Marriott and Hilton Look to Luxury Brands to Elevate Guest Experience

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While the global economic recovery may be meager, hotels chains are anxious to move on and drive up occupancy rates. That’s why two of the top chains, Marriott International and Hilton Worldwide, are pursuing new initiatives to convince upscale travelers to stay at their high-end properties.

Marriott is forming “strategic partnerships” with other brands to create “a deeper luxury guest experience.” The company said it will work with Aromatherapy Associates, auction house Christie’s, nutritionist Keri Glassman, international vintner Treasury Wine Estates, and Tumi, makers of travel luggage, eyewear and accessories.

In partnership with Christie’s, for example, its Grosvenor House in London, a JW Marriott Hotel, is hosting a unique photographic exhibition this month — Beatles Illuminated: The Discovered Works of Mike Mitchell — which brought out celebrities such as Sienna Miller to the preview of never-before-seen photographs of the Beatles’ first hysteria-inducing trip to America in 1964.

Marriott will marshal these partners specifically to enhance its JW Marriott hotel brand, which is a notch below Marriott’s ritzy Ritz-Carlton, but ranks above Marriott hotels. Mitzi Gaskins, VP of JW Marriott, admitted to the New York Times that there is “some confusion” between JW Marriott and Marriott.[more]

“We’re making an effort to drive awareness among luxury consumers,” Gaskins said. “One way is through our partnerships. We want to align ourselves with people in a space relevant to our consumers. Our goal is to offer unique experiences and knowledge to our guests.”

The partnership will include a number of activities. Information about the brands will appear on the JW Marriott website as well as in a new quarterly magazine that will be placed in hotel rooms. Christie’s is already displaying works for auction at a number of JW Marriott hotels. The auction house is also creating city guides for hotel guests in select cities. Aromatherapy will develop a “signature scent” especially for JW Marriott along with bath amenities and spa treatments. Gaskins said Marriott expects to invest $500,000 in the partnership program, which will run for two years.

Hilton Worldwide, meanwhile, is taking a different approach. The chain has interviewed thought leaders including designer Tommy Hilfiger, restaurateur Danny Meyer, and Saks Fifth Avenue CEO Stephen Sadove in an effort to create a “luxury manifesto” to apply to its Conrad and Waldorf Astoria hotel brands. Conrad Hotels has posted some of the interviews on its Facebook page.

John T. A. Vanderslice, head of luxury brands for Hilton Worldwide, told the Times that the luxury market is “experiencing a reincarnation postrecession, but no one single vision of luxury has emerged.” That’s why he spearheaded  the virtual video symposium with other luxury brand leaders. Hilton is using the input from these pioneers to transform experiences at their hotels; for example, the Waldorf Astoria in Park City, Utah will offer dog sledding, and the Rome Cavalieri will provide gladiator training to guests.

The moves by Marriott and Hilton are part of the industry’s recognition that luxury hotels have to market a lot more than just rooms. Bjorn Hanson, divisional dean of the Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management at New York University, told the Times that the luxury hotel segment “is looking for ways to enhance the luxury experience that do not involve spending money on the plant, or on increasing staff. These could be nontraditional ways, including tie-ins with luxury products that have an image value or the potential for guest service enhancement.”

Clearly, both Marriott and Hilton have a big stake in the luxury segment — Marriott plans to open 12 JW Marriott hotels by next year and have 77 hotels in 29 countries by 2015. Hilton’s Waldorf Astoria brand is planning to grow to over 40 from its current 24, and Conrad will more than double its hotels from 16 to 33. Both chains need to fill rooms in those hotels, and they intend to do it by turning a guest’s stay into an experience.

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