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by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | January 26, 2017

Cheryl-Anne SturkenIf this past week is an indicator of the pace Marriott International will set for 2017, it is a dizzying and breathless one that will have competitors playing catch-up.

Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson, second from right, and company executives in the pop-up Innovation LabFirst, after months of teasing about a possible headquarters relocation, the Bethesda, Md.-based hotel conglomerate (with 30 brands and counting) finally revealed plans for a $600 million, 22-story complex in Bethesda, which will include a 230-room flagship hotel. The company's new digs will be ready for its 3,500 corporate employees to move into in 2022, the year the lease on its current headquarters expires. 

As if that wasn't enough, this week Marriott announced it had a record-breaking year in 2016, during which it opened 55,000 new rooms — not including the 381,000 it gained as a result of its $13 billion acquisition of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide. The combined company signed 880 new hotel deals last year representing 136,000 rooms, and opened another 400 hotels worldwide comprising over 68,000 rooms, under largely franchise agreements. 

Last year “will go down as a remarkable year in Marriott history," Arne Sorenson, president and chief executive officer of Marriott, said in a statement. "We completed the acquisition of Starwood and posted record growth that underscores the strong preference that owners and franchisees have for our unmatched brand portfolio, best-in-class sales and marketing platforms, and the most dedicated associates in the industry."

Tom Capuano, Marriott's executive vice president and global chief development officer, said that according to STR, as of December 2016, Marriott’s North American pipeline accounted for a leading 36 percent of industry rooms under construction and 14 percent of industry rooms open. He added: "For the first time in Marriott’s history, more than half the rooms in our development pipeline are outside of North America, with 44 percent of those rooms under construction.” 

To put it in perspective, Marriott now operates more than 6,000 hotels, with nearly 1.2 million rooms in 90 countries and territories worldwide.

Yet, Marriott is focusing on more than expansion and development as it strengthens the individual portfolios of its stable of brands. The company also is upping its game on innovation as it continues its commitment to staying ahead of changing customer needs. 

At the Americas Lodging Investment Summit (ALIS) being held this week in Los Angeles, the chain launched its first pop-up Innovation Lab, which lets attendees, hotel guests and industry professionals test out a number of design and technology features being considered for the company's Aloft and Element brands. Coincidentally, those two brands each recorded their highest number of signings ever in 2016. 

"It is the first time the Innovation Lab was taken on the road," Victoria Hart, director, public relations, lifestyle and luxury brands, for Marriott International told The Hotel Insider, speaking by phone from ALIS. "Our immersive igloo, which shows 360-degree views of the new room types, will be taken to conferences throughout the year. And, when it isn't on the road, it will be housed at the Innovation Lab at headquarters."

Among the concepts being tested is a new food-and-beverage program for Aloft, which will focus on fresh, healthy ingredients (spinach, quinoa and avocado, to name a few). Guests will be able to order customized "pots," a healthy meal that reflects regional tastes, tucked in a colorful to-go container. A personalized pot can be ordered and paid for at a digital kiosk. And when guests receive their pot, it will feature a time-stamped label with their chef's emoji. 

Extended-stay brand Element, meanwhile, is piloting a bold new guest-room design that will feature a communal area consisting of a kitchen, a dining room and a lounge area at the center of four guest rooms. The concept is that guests in this four-room pod will share in the collaborative living quarters. In addition, the brand is also piloting a tech-centric beverage concept featuring a portable wine cart that automatically pours wine when activated by a guest's hotel-room key card. 

This year, Marriott expects to open 33 Aloft hotels and 14 Element properties across the globe in a diverse array of cities such as Seattle; Seoul, South Korea; and South Bend, Indiana.