New Marriott chief sees fast-paced growth as key to attracting talent

The best way to capture the next generation of technology savvy travellers is through new means of communication, says new Marriott International Asia Pacific chief Craig Smith

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 July, 2015, 12:02am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 July, 2015, 12:02am

Craig Smith, the newly appointed chief executive and managing director of Marriott International Asia Pacific, calls Hong Kong home. He was chief operations officer for the hotel group's Asia Pacific region before taking the role of president of Marriott International Caribbean and Latin America in 2012.

Despite the conflict between Hongkongers and mainland visitors, Smith is confident about the outlook for the city and believes the two per cent rule is the solution.

You see Hong Kong as your home. Why?

My father was a diplomat. I have lived in 13 countries since I was a child. I had been in Hong Kong for eight years before I went to Latin America for two and a half years. That was the longest stay of my life. It is nice to be home.

You have been away for several years. Do you see any changes in the city?

We see a slightly different economy but what continues to amaze me is Hong Kong's ability to build infrastructure.

One day Mr Marriott (J.W. Marriott, Jr, chairman of Marriott International) told me that we paid a large percentage of tax in the US but we got less. In Hong Kong, we pay 50 per cent of that (tax) but things are efficient.

When people ask me what one word describes Hong Kong, I always say "efficient".

Do you worry that conflicts between Hongkongers and mainlanders will affect Hong Kong?

We hope that things between Hong Kong and mainland China will work themselves out.It has been a tough year since October. But I don't worry about it very much. You have conflicts between people and businesses sometimes. But it does not mean people are bad.

I always remember the two per cent rule. 98 per cent of people in mainland China are good people, 98 per cent of Hong Kong people are great people. Don't form an opinion based on the two per cent.

Marriott International is a fast-growing company. What is the rationale of the growth?

If you work for a company that is not growing very fast, it is hard to get promoted. You have to wait for your boss to die (to get a promotion). If you work for a company like Marriott, if you are a great manager, there is no limit. If you are a good manager, you can be promoted very quickly. Opportunity is exciting for young people. And that enables us to find some of the best talent. Money is one thing, people want opportunities. People will work harder for opportunities. I have been working for Marriott for 27 years. I started right after university.

When you grow a company, you always give more back to your shareholders.

What is the biggest task in your job?

The biggest task is making sure that we are growing correctly. If you go too fast in a wrong way, you can hurt your pocket.

The other one is how to capture the next generation of travellers. This generation is different. They speak and communicate in a different way. Today everything is online.

They are very technology savvy. My children do not answer my phone calls. The fastest way to contact them is to ask my wife to send a message to Facebook.

This office here is much younger than it used to be. We need to hire this generation because this generation helps us to understand the new generation of travellers. They do not think the same way we do.

How can you adjust yourself to communicate with them?

I can influence one or two levels. People listen to me because I am the boss. But the question is how to get information farther down.

One of the things in my last job was what we called Twitter Chat. We sent an email and told employees that their general managers were not allowed to join. We asked questions about Marriott and about their careers. In an hour, we had 922 messages. They were excited at 3pm on a Friday to communicate with the president of the company.

What is your most memorable experience of the past 27 years in Marriott?

One of the most memorable experiences was the tsunami in Thailand's Phuket when I was working there as a general manager. People worked together to take care of guests. We turned our ballroom into a mini hospital. That was a very difficult period. And during that time, the president of the company called me and the president of the international (division) came to visit me. Mr Marriott called me twice. He called me on New Year's Eve and asked: "What do you need?"

Two weeks later, I attended a general manager meeting for the industry. A couple of my competitors said they each got one phone call in which they were told "you need to cut staff".