Satya Anand has been to Wimbledon many times, but there is recognisable sadness in his voice as he admits to not attending a match this year. Instead, travelling abroad, Anand watched the grass court feats of athleticism from afar, but he continues to draw inspiration from the tournament’s leading lights.

“If you think about a tennis player, the moment they get on to the tennis court they are singularly focused on winning the game. And to win the game, they have to concentrate on the next point,” Anand says. “To me, tennis players are a great source of inspiration because they have the tenacity, they have the resilience, [and] they come back from deep setbacks.”

While not endured in the form of scream-inducing injuries or tear-jerking championship losses, resiliency has become something of a golden commodity in a world reeling from a head spinning mass pandemic.

Just like any other industry struggling in the face of an economic downturn, the hospitality sector has needed its fair share of competent leaders of late; dogged visionaries capable of seeing through the current malaise and carving out a pragmatic direction for future growth. For Anand, newly promoted to the position of president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at Marriott in November 2020, the mission statement has been driving the groups’ recovery in the wake of Covid-19. It is a task that would be formidable enough for a seasoned veteran – the role encompasses some 948 hotels spread across 75 countries. Anand, however, didn’t have the luxury of bedding in. Instead, he was communicating with stakeholders and hotel managers to cope with travel restrictions and national lockdowns, along with monitoring outbreaks in myriad countries.

“This is something that nobody expected. Nobody could even fathom in their wildest dreams that something like this could happen. So, when it happened, we had to adapt very quickly,” he says. “What was challenging was that each country, and sometimes each state, had their own jurisdictions and they would provide new rules, and keeping up with that was a challenge… but certainly operating in 75 countries also provides a lot of opportunities for us to establish ourselves.”

In recovery

Anand has spent 33 years waiting for his own opportunity to solidify his leadership credentials. After starting as a night auditor in 1988 at the Vienna Marriott Hotel, he has held a number of senior positions at the group, including vice-presidential roles in Western and Central Europe, and overseeing the multimillion-dollar renovation of The Ritz-Carlton Berlin and the opening of The St. Regis Venice. Now, after enduring a $267m annual loss in 2020, Marriott and Anand are hellbent on not just recovery, but expansion, even if 2020 was not a stagnant year – the group still signed over 13,500 rooms and opened over 50 new hotels. In 2021, they are set to open an eclectic mix of properties, including W Rome, W Algarve, The St Regis in Downtown Dubai, and The Westin London City, to name a few. Marriott is also betting big on bringing Fairfield, the popular North American economy chain, to the continent.

“In the US, typically, the room sizes are much larger – there’s more space. So, we had to adapt to European measures,” Anand explains. “The second part was the aesthetics; we wanted to have a different style, and look and feel of the hotel. So, this Fairfield will [have a] very unique, Europeanised, lavish Scandinavian touch in terms of design and decor.”

Of course, while launching homegrown brands is all well and good, Marriott did not become the world’s largest hotel operator by simply growing afresh. To that end, Anand sees potential for conversion in a depressed market where hoteliers can benefit from the group’s centralised branding and infrastructure. Particularly in Europe, where around 70% of hotels are still independent. “They are not affiliated to brands or big companies, so I absolutely see a lot of opportunity in that area,” he says.

How, then, does Marriott convince independent hotels that their identity will not be sacrificed as a result? “It’s a good question, but I mean, if you look at our conversion brands, there are certain requirements for the brand. But it is largely left to the individual hotels to bring out their own creativity, their own positioning,” Anand says. “In fact, we enhance the identity of that hotel with the positioning of our collection brands.”

A prime example, he continues, is the Matild Palace, a Luxury Collection Hotel in Budapest, an opulent throwback to the Belle Epoque era that has undergone five years of extensive renovations to take pride of place in this collection.

Potential for development

Alongside continental expansion, Anand also sees great opportunities in the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia, where a deal with Al Saedan, the country’s premier real estate group, will birth three Marriott hotels across the Kingdom by 2025. Anand talks excitedly about the land of the pharaohs, particularly the opening of St. Regis Cairo, a luxurious 36-storey property overlooking the river Nile.

“In Egypt, we’re seeing great potential for development, not only in the luxury space, but to develop hotels in the mid-range or lifestyle space. We are going to be introducing the Moxy brand in Egypt, for instance. A few years back, you would have been hard pressed to do something like that.”

Then there’s Africa, for decades a forgotten corner of global hospitality, the continent has recently come into its own. While it remains something of an untapped resource, particularly in sub-Saharan regions where mid-scale and economy hotels are scarce, Anand sees Africa as a pivotal part of Marriott’s post-pandemic recovery strategy.

“While it has obviously been more challenging because of the Covid situation, I’m very confi dent that with the brands that we have, there’s great opportunity to grow into sub-Saharan Africa as well.”

“If you look at other parts of Africa, we continue to see growth in Nigeria. We’re seeing growth in Zambia. And of course, South Africa is our biggest market,” Anand says. “While it has obviously been more challenging because of the Covid situation, I’m very confident that with the brands that we have, there’s great opportunity to grow into sub- Saharan Africa as well.”

Moreover, while business travel might take longer to recover its spark, Anand sees great encouragement in the fast-developing business and leisure (bleisure) segment. It is an aspect of hospitality he would personally like to take more advantage of.

“Previously, I would travel from point to point, just go [somewhere] for a meeting and come back. But now, I’ll use that opportunity to stay on and to see that place. So, essentially combine my business trip with a little bit of pleasure. I’ll take my family along, or if I’m on my own maybe I’ll visit a museum or take a few hours off. I have been trying to do that for the past 20 years in my career, but I’ve never managed to do it.”

Such dedication has clearly paid off. Now Anand will have to continue to chart Marriott’s recovery during a vibrant yet uncertain time, ignoring the noise and focusing singularly on the here and now, while also planning for future eventualities. Like his tennis playing heroes, he will need to draw on well-forged fibres of tenacity and resilience to overcome setbacks along the way.