Journeys Unpacked – Marriott and Visa: Redefining hospitality with technology and personalization

In the second episode of Fast Company Middle East's Journeys Unpacked series, in partnership with Visa, experts discuss the keys to enhancing customer loyalty in an ever-changing hospitality and tourism landscape

Journeys Unpacked – Marriott and Visa: Redefining hospitality with technology and personalization
[Source photo: Krishna Prasad/Fast Company Middle East]

In the hospitality sector, the digital payments ecosystem reflects a significant shift in service-oriented industries’ operations. This evolution is primarily driven by consumers’ demands for convenience, speed, and security in their transactions. As such, the sector has been keen on integrating digital payment solutions, which have radically transformed the guest experience, streamlined operations, and boosted revenue.

Additionally, the integration of digital payments simplifies the management of transactions, reducing the time and errors associated with cash handling, and provides valuable insights into consumer behavior through data analytics, enabling personalized services and targeted marketing strategies. For consumers, it implies smoother, faster service, whether checking into a hotel, dining at a restaurant, or enjoying entertainment venues. The convenience of using mobile payment apps and contactless cards adds to an overall positive customer experience. It’s a win-win situation.

The second episode of Fast Company Middle East’s Journeys Unpacked podcast series features Dr. Saeeda Jaffar, Senior Vice President & Group Country Manager—GCC at Visa, in conversation with Sandeep Walia, the COO of Marriott International in the Middle East. They discuss the hospitality and tourism industries’ trends, personalized experiences, the value of instant digital transactions, and their role in bridging the gaps in the customer experience.

Watch the video here:


Intricately intertwined, hospitality sits at the heart of tourism, and is dynamic and ever-changing. “Innovation in tourism is rapidly evolving towards embracing sustainable, ethical, and unique experiences, shifting away from generic offerings to those that promise authenticity and a deeper connection with the destination’s culture and environment,” said Dr. Jaffar. 

There’s a growing recognition that travel offers educational and inspirational benefits, contributing significantly to well-being. “This perspective, coupled with a shift from prioritizing products to valuing experiences—a trend that began before the COVID-19 pandemic—has intensified in its aftermath,” said Walia. 

Travel dynamics within the Middle East, where Marriott’s operations span 240 hotels and an additional 140 projects underway, constantly evolve. 

“There’s an increasing demand for data-driven insights to personalize elevated experiences, with travelers seeking bespoke itineraries enabled by digital innovation,” Dr. Jaffar added. These trends underscore a significant transformation in the tourism sector, emphasizing the need for the hospitality sector to innovate and continue to personalize travel experiences, ensuring they cater to the evolving desires of customers.

Agreeing with Dr. Jaffar, Walia added, “Due to these trends, expansion is not limited to a single segment but spans luxury, premium, and special editions, and includes resorts for leisure travel, business hotels, and extended stays, with a notable interest in residences. This broad growth reinforces the initial insights regarding the evolving preferences towards travel and experiences, indicating the presence of five key trends shaping our industry—sustainability, authenticity, technology, slow and solo travel, and long-duration stays.”


Focusing on a country like the UAE, where Dubai welcomed 5 million tourists last quarter, the question arises of how a hospitality chain can maintain quality alongside the uptick in tourist numbers.

Looking at the three big markets in the Middle East for Marriott – UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, Walia explained how the Middle East is perhaps the second largest market with 9,000 properties outside of the US. “We feel the need to cater to every market segment. There is a growing market in luxury but people are inspired to travel on different budget points. Fortunately, with 31 brands, we have enough to cater to every need. For those that come seeking F&B experiences, our 800 restaurants in the Middle East help us provide unique dining experiences.”


At the core of the hospitality industry is its focus on people—a concept that drives the success of a brand philosophy to daily operations. Walia shares the impact of a typical 300-room hotel with a team of 500, where each staff member interacts with several guests daily, leading to thousands of guest engagements per hotel. “These interactions are crucial, as each one either contributes positively to the brand or detracts from it, especially when issues arise. The key to navigating this is effective problem resolution and staff empowerment and training,” he added.

Leadership plays a pivotal role, with general managers needing to balance the heart of a hotelier—emphasizing care and hospitality—with the strategic mindset of an entrepreneur. He further explained that this balance aims to recapture the essence of traditional innkeeping, where personalized care and attention to travelers’ needs are paramount. Walia said, “The industry aims to revive this spirit of the innkeeper, making every guest feel genuinely welcomed and valued, thereby enhancing the overall brand and guest experience.”

Dr. Jaffar reiterated that the essence of the hospitality industry is prioritizing people. Reflecting on personal experiences, she highlighted the profound impact of employee interactions on guest experiences, recounting a memorable instance where staff members at a hotel recognized her by name years after her stay. This testament to the power of meaningful connections reinforces the industry’s objective to revive the spirit of traditional hospitality, where personalized care and attention reign supreme.


Co-branded cards are at the center of driving tourism across geographies. 

By integrating these co-branded credit cards into the loyalty universe, consumers have more opportunities to engage with brands and enjoy the benefits. This, in turn, ensures that our most loyal consumers are recognized and rewarded in ways that elevate their overall experience. 

“Seeing the positive outcomes from such collaborations encourages us to continue leveraging these partnerships to connect with and reward our loyal consumers more effectively,” said Dr. Jaffar. 

Last month, Qatar Islamic Bank (QIB) was acknowledged by Visa for its pioneering collaboration with Marriott, which led to the creation of Qatar’s first-ever hospitality co-branded credit card: the Marriott Bonvoy QIB Visa credit card.

“The launch of our co-branded credit card in Qatar aligns with the global shift towards cashless transactions, which are perceived as easier, quicker, and more efficient for tracking expenses. Consumers are encouraged to embrace card usage, benefiting from recorded transactions that aid in managing expense reports and other financial tracking needs,” said Walia. 

Driving growth in business and people is also a crucial ingredient in the hospitality industry. “Innovation and technological advancement are crucial to continuously evolving and improving business processes. These advancements enhance operational efficiency and enrich customer experiences across various stages of their journey with a brand. Specifically, leveraging technology across the whole spectrum of the customer journey can yield rich dividends,” said Dr. Jaffar.

According to Walia, innovation isn’t solely about technology. “We’re not fundamentally a tech company. Ultimately, it’s people who deliver the experience. So, I believe innovation can manifest in various forms,” he said.

For instance, considering authenticity, he said they recognized the need to integrate more local talent into our workforce and now boast nearly 45% of Marriott staff in 39 open hotels are locals. “This strategy has been pivotal in enhancing our staff with more local talent, which is an innovation in fostering authenticity,” Walia added. 

Speaking of sustainability, he added the hospitality chain is undertaking innovative practices in the area, too. A recent example is the launch of the first resort hotel in the Red Sea, the St.Regis, powered entirely by 100 percent renewable energy. This prompts us to focus on new projects and revisit current ones to explore how to incorporate renewable energy projects. Thus, every trend necessitates a degree of innovation, not just in technology but also in a business centered around people.” 

Another arena where innovation drives customer loyalty is particularly in the context of hotel management and payments, which has evolved in your business over recent years. 

Walia noted a significant shift towards digital check-out processes. More guests are opting to complete their check-out using mobile apps, appreciating the ease and security offered by having their credit card details saved within the app. This trend underscores guests’ growing comfort and trust in digital transactions within the hotel industry.

Moreover, he said, there’s an ongoing exploration into digital platforms for tipping, acknowledging that many guests now prefer cashless transactions. This has been partly driven by decreased cash usage, prompting interest in incorporating e-tipping solutions that allow guests to tip without needing physical cash or visiting the reception. It’s crucial, however, that any implementation of such systems maintains a level of discretion to avoid detracting from the guest experience.

Walia added that personal preferences still play a critical role, emphasizing the importance of offering digital and traditional check-in and check-out options to cater to different guest preferences. 

Both experts agreed that hospitality, at its heart, is about making every guest feel genuinely welcomed and valued, thus elevating the overall brand and guest experience.

The future of hospitality is unmistakably digital, and payments play a crucial role in this transformation. As technology advances, so will how we experience and manage transactions in the hospitality sector. For businesses willing to invest in innovation, the benefits of digital payment integration promise to enhance operational efficiency and customer satisfaction and open new avenues for growth and engagement. “A big component of any business’s success is partnership, and I want to take this opportunity to thank you, Visa, for being a big partner of ours” Walia concluded. 

Journeys Unpacked is a series produced by Fast Company Middle East, in collaboration with digital payments leader Visa, to explore how technology, innovation, and digital payments are reshaping travel, hospitality, and digital commerce industries.  


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