Regan Taikitsadaporn, Chief Human Resources Officer APAC of Marriott International, shares his COVID 19 insights

Marriott International is the world’s largest hotel company with 30 brands and over 7,000 properties across 131 countries and territories.

As Chief Human Resources Officer of APAC since 2013, Regan Taikitsadaporn has served over 20 years with the company, predominantly in APAC-focused HR positions.

He has guided the company and its associates through numerous significant events including the SARS outbreak of 2002, the major acquisition of Starwood, launching the award-winning Marriott Bonvoy loyalty program and navigating the challenges of the recent social unrest in Hong Kong.

Regan shares with Barracuda Search his experiences and reflections on the ongoing COVID 19 outbreak.

When the severity of the COVID 19 outbreak became clear, what were the initial actions that you took?

When the COVID-19 situation first struck – starting around Chinese New Year – we were all trying to figure out how severe it would be. Some of the key items we focused on during the initial few weeks included:

Addressing the safety and wellbeing of guests and associates. That was the premise for everything that we did. It wasn’t about the business; it wasn’t about contingency; it was around safety.

Aligning with government directives. I think the Chinese government did a very good job in a very uncertain time in determining necessary precautionary steps, particularly around travel and locking down certain cities and provinces. We stayed on top of these directives so that we could advise associates accordingly. These directives formed the minimum requirements, and we would think about what more we could do to take care of our associates and guests.

Educating our associates on the health and safety measures they needed to take, such as wearing masks, social distancing, keeping their workspace clean, overall cleanliness and frequent hand washing. All these things that have become part of our daily routines today were relatively novel, and it was important to communicate them over and over again.

Alternative work arrangements for our regional offices needed to be put in place. We needed to close offices but also ensure that associates could continue to work. We quickly made decisions on how to deal with associates or guests who had been infected, either through their work or personal travel. We then communicated this to our leaders.

What role has technology played in coordinating activity and helping to facilitate business continuity during this crisis?

Technology has been crucial to all of this.

Let’s start with Hong Kong. To a certain extent, we were already prepared because of the protests over the previous year. Like any responsible company, we have had our contingency plans in place for any crisis, so it was just a matter of activating them.

Our associates were already all equipped with laptops, and we told them to bring them home every day because you never know what might happen tomorrow. Security was important, so IT ensured that cyber security was established. Being a regional office, associates were already used to conference calls, so this was not necessarily new for our teams.

What we have done a lot more of during these last few months is video meetings so that we can see each other for the ‘virtual face-to-face’ social interaction, particularly important when working from home. Seeing someone’s face in a meeting is very different from just hearing a voice over the phone. The ability to share a presentation or a deck over a screen rather than emailing out in advance was also very helpful. I’ve also seen a lot of creativity with how teams are finding ways to work remotely, from virtual town halls and virtual training sessions to virtual happy hours and using social medial chat groups. We were fortunate that we were already equipped with most of the critical technology necessary to weather the crisis.

Regarding technology, has it revealed any areas that you believe the organisation might invest into moving forward?

I don’t think it’s anything new for us, but it underscores the importance of our investments and the need for us to continue to invest in technology moving forward.

Before all of this, we had already put VC (video conferencing) facilities into our larger offices and that has helped a lot in the last few months.

Marriott is famous for taking care of its associates and its customers. With continued relaxations of travel restrictions within Greater China, how are you preparing the teams and properties to return to operations whilst being mindful of potential health risks to associates and customers?

China is probably our test market now that a lot of the lockdown have been eased and people are beginning to travel. Even if the borders are closed, there is a lot of demand for domestic travel.

We are managing a careful balance to bring the business back whilst being extremely sensitive and not trying to push things too hard. The last thing we want is for there to be another outbreak or for another infection to happen in our hotels.

First and foremost, we are following the government regulations. Whether it’s social distancing requirements, how to operate restaurants, gyms or bars, we always defer to what the government mandates are. That’s the minimum requirement for us.

We have established heightened cleanliness standards by launching our Marriott Cleanliness Council and working with our vendors to take extra operational steps to reassure our guests of our hygiene and cleanliness standards. From cleaning rooms to cleaning public areas and restaurants, we are working to establish new enhanced cleanliness standards for all our hotels. We also make sure that all our associates are trained to these new standards from a cleanliness perspective.

We have made sure all the safety measures are in place also for our associates. We want our associates to feel comfortable coming to work, but also for our customers to know that our associates have high cleanliness standards. Visible measures like masks, temperature checks, enacting social distancing in cafeterias, putting plastic barriers between some seats in employee dining rooms are all important. Then we make sure everyone is re-trained in all the new cleanliness standards before they return to work.

You look after an amazing 789 properties in 24 countries across APAC. With your ability to travel restricted, how important have the in-country teams been and do you think this experience will impact the way you assess for in-country leadership roles moving forward?

Local teams and local offices have been a big part of our strategy for a few years now as our company continues to grow, particularly in Asia Pacific. We prioritize finding in-market resources who understand the culture and the language of their respective markets and can do this work without traveling long distances constantly.

We have 13 area and regional offices across APAC with many with local leaders or leaders with a deep understanding of the market. This has been a big part of our strategy for the past few years and this crisis has confirmed that it was a good strategy. Despite travel restrictions, we can have teams on the ground to lead our businesses and resolve local issues.

A good example is when we open new hotels. As part of opening a new hotel, we have a team of global designers who go to the hotel site and make sure that brand standards and safety standards are being met. Such work requires them to be physically there. The fact that we have people on the ground in many of the markets means that we can continue to offer that service to our owners without stalling the project. In the past, many of them were based in Hong Kong and Singapore and had to fly to the hotel sites, which in the current travel-restricted environment would not have been possible and delayed a lot of the projects.

Marriot operates 23 brands in APAC, each with their own distinct offer. Do you believe that this outbreak will cause any lasting changes to your guests’ behaviour or expectations when at or considering visiting your properties?

There is no doubt there will be changes to our guests’ expectations and behaviours, but they may not always be what we anticipate. We are a global company, and even as we see how different countries and people across the world react to the virus, the reactions have been very different. I think there isn’t going to be a ‘one size fits all’ in terms of customers’ behaviour in the ‘new normal’.

In some markets, we require temperature checks on arrival and hand sanitizers on the restaurant tables. Will that continue? Many of our dining establishments require guests to wear masks. Will that continue? I think these practices will vary from country to country. Even today, certain parts of the world don’t require you to wear masks, whereas in other countries, you can’t enter any public facilities without them.

But overall, I think our guests will expect our standards to be higher than at their homes from a safety, cleanliness, sanitization perspective. That will be a critical part of our operational changes and we will be setting the standard high. Last month, we established the Marriott Cleanliness Council, which brings internal and external subject matter experts to help us develop and implement effective safety and cleanliness practices.

What would you say your greatest learnings have been through this time?

Operating under extreme uncertainty is something we talk a lot about. We are often challenged to make decisions without perfect information, so we have to accept that we won’t get it perfectly every time. Even as I look at some of my old emails during the crisis, we communicated certain things first, and continued to refine in further communications, because there was so much unknown at the time.

A lot of the unknowns are not in our control – new laws, new mandates by the government, situation worsening overnight – so you have to react quickly based on what you know at that point in time, and adjust as you learn more or get more educated or you set a new direction.

In this case, we also can’t expect a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Sometimes global companies tend to set global standards, and I think we very quickly learnt that every market, even within the region, will have their own needs, circumstances and nuances, so we have to manage through guiding principles but allow for flexibility.

Ultimately, we have to trust the local teams to make those calls and to decide what needs to be done, whether it be ensuring safety of guests and associates, contingency planning, or strategies around business recovery.

Interview conducted by Barracuda’s Head of Hong Kong, Max Holdsworth.

May 2020