‘Bleisure’ is the future of travel: A Decision Makers exclusive

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While travel lovers may still have the COVID-19 pandemic blues, one hospitality industry leader recently joined 1010 WINS and Bloomberg to explain why the future of travel looks bright as we head into 2022.

Marriott International President Stephanie Linnartz told hosts Carol Massar and Larry Mullins in an exclusive Bloomberg/1010 WINS Decision Makers interview that “Bleisure," or mixing business and leisure travel, is poised to be the future of the industry.

“I’m more bullish about the future of travel and my company than I’ve ever been,” she said.

Near the start of the pandemic in April 2020, Marriott – a hospitality company that operated 2,149 properties as of the end of last year, including JW Marriott, The Ritz-Carlton, St. Regis and W Hotels – saw business drop by 90 percent. Lockdowns and travel restrictions severely curtailed travel around the globe.

Since most of the company’s employees work on-site, around 80 percent were furloughed, laid off or lost their jobs when the pandemic hit and 25 percent of Marriott’s hotels were closed.

“It was really the most unprecedented, devastating event to ever hit our industry and other related industries,” said Linnartz, who has been with the company for 24 years.

However, she said the company worked quickly and creatively to adapt. When travel was restricted, this often meant entering the Marriott Bonvoy brand into partnerships with companies such as UberEats.

Now that travel has opened up more, Linnartz said she can see people eager to hit the road more than ever.

“We have really entered into a phase of recovery in the travel business,” Linnartz told WINS and Bloomberg. “I really think that travel is part of the human condition,” she added.

With the pandemic, the hotel experience has also changed, Linnartz said. Heightened cleanliness procedures and more features, such as check ins and room service, are offered via mobile devices.

“That’s something I think that’s going to stick,” said Linnartz of the technological advances spurred by COVID-19. Yet, she said it won’t replace the “human element” necessary to make travel great.

Going forward, the company is also planning to focus on some initiatives launched before the pandemic: becoming more environmentally friendly as well as offering high-end rental properties and yachts.

In 2019, Marriott International announced it would replace single-use toiletry bottles of shampoo, conditioner and bath gel in guestroom showers with larger, pump-topped bottles to reduce landfill waste. As of that August, the larger bottles were already in use at around 1,000 North American properties.

Another project from 2019 is the Marriott rental property program. Unlike other similar services offered by companies like Airbnb, Marriot properties are only premium or luxury, with high standards for amenities. Since the program started, offerings have grown from 2,000 properties to around 50,000.

“Things are moving in the right direction,” she said. “Travel is coming back in a major way.”

A remaining challenge for the industry has been finding staff amid a labor shortage, but Linnartz said Marriot’s commitment to a solid work culture and offering opportunities for advancement has helped prevent high turnover.

“Our culture at Marriott has always been our secret sauce,” she said.

“When you had a job at a place like that, you know, you were big stuff in the neighborhood you had a pride in doing that,” said Mullins, reminiscing about his time as a Marriott employee in Orlando, Fla.

As Marriott continues to look for ways to make work experiences for its associates positive and shaped to today’s challenges, Linnartz can also see how new, flexible work schedules in other industries are impacting the travel business.

“Bleisure,” is growing because people can work remote and take longer vacations, she explained.

Another challenge for the travel industry is the recent surge in omicron variant COVID-19 cases, which has set off mask mandates in the U.S.
as well as some international travel restrictions.

Now that Marriott has weathered one part of the pandemic storm, Linnartz has high hopes for the future.

“From crisis comes creativity,” she said.