Shortly after Neeraj Govil took over as the South Asia head of Marriott International in September 2015, to be based out of Mumbai, he thought he had been handed his most challenging assignment ever. For, in November, Marriott announced a merger with Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, bringing two hotel behemoths together. Suddenly Govil, who had returned after nine years to India, to run 30 odd hotels found 60-65 properties in his portfolio. And a host of messy integration issues.
“Both were American companies. While there were lots of similarities, two fierce competitors were coming together,” says Govil.
The property systems were different, the loyalty programmes were different, there were people issues to iron out, and in the market, their brands were competing against each other head to head, a Sheraton against a Marriott, and so on.
“It was a testing period. So many conflicting emotions – excitement, invigoration, uncertainty – plagued my mind,” recalls Govil. But it was a very steep learning curve too, he says.
However, five years later, Govil, 46, was due for another shock. “Till a year ago, if you had asked me what my most challenging assignment was, I would have said 2015. But then came Covid 19.” The hospitality industry bore the brunt of the pandemic.
“We have 400 hotels in China, where Marriott has the second biggest operations after the US, so we could see it coming ahead. We had real time information,” he says. But there was no stopping the devastation.
It’s been a tough year to lead Marriott out of the Covid-19 woods into recovery. A double whammy for the group globally was that it lost its beloved CEO Arne Sorenson, who had won the hearts of people all over the world early in the pandemic with his emotion-filled speech on job losses, to cancer, this February.
But the Goa born-and-bred Govil, who earlier this year got promoted as the chain’s Senior Vice President, Operations, APEC, which in Marriott lingo stands for ‘Asia Pacific excluding China’, is born to hoteliering, and rose to the challenge.
Born to hoteliering
Although Govil ’s family was in conventional middle class jobs – his dad a navy man, mom, a teacher and engineers and doctors strewn in the family -- he says growing up in Goa it was natural that he would gravitate to a career connected to travel and tourism. “Half the population in Goa takes up jobs on cruise liners,” he jokes. But hotel buff that he was, from the start he knew he wanted a career in hospitality and especially to get into the business side of running a hotel. “In my new role it’s so exciting that I have the ability to influence – in a good way - a consumer journey in a hotel,” he says.
“A world is a much better place in hotels,” says Govil, who is an avid traveller. He says, part of the appeal of a destination is the hotel experience. Outside of work, which takes him everywhere, his bucket list is to visit 100 countries on personal holidays. “I have done 70 already on vacation with my wife,” he says. Incidentally, his wife is his classmate from IHM, the hotel management institute in Goa.
We are doing this Table Talk virtually over a Microsoft Teams call. It is lunch time in Delhi and tea time in Singapore, where Govil has moved to now, after his elevation. He now oversees 23 countries in the region. The Marriott team has thoughtfully arranged a lunch delivery through its Marriott Bonvoy on Wheels – a food delivery service introduced during the pandemic.
It’s raining heavily in Delhi and I have selected a very apt monsoon- themed meal from the extensive menu. From the Chandni Chowk ki Baarish page I have opted for a DIY samosa chaat, and an intriguingly named dish called Rain and Umbrella which turns out to be a pairing of pesto marinated vegetables with garlic bread plus a dessert called Cherrapoonji. This turns out to be a divine jalebi topped with wildflower honey from Meghalaya with rose petals, adding to the flavour. The meal is incredibly delicious but the wow factor is in the spill proof elegant way it has been packed and sent in eye-catching orange boxes, with an endless choice of generous seasonings.
Like several hotel chains, which during the first lockdown last year had to close their doors to guests, Marriott was also quick to pivot to food delivery and Marriott Bonvoy on Wheels, Govil says, is seeing great traction in orders. “72 properties are now on it,” he says.
Even when business comes back, this is a new segment that will stay on, he asserts.
Govil says he personally is a big fan of Asian food, and so is excited to be in Singapore which is a melting pot of Cantonese, Malaysian, Japanese, Thai, Indonesian cuisine. He speaks a smattering of Cantonese incidentally, picked up during a stint in Hong Kong.
Learning the culture
He has been with Marriott since 2001, though his hoteliering began in 1997 at Goa, with stints first at the Renaissance (interestingly acquired much later by Marriott), Majorda Beach Resort – the famous property in Goa where the Bollywood crowd would once descend and the Taj Holiday Village. In 2001, he moved to Mumbai as the restaurant manager at Renaissance, moving on to other roles at the hotel. “I spent five years there and my induction into Marriott culture and Operations truly happened here.”
Then came an opportunity overseas to Australia at the Marriott in Brisbane. “I went from having the luxury of 500 people in food and beverage to managing with just 23 people and a dish washing machine. The change was surreal,” says Govil.
But Brisbane taught him a lot about economising in hotel operations, he says. Profits were wafer thin. Labour costs were high.
Then it was onward to Vietnam back with the Renaissance brand, followed by stints in Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai.
If Vietnam was small and laidback, Hong Kong operations were really bustling. His first assignment as GM was at Beijing. “It was a great stint. Beijing in 2011/12 was a new power centre of things politically as well as financially. And personally, it was the first time I was staying in a city with four distinct seasons.”
Ask Govil about why big hotel chains get expats to run a hotel in an alien country - after all why would Marriott pitchfork an Indian who knew only a smattering of Cantonese into Beijing? – and he says that in a growing market that has not yet matured, expats lend the expertise, and put in processes.
“If you see in India today, unlike the early days, now there are very few expats in Marriott hotels – the only expats are returning Indians,” he explains.
In Beijing, he says, part of his brief was to groom a local to take charge. The other part was to bring in more business from India and other countries. “Expats tend to hang out together and some of the key connections for a hotel to make the business successful hinges on these connections,” he explains.
“It was a pretty thrilling assignment. I had to build a connect with the Indian embassy and the community. I had the good fortune of hosting several Indian delegations at the hotel. Mr Jaishankar was at that time the ambassador to China,” he says, pointing out that the hotel industry is all about relationships.
Of course, he admits that language is a challenge for an expat. “I always say the key appointment you make as an expat is your translator. I was lucky.”
Managing a merger
In 2015, when he was asked to head India, it was quite a reorientation of sorts. So how did he tackle the task of integration of the two chains?
Govil says that the fact that he himself was new to the role helped. There was no baggage associated and it was easier to gain trust. “We tried to build a shared culture,” he explains.
One of the first things he did was to move legacy Marriott hotel general managers into Starwood properties and vice versa. “It was the fastest way to get them to respect each other.”
A lot of questions were asked about whether Marriott would shed some brands especially as combined with Starwood the portfolio looked unwieldy.
“But the whole purpose of Marriott acquiring Starwood was the power of brands and distribution muscle. Why would you buy it and not use the good brands that Starwood had. For us to grow, we needed brands,” he says.
Govil contends that you can even have 55 brands from the same chain in a city. “As you see in five years, we have not scrapped a single brand.”
Obvious question – the new Marriott Starwood combined entity today has 16 brands in India across its 124 hotels– when do we see more?
Govil says we will see the Moxy brand in play in India by 2022 – deals have been struck. We could be seeing it in Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai . It is a young vibrant brand aimed at millennials and with simplified operations.
Will we see recovery in the hospitality industry by then?
Govil says the time period it took to recover from the second wave as compared to the first wave has been compressed and has been faster.
“Will we beat 2019 levels? No. But we are certainly doing better numbers than 2020. In the second wave, the hotel owners, who are the most affected party, have been calmer and taken the news better,” says Govil.
Also he points to encouraging news from the US, where the 4th of July weekend saw most hotels sold out. “They now have labour shortages, and are struggling to service demand,” he exclaims.
Has anything changed dramatically in the hotel industry post Covid? Any new models, innovations that have blazed through?
“I don’t think anything revolutionary has emerged,” says Govil, after considered thought. However, it has fast tracked all the trends that were there – be it cloud kitchens, diversification of supply chain, etc, he says.
Closely monitoring all the behaviour changes of consumers post Covid, Marriott has been balancing out its portfolio, focussing on adding more resorts to the mix. Twenty six more hotels will be added by 2023, taking the Marriott chain to 150 hotels. With 15,000 plus employees, it is one of India’s biggest hotel chains.
“The silver lining for hoteliers is that in the WFH era, people can take off to a resort any time now. Even if one of the family members is busy, they can work from the resort. We see more and more people taking advantage of this blended way of working,” he says.
But aren’t homestays in a better place to tap this trend? Marriott will also be bringing its homes and villas proposition to Asia soon, says Govil. But isn’t that too late as chains like the Taj group have already edged into this space.
First mover advantage is over-rated, retorts Govil. “The trick is in getting it right. Marriott itself came to India pretty late – after everybody else. But we are blessed to be one of the biggest here. For us it is important that when we come to market, we get the experience right,” he says.