Olivia Parker
Apr 23, 2018

"It could have happened to a lot of people": Marriott exec on China-site shutdown

Marriott's most senior Asia marketer opens up about the hotel chain's recent troubles in China, the future of guests' data and why women can be their own worst enemies in business.

Peggy Fang-Roe in the tropical-themed Marriott box at the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens
Peggy Fang-Roe in the tropical-themed Marriott box at the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens

It is hard to hear Peggy Fang-Roe over the noise of a 40,000-strong crowd and a very loud Taylor Swift song. We’re in the Marriott box at the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens, which is decked out with Hawaiian hula flowers, beach backdrops and surfboards—a tropical haven looking over a South Stand heaving with partiers in fancy dress on the first night of the famous tournament. The decor, plus the two massage chairs in the corner of the box, are an attempt to bring the “resort experience” to the madness of the Sevens, says Fang-Roe, who is Marriott's most senior marketer in Asia.

Marriott executives need a party: it’s been a tough 2018 so far. In January, Chinese authorities shut down the chain’s China website after it listed Hong Kong, Taiwan and Tibet as ‘countries’ separate from China in an online survey that asked respondents to list where they lived. In the midst of a social media storm and a rush of apologies, Marriott was then forced to fire an employee based in the US for — apparently mistakenly—‘liking’ a Tweet by a group supporting independence in Tibet while logged into the hotel chain’s official Twitter account.

“At the end of the day, I’ll tell you, it was really hard,” says Fang-Roe, who doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge that the incident was indeed “a crisis”. “You’re responding in two markets, two languages, with legal teams on both sides trying to juggle what's right or what's wrong.” She defends the brand’s lengthy apologies—which included the following statement, labelled by some as “bizarre”: “We don’t support separatist groups that subvert the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China”—as “the best we could have done”.

Fang-Roe is happy to admit that Marriott made a mistake, but she also claims it’s one that could have happened to many others. “All of the CMOs that I have talked to and other leaders in the company have said ‘wow, you know, if that happened to you, it could happen to us.’”

Marriott has learned a crucial lesson about the importance of localism in the aftermath, she says. “You’ve got a huge market here in China which is really important to the world, and there are cultural differences. So if you post something, even on a platform that isn’t a Chinese platform, you still have to care about it because your consumers maybe have a really strong connection to that brand.” Every company will need to learn to operate better on a global versus local level, Fang-Roe believes.

But despite the many headlines, Fang-Roe says that Marriott did not experience much of a dip in performance following the crisis. Demand remained strong and Marriott’s China hotels could also be booked through the brand’s app and on platforms like WeChat. In fact, the shutdown of the website, which lasted far beyond the initial week imposed by the government, has ended up forcing an evolution of Marriott’s digital strategy, says Fang-Roe, “which we needed to do anyway”.

“Mobile is really the most effective platform today, with 90% of leisure bookings in China made via mobile, and so having a desktop website doesn’t make a lot of sense," she says. "So we basically audited our mobile app and brought it back online.” The company is also building a web-enabled, Chinese-first site that Fang-Roe says will be more effective for the brand in the long term.

The year of the merger

Despite her wealth of experience with the brand—Fang-Roe first started at Marriott as a director of marketing strategy in 2003—the CMO could likely have done without the above dramas in a year that was already shaping up to be exceptionally busy. Marriott closed the largest merger in the hotel industry in September 2016 when it acquired Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, taking its Asian footprint from around 200 to over 650 hotels, segmented into 31 distinctive brands. Without the merger it would have taken Marriott 10 years to achieve the same growth scale in the Asian market, Fang-Roe says.

Given that “most mergers fail”, as she points out, the process has been “easier than expected”, even though it’s meant a certain amount of learning on the job. Allowing customers to connect their accounts between brands from day one helped smooth the process, she explains, because it essentially showed them how many more hotels they could stay in following the merger.

Sorting out the various loyalty programmes has taken much longer. Marriott only just announced this week that it will be ready to combine rewards from the Marriott, Starwood and Ritz-Carlton programmes from August, almost two years after the merger was finalised.

Fang-Roe is chief sales and marketing officer of Marriott International. She has worked for Marriott since 2003.

Despite this, there’s reportedly been “no drop-off at all” in demand for the group’s hotels and Marriott is confident enough to be planning 100 new resorts in Asia-Pacific over the next five to 10 years. A lot of these will be leisure resorts, says Fang-Roe, leisure travel being a trend growing at four times the size of business across APAC. In China, in particular, customers are prioritising spend on experiences rather than commodities, she says. “I am gathering experiences for me, for my family, we even see trends where families look at travel as a way to educate their kids, become more worldly. It becomes a badge.”

One offering Marriott is developing with its leisure hotels is its M Live platform, which launched around a year ago. M Live is a system that monitors social media so that hotels can treat guests in fun ways—around a quarter of Marriott hotels now have the capability to offer these ‘surprise and delight’ moments, says Fang-Roe. She gives the example of a group of four friends who posted on social media about the temperature of their hotel pool in Singapore. Staff picked up the post, had four towels monogrammed with the friends’ initials and left them in their room with a note saying they hoped the water would be warmer next time.

In pursuit of personalisation

Personalisation is what everyone wants, says Fang-Roe, but it’s clearly not easy to achieve—simply because of how frequently people’s preferences change. Marriott is currently working on technology to track guests’ likes and dislikes and thus deliver one aligned experience wherever they stay around the world, she says.

Tracking preferences, of course, raises the hot topic of data transparency, something “the whole company is talking about” with the imminent arrival of GPDR in Europe, according to Fang-Roe. Marriott at present takes an approach she describes as “very conservative”, holding information limited only to ‘favourite pillow’ type information on guests.

Watch Campaign Asia-Pacific's interview with Craig Smith, president and managing director of Asia Pacific for Marriott International, to hear about Marriott's joint venture with Alibaba (recorded in August 2017):

“It is going to be important to be able to show a customer whatever information you have,” she says. “You can have access to their data but they need to trust you with it, right, and if anything we've been told a lot that customers want us to have their data because we can serve them better, and that's the right relationship to have. Once you start tipping the scales and people start to feel weird about you having the data, that's not where we want to go.”

Fang-Roe herself thinks that the relevance of the data held about a person by a company is crucial, and that’s something that brands should understand “instinctively”. “If you are a brand and you start talking to me about things that you really don’t have the authority to be talking to me about, then it feels like you've overstepped the line," she says. "I think even with retargeting it’s sometimes a little bit intrusive. I don’t really want all these people to know what I’m looking at on the internet all the time.” Customers will ultimately control all their own data, she thinks, and may even have the ability to “click on or click off” what certain firms can see.

Leading change for women

Peggy Fang-Roe, Marriott's most senior APAC marketer, is a big believer in judging what’s best for customers based on her own personal experiences. She’s previously written that a good, well-positioned hairdryer is, for her, a key indicator of good customer service in a hotel room.

Fang-Roe also believes in canvassing the opinion of a wide range of others: she makes sure someone from every generation sits on her board of directors. Her youngest consultants are her two children, aged seven and nine, whose opinions on business matters she says are surprisingly insightful. “My nine-year-old surprised me the other day. We were in Macau in the JW [Marriott] and he walks in and says ‘how come I can’t just ask Alexa to turn off the lights?’”

Managing the demands of her family with those of her job has made Fang-Roe something of a role model for women in her industry. When she came to the region just over four years ago she started a ‘Women in Leadership’ initiative, with the mission to push for gender equality to achieve “better business decisions, better outcomes for the customers and more holistic thinking”. 

One of Marriott's 'Women In Leadership' events

She sees the biggest issue facing women in the workplace is their own tendency to “count themselves out” of senior roles because they feel they’re not prepared for them. “One common thing is that women like to think they've been trained and they can do the job before they go into the job. Many times men—this is stereotyping—but men will just say: ‘Well I can do that job, put me in it.’ Women will say: ‘when I get enough training then I’ll raise my hand for it.’”

Out of all the Asian markets, this is most starkly apparent in South Korea, says Fang-Roe. “In China I saw women very hardcore, very aspirational, going after what they wanted. In India I saw a lot of support from family. In Korea it was just different.” She met women there who couldn’t believe she was in her job, had moved to Asia from the US or that the company had given her the chance to do so. “I guess growing up in the US I feel like between my parents and the opportunities that Marriott gave me, I had all the support in the world if I wanted to do it. All I needed to do was want to do it. For many of these women it seemed like they didn't have any of that.”

Individual leadership plays a huge role in empowering other women, says Fang-Roe. She was recently approached by the first female GM of a Marriott in the Philippines, who was about to open her own hotel. She'd attended the Women in Leadership conference 18 months earlier and emailed her own GM that evening to ask what she needed to do to get there. To Fang-Roe, nothing could be more satisfying: "That's why we do it." 


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