Over the past six years, Marriott International, the global lodging company with more than 6,500 properties across 127 countries and territories, has been retooling its flagship Marriott brand. And now, it is taking a similar path with another of its iconic brands: Sheraton. As the executive team has developed new strategic visions for the two brands, it has been up to Lionel Sussman and his team to turn those visions into reality. Sussman, vice president of global design strategies for Marriott International, believes that incorporating a rich variety of social and cultural perspectives into both of the company’s new design projects is helping lead to better results. As he puts it, “We’re taking the brand values and creating physical manifestations of those values to address our target guest needs.”
Sussman, trained as an architect in his native Argentina, has been with Marriott International since 2013. Before that, he’d spent 15 years in interior design, including overseeing another brand makeover, at Starbucks. He believes the best ideas come from diverse teams with members of different racial, ethnic, and gender backgrounds. His current group comprises about 50 designers, engineers, cost estimators, communications specialists, and project managers. “We need, more than ever, to have diverse teams, because our guests are more diverse than ever,” Sussman says. “The millennial consumer is significantly more diverse than previous generations.”
Because Marriott International is such a big company, Sussman says, its creative process is a bit unique. “We have many more stakeholders than a traditional design team might have,” he explains. “We follow a traditional design thinking process, but we consider three types of customers: the guest, which is the most critical one; the internal stakeholders, including the brand teams, operations teams, and development teams that need to leverage the work we do; and, third, our franchisees. We partner with them to build our hotels, so it is important that they feel that the solutions we are designing make sense for them from a brand perspective, an experience perspective, and a financial perspective.”
The Marriott hotel brand, now six years into its transformation, with about 50 percent of the hotels completed, needed significant change to become relevant to modern millennial consumers. “It was perceived as a place where your grandparents stayed,” Sussman says. “We wanted to take the brand to a very different place.” The design team came up with a strategy called Marriott Modern, focusing on contemporary, timeless design, a premium aesthetic, and an emphasis on local flavor.
“The space feels premium and offers a place for guests to unwind and take a break from their routine,” Sussman says, adding that guest room bathtubs were converted to beautiful, sleek showers because “we know guests expect a great shower experience, not old bathtubs that no one uses.” Sussman and his team made the most of the shower experience by incorporating high-end product solutions that guests will remember, including Delta H2Okinetic Technology, which creates the feeling of more water without using more water. And, to emphasize location, his team is bringing in local artwork and design components at each location to create a sense of place and connect guests with each hotel’s local community.
For the Sheraton brand, which is in the beginning stages of its redesign, Sussman and his team have taken a different strategic approach: Sheraton is Marriott International’s most global brand, so its redesign must be global in scope as well. “We went to all the continents and engaged with local teams to understand where they thought the brand should go,” Sussman says.
The idea that resonated most was that each Sheraton should be the heart of its community. “In the old days, Sheraton was where people congregated and had weddings and meetings, before other brands existed,” Sussman says. “We wanted to bring that back in a modern and fresh way.” The new tag line for the brand is “The World’s Gathering Place,” and Sussman calls his team’s design approach “The Art of Gathering.”
It follows three design principals: The first is fluidity. “The spaces blend intuitively to guest objectives and are active spaces,” Sussman says.
The second is “making the foreign familiar.” “This brand has heritage and history,” Sussman says. “It is warm and comfortable, yet refined.”
The third is about making the design holistic, a system of parts that work together. “One big inspiration for Sheraton is the public square, as a foundation for communities across the globe,” Sussman says. “It’s about how people interact in public spaces, how they work, gather, and play.”
The new Sheraton’s public space, therefore, has large community tables, with all the modern elements one needs to work more efficiently, including RFID-locked drawers to safely store laptops and privacy booths to take phone calls. Guest rooms, likewise, are focused more on work. “They still will be well designed, but instead of lots of bells and whistles, they will have one signature element: an adjustable-height, motorized table to work in the room in a personalized way,” Sussman says. “The way we developed this feature will be very unique in the industry.”
Sussman and his team have learned valuable lessons from the Marriott transformation that they are now applying to Sheraton as that new strategic vision moves forward. “We feel very confident we will successfully transform this brand as well,” he says.