“I was born into the industry,” says Gonzalo Aguilar, COO at Marriott International. Having grown up in the business – his father was a hotelier for many years before he joined as a late teen in food and beverage – Aguilar boasts a diverse experience in the industry, including almost 30 years at Marriott. “I’ve worked in Latin America, through the ranks of food and beverage, then transitioned over into sales and marketing, then into a general manager role in JW Marriott in Miami,” he explains.

“I grew up internationally around the world, travelling with my family. I had to the desire to get back to that and [so] I went back to Latin America, through to Costa Rica as [a] general manager, a county manager role in Brazil and then I moved over to Europe in 2010.”

Working in Europe, Aguilar held several impressive roles within the Marriott hotel group, including managing the integration of AC Hotels into the group’s portfolio before transitioning into area vicepresident for eastern Europe and then working as area vice-president for southern Europe in 2017 until 2020. It’s from this point onwards that Aguilar found himself as chief operating officer for Europe, covering all the group’s managed properties across the continent.

“That’s the beauty of the hospitality industry,” says Aguilar. “The opportunities that Marriot has given me to grow my experiences in different parts of the world and build my skill set.”

Marriott, Aguilar goes on to say, is very committed to driving development and providing opportunities for individuals to build their skills and focus on leadership and communication. And not just the technical side of business either, but also for their own sense of well-being.

“I’m a big believer in the hospitality industry and that it really provides all those opportunities for people to grow.”

New year optimism

As we look forward to the year ahead, Aguilar is very optimistic. With promising Q3 results, the previous year saw a spike in demand with recent areas of travel reaching 2019 or above levels throughout Europe. “It’s really been an outstanding pickup and recovery,” he adds.

“Based on everything we’ve seen and learned over the last three years, we feel confident that pent up demand is still there, that travellers and consumers have to really focus on experiences, not just on purchasing goods.” However, Marriott and Aguilar continue to keep an eye on the current economic environment, planning for allmanner of eventualities.

But the demand for holidays is still there, he says, as research under Marriott Bonvoy found around 14,000 loyalty members across EMEA markets are “ring-fencing” their funds in order to secure future holidays. “That gives us quite a bit of optimism, not just for 2023 but also for the future and how the travel industry will continue to grow and fully recover,” adds Aguilar.

On the development side of this, Aguilar claims Europe has some exciting openings on the way. “We have our JW Marriott in Madrid coming later in Q1, we also have our addition in Rome coming later this year, as well as in Morocco [where] we’ll be opening our St. Regis into Tamuda Bay in the second half of the year, and a W in Budapest and a W in Prague.

“We’re also opening a fabulous Marriott in Munich that will open up probably in Q2 this year,” he continues. With such a diverse portfolio of hotel openings in 2023, it looks to be an exciting year of development for the hotel group.

After the impact of the pandemic on the hospitality industry and world alike, Aguilar’s optimism for the future comes as a relief against the backdrop of hard decisions made across the industry during the crisis. “It’s actually amazing to sit here after our Q3 and really reflect back on what we’ve gone through over the last three years,” he admits. “At one point we had about 70% of our hotels closed, so we needed to take action to reduce costs and keep our business alive. So, they were not easy days.”

As Aguilar points out, there was a great deal to learn from the pandemic that Marriott, and many hotels in the same position, had to embrace. Now, post-pandemic, the industry is continuing to adapt with attention focused on environmentally friendly practices and heightened hygiene standards. But, as the industry moves towards recovery, the priority for Marriott is its customers and regaining their loyalty as they return to travel. “Obviously, connecting with [guests] during the pandemic wasn’t always easy due to travel restrictions or government lockdowns,” explains Aguilar. So, it is clear that building back this relationship and prioritising the customer experience is top of mind for Aguilar and Marriott for recovery.

Seeing green Sustainability is a buzzword on everyone’s lips that crosses industry and sectors, but for Aguilar it’s more than a trend. “It’s actually come to the centre of many of our business decisions and our focus from our consumers as we look to how they’re planning their travel.” The research undertaken by Marriott has shown that travellers do, in fact, factor in sustainability to their holiday plans. “Taking that into consideration and understanding their impact on the environment, and you know that needs to be part of the decision,” explains Aguilar.

Marriott is continuing its focus on its commitment to reaching net zero by 2050 or earlier, as announced in September 2021, and it has a great deal of work contributing to such targets, says Aguilar. “We are  upping our game and helping educate ourselves and our teams, and truly building a sustainable mentality with our associates in our hotels.”

But how are they building this sustainable culture within Marriott hotels while educating its guests on their carbon footprint when they travel?

According to Aguilar, this is done by investing in renewable energy, updating building systems with more automated and smart systems that help it become greener, as well as reinforcing the hotel groups’ efforts to reduce food and solid waste.

The group is also redefining its design standards to consider the carbon footprint and sustainable aspects. With so much going on to help meet its sustainability goals, it’s clear this is a key priority for the hotel group and Aguilar

New priorities

There has been an undeniable shift in the hotel industry as a result of the pandemic and guest expectations have changed along with it, explains Aguilar. After being cooped up for the past three years, with little opportunity for domestic travel let alone international, guests are undergoing a wave of wanderlust for authenticity.

“Customers really want a more authentic experience if they’re visiting certain destinations, they want to be embedded in that situation, that culture and really feel that they’re part of that experience,” observes Aguilar.

Technology and personalisation are also obvious focuses for the industry, he says. With technology posed to play a big part in the industry, Marriott has responded by focusing its entire booking journey on its Marriott Bonvoy app and allowing customers to use technology to enhance their stay.

“We can’t discount the personal touch that our customers look for, and the empathy that comes with that as they check into our hotels and meet our associates,” says Aguilar.

“For me, technology is really a tool for us to enhance the experience for the customer without eliminating that personalised service and experience that we need to create – and all of our associates do that every day as they welcome our guests.

“As we look forward, really what we want to do is ensure that we are connecting with those customers and create those amazing experiences.”

So, while the industry and guest expectation will undoubtedly continue to evolve, Aguilar and Marriott are ready to meet this head on to ensure a truly guest-centric experience.