Where Marriott sees global luxury growthMarch 20, 2013: 5:00 AM ET
JW Marriott's brand manager Mitzi Gaskins talks about the company's newest venture in New York City, and where the company sees growth around the world.
By Katie Benner
FORTUNE -- Marriott International had been looking for a high-profile New York City location for the company's growing JW Marriott luxury brand. As luck would have it, JW Marriott, which manages but does not own properties, was asked to run the Essex House after it was bought last fall by the Chicago-based real estate investment trust Strategic Hotels.
The deal with Strategic was a second chance for Marriott to work with the Essex House, one of Manhattan's most visible luxury hotels. Back in 1985, Marriott had sold the property to Japan Air Lines, after having owned it for 16 years. (Strategic Hotels had previously owned the hotel, too, having sold it to the Dubai Investment Group in 2005 for $440 million before buying it back in September for $362.3 million.)
While Marriott was fortunate to inherit the Essex House after it had undergone a $90 million overhaul, there was still work to be done to put the JW stamp on the property. Mitzi Gaskins, vice president and global brand manager for JW Marriott, has overseen much of that effort. Gaskins, who is based in Washington D.C., has steered the JW Brand since 2010. While she was in New York, she caught up with Fortune to discuss the Essex House, the state of the luxury travel market, and where JW Marriott sees growth around the world.
JW Marriott hotels try to reflect their surroundings, whether in Washington, DC or Dubai. What makes the JW Marriott Essex house quintessentially New York City?
The Essex House is an iconic part of New York. Its striking Art Deco sign has been an historic fixture of the Manhattan skyline since the 1930s and the hotel truly embodies the kind of timeless elegance that never goes out of style.
Our ultimate goal was to preserve and maintain the Essex House's historic integrity and architecture, but incorporate the service, design and thoughtful amenities the JW brand is known for worldwide.
Marriott (MAR) has a lot of luxury brands, including Ritz-Carlton. What sets JW Marriott apart?
JW is very special to Marriott International because it is a tribute to the founder [J. Willard Marriott] and his legacy. His children started the brand in 1984; and JW Marriott Jr., who was CEO at the time, dedicated the original JW Marriott hotel to his father. It opened close to the nine-seat root beer stand in Washington D.C. where the Marriott business began.
The JW brand has since developed its own unique take on sophisticated luxury. To help focus on our guests' passions, culinary culture and well-being, we've partnered with some incredible brands including Keri Glassman, a nutrition expert, and Christie's, our partner in art.
How does the partnership with Christie's work?
It was created to offer our guests a way to experience art and culture first hand, both inside our hotels and in the cities they're visiting. Our hotels are home to exclusive Christie's curated exhibitions, like a never-been-seen before collection of Beatles photographs in London.
Upcoming in Chicago we'll have a showcase of European and American art from the 19th and 20th centuries. We also partner with Christie's to offer Tastemaker Guides to a city so that a traveler can find, for instance, the best local galleries.
What are JW Marriott's plans for future growth?
Overall, the luxury space is growing a lot. There were only 10 JW hotels in the first decade that the brand existed, and now we're anticipating 50% growth over the next four to five years with 79 JW hotels up and running by 2015.
Of the 30 or so hotels we have in the pipeline, less than half are in the United States. This really shows that global growth is an important piece of the strategy for JW.
Where are luxury markets growing fastest?
In top tier destinations and gateway cities. We're opening in Cabo and Turks & Caicos. We just launched Venice. We plan to open soon in Macao and Hanoi.
China has long been a focus and we're seeing huge growth in India. We plan on having six JW hotels in the country by 2016. We're also seeing growth in Brazil -- we have a hotel in Rio -- and in Russia.
We also just opened a hotel in Dubai, where we opened the tallest dedicated hotel in the world.
Has Dubai recovered from the financial crash?
When I was there four years ago, things were quieter than they had been during the boom, when Dubai had more cranes per square mile than any other place in the world. But we opened in Dubai because occupancy rates are high across the board. The streets are bustling again and the city is a major destination for international meetings and conventions. So we built out our Dubai hotel with lots of meeting space. Activity there has really picked back up.
As part of the Dubai hotel opening, JW Marriott paired with the international women's rights organization Vital Voices. Why?
We wanted to be part of the amazing Vital Voices mentoring network because it supports economic development around the world. Many JW Marriott clients are female executives who believe that it's important to mentor, support, and network with other businesswomen.
For the Dubai event, we brought together 100 women – from start-up entrepreneurs to executives at multinational companies – to network and gain access to great resources. We made sure that Jude Hopkins, senior director of procurement for Marriott International, was there to meet with women who might be making crafts or could supply local ingredients for our restaurants. We wanted to create local relationships with executives to better understand what women business leaders in the area needed.
Was the discussion different from what you'd expect with a group of women from the U.S.?
We found that the discussions were very similar to what you'd find in the US. One difference was that in many cases the participants were really breaking new ground by having the jobs that they held. It was not unusual for a woman at the event to be the first in her family or community to have such a high-power position.
How do you manage your own work-life balance?
It's never easy for anyone to find time to do everything. One thing that helps is to make very targeted trips when I have to travel for work. For example, I went to Shanghai for about 30 hours. I was probably on the plane for longer that I was in the city, but for me it's important to work as efficiently as I can so that I don't have to be on the road longer than I have to be.
And I'm very lucky to work at Marriott because it's a family-oriented company. My two children attended the daycare facility that Marriott provided, and the company provides a lot of benefits for parents. It's within the culture of the company to care about families.