for the most part our head offices are out East as are some of our clients. So I start my day at 7:30am and I’m already 2 hours behind. Usually between 10 and 11 is my email catchup time, if I don’t have another meeting scheduled.
No matter what, if it isn’t a scheduled meeting, its revolving door in my office. In any given week we have a couple of strategy meetings including Revenue Strategy and Marketing Strategy. We also have some Canadian sales office meetings, departmental one on ones with sales colleagues, executive team meetings, department head meetings, learning and information conference calls, etc., etc. We have a Marketing Meeting with food and beverage. What are we doing on that side? I mean if it’s International Caesar Day, what are we doing for that? Are we rolling out a new menu? Who do we need to touch from an influencer standpoint to get our message out? How are we supporting it on the marketing side? Corporate Social Responsibility. What charitable events do we have organized? So those are all layered into my week.
My day just kind of ends when it ends. The work is never really done. You prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Hospitality is never the same. Every day is different. Just when you think you have it figured out, something changes.
At the end of the day, we’re not curing cancer. Its guests, clients, meetings and people. If you’re doing it right, you’re planning 8 weeks in advance. If you’re putting out fires, you’re probably behind on that 8 weeks ago and didn’t prepare yourself or your colleagues properly. The uncontrollable is the guest. You plan the best you can but anything can happen at any given time and you have to be ready for it. Today is a good example. If I wasn’t with you today, I would be stripping rooms. We had way higher occupancy than we expected last night with some flight delays and our housekeeping team wasn’t staffed for it. My GM is currently up there tearing sheets off beds. So I could throw that into any given day.
Thank you for your time Steven! You’ve been most generous!