Jennie Toh, Marriott International Luxury Brands’ vice president of brand marketing and management for Asia Pacific, is a savvy travel insider behind some of the biggest brands in Asia Pacific. Keeping a daunting travel schedule — based in Hong Kong, she spends half of the year on the road and often clocks time at 40 percent of Marriott’s 900 operating hotels in Asia — Toh is always on the lookout for the latest trends in the industry.
While luxury travel slowed in Asia, as everywhere during the early stages of the pandemic, it is gaining momentum as the rest of the luxury sector regains its strength. “Sales growth in all the largest luxury goods houses is expected to recover this year, and the [online] search interest in luxury hotels is at its highest since 2006,” Toh says. “We are on a strong pace towards recovery.”
Toh notes occupancy in the luxury travel space is moving past pre-pandemic levels. To put that numerically, she says, “Our occupancy has also risen to 64 percent with the average daily rate rising at an impressive 5 percent above March of 2019. People are willing to pay more right now because of all this pent-up demand that’s happening all over the globe, especially here in Asia Pacific.”
Marriott International Luxury Brands — which encompasses The Ritz-Carlton, Ritz-Carlton Reserve, EDITION, W Hotels, The Luxury Collection, St. Regis, JW Marriott and Bulgari — spans 69 countries, 18 of which are in Asia Pacific, which means Toh’s travels find her zigzagging all over a region that continues to see strong growth in luxury travel.
Before heading on a trip to Bangkok, Toh chatted with Forbes Travel Guide about travel trends in Asia Pacific, the surging popularity of wellness and why Japan will always be on her travel bucket list.
What luxury travel trends are you seeing in the Asia-Pacific region?
I was at the JW Marriott [Hotel Singapore] South Beach, The Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore and The Luxury Collection’s Naka Island, and whether it’s a resort or city hotel people are definitely staying longer. And when we ask them why they are staying longer, they say, “If I have to travel for work now, I might as well just extend a few nights, given the fact it was so difficult to get out with all these pre-departure tests and border closings and openings.”
We also noticed almost everybody has bucket list trips. For myself, I can name five on my list already where I want to go. Jeju [in South Korea] is one I hope to make by the end of the year.
Also, we notice affluent travelers are seeking transformative, authentic experiences that aren’t just crafted on the property but also around the locale that they go to. So regenerative travelers [focusing on their health] and understanding what the locale has to offer is critical.
And we are seeing that people are really traveling for relaxation. Family or a group of good friends wanting to come together and really experience wellness and contribute back to society, to the people they meet and to the locality.
Wellness also has been a big trend. How is Marriott International Luxury Collection catering to that demand?
For our eight brands, almost every single one has a unique brand-crafted spa experience. But right now the trend is going way beyond just spa — wellness is a whole new pillar. If we take a look at our JW Marriott brand experience, it is rooted in holistic wellbeing. And what does that mean? It’s about how we provide tranquil spaces and create mindful moments, sensory programming as well as spaces where people can go and enjoy nature and understand more about the locale and what it has to offer.
In the signature JW Garden, activated in almost every one of our hotels across Asia Pacific, there are herbs as well as vegetables that are grown based on the local knowledge of the executive chef as well as the local produce companies and vendors we work closely with. They grow those vegetables in house and incorporate them into various touchpoints on the customer journey — on your dining plate, in one of your turndown amenities in your guest room or even in the spa, where they create specific drinks and then use the base of those ingredients for a facial with the herbs grown in their own JW Garden.
Wellness is about more than taking care of your body and yourself with a spa treatment, but is also about the mindfulness of the space as well as this holistic approach to how we look at the locality. At the JW Marriott Phuket, if you get the chance to travel there, ask them to show you the first-of-its-kind solution where they extract water from the unlimited humidity in the air. Then this water is filtered through this device they have on property and now, it’s ready for drinking in the guest room.
As borders reopen in Asia Pacific, what can travelers expect from the brand?
There is a lot of pent-up demand. I think with the global travel recovery a lot of guests and members are hoping to go back to places that are familiar and experience the brands they enjoyed, whether it’s for couple time, family time or just pure personal relaxation.
At one of our Ritz-Carlton hotels, we started to roll out what we called the new version of the Ritz Kids program. In the past, we provided the experience of your children sleeping in a tent instead of a regular bed, so it’s almost like camping under the stars in comfort. The Ritz Kids 3.0, as we call it, this new program includes the creation of Leo the Lion, the new mascot. Leo takes our youngest guests on this journey to really spark their curiosity and instill a sense of responsibility of looking after nature, looking after themselves and educating their minds with the programming as well as the activities provided for them. It takes them closer to the culture as well as to the locality where their parents bring them.
Another example we can share is the Ritz-Carlton Club. Post-pandemic, we noticed that this whole buffet concept set-up needs to be changed. The guests have new demands and desires as they go to our club to gain that total mindset toward wellness and luxury. The meal concept in our Ritz-Carlton Club has become more personalized. There will still be a buffet — business travel has started to recover, and we are seeing it in our hotels already, so you still need to provide the convenience.
But if you look at how we provide that buffet setup, it could be more individually sized portions. And if you think about the menu, it’s more localized. It could be the chef’s special of the day — instead of telling you to come join us at the Peking duck carving station, right now you could have Peking duck served at your table and it’s the chef’s specialty with a sauce that they made that speaks to the locality.
Which hotel openings are you looking forward to?
Definitely JW Marriott Jeju [editor’s note: the hotel is scheduled to open in December]. JW Marriott is close to the heart for a lot of us, being the legendary namesake for the company plus the fact we mentioned earlier that this is really about holistic and curated wellbeing and mindfulness. It has a blend of spirit, culture and nature attached to it.
At JW Jeju, you’ll see that the programming is all about mindfulness, taking in the ocean views and making you at peace in the area or the appointed room you have. There are both indoor and outdoor pools as well as hot springs with a Korean-style sauna called jjimjilbang. The [food and beverage] concept is going to be very unique. In that hotel, there will be one restaurant we will recommend you try for some local home-cooked food, and they call that Miss Kim.
And I want to highlight that this particular hotel is designed by the award-winning architect Bill Bensley. Bill has done several projects with us, including the JW Marriott Phu Quoc, which is a fantasy of a university back in the 1950s in the olden days during the French Revolution in Vietnam. He knows what luxury is and knows what Instagram is all about.
You mentioned you had a travel bucket list. Can you share a couple of places on it?
My favorite destination is Japan. I want to go back to experience being a local because I worked in Japan for three years. I love the culture as well as the food and all that the country has to offer. I would love to go to this new set of hotels we have called the Michi-no-Eki project, where we have these roadside stations that are tied back to a hotel that we built, and those localities offer insights into culture, religion or things that are about the local produce and the experience of the food and people over there. I really want to do the outskirts of Japan outside of Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto.
And the second place I want to go to is Europe — go to see London, Paris and just try to understand what is this new culture in another part of the world that is facing a very difficult situation with the new geopolitical environment.