by Andrea Doyle | November 26, 2018

How do you prepare to host your largest incentive group ever?

For executives at the 1,966-room New York Marriott Marquis and 528-room JW Marriott Essex House, which welcomed a 2,200-person group of incentive winners from Amway Japan last week, the strategy was summed up in a word: omoiyari. A Japanese concept meaning "anticipating another's needs," the idea was outlined by Terri Morrison, author of "Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands," who, along with Marriott Director of Multicultural Affairs Seema Jain, addressed the more than 100 department heads from the Marriott properties earlier this month as they prepped them for the big event.

This high-level workshop reflected the level of importance the properties placed on ensuring this group had a seamless experience, with all attendees feeling respected and their culture appreciated.

"This group will have a huge economic impact on the hotel," says Leon S. Goldberg, director of sales and marketing for New York Marriott Marquis. "We are in the business of hospitality and it is our job to make people from all over the world feel welcome."

Among the lessons Morrison imparted to the members of the Marriott team: The visiting Japanese guests would probably be more comfortable with silence than we are in the U.S.

"There is a word in Japanese called ma. It relates to the pause, or interval in speech, or the space in a room," said Morrison. She added that apologies are another common verbal practice. "Even if something is not their fault, they may take the blame. Basically, the apology is a means of restoring harmony to a situation. And harmony is a vital part of Japanese culture."

In terms of body language, Morrison emphasized that the western practice of looking a person directly in the eye might not be received as warmly by the visiting incentive winners. 

"The Japanese look at the bridge of the nose," she explained.

The Japanese also have a high sensitivity to scent, she added: "Don't overindulge in colognes or perfumes if you're working in close proximity to your Japanese guests, particularly around food."

Chieko Suzuki, a senior account executive for Marriott International who grew up in Japan and was instrumental in landing the Amway group, emphasized the importance of providing familiar items like green tea in break rooms and adding rice, fish and miso soup to the breakfast buffet, which had signage in English as well as Japanese. Special slippers, tea and a welcome letter in Japanese were placed in each attendee's room. 

"Thanks to this thoughtful cultural training, which embodies the principal tenants of omoiyari, we will be opening our doors even wider and inviting more incentive groups from the market to MakeItNYC," said Fred Dixon, president and CEO of NYC & Company, which worked with the Marriott properties to ensure Amway's event was one to remember. "Hosting this important Japanese group provided the perfect opportunity for us and our colleagues at Marriott to reinforce the world-class, welcoming spirit of our inclusive destination to one of our top markets."

The value of this kind of cultural check-in was made clear during the presentation when it was pointed out that while the restaurants at the New York Marriott Marquis were stocked with chopsticks, these were the longer, Chinese-style chopsticks, not the shorter, more tapered Japanese models. These were swapped to ensure the visitors would feel at home.

According to Momoko Nishimura, the lead meeting planner for Amway Japan's program at the New York Marriott Marquis, the training, combined with the hotel's attention to detail, made all the difference. 

"Couldn't have found a better place to hold our incentive program, right in the heart of Times Square," she said. "All [the hotel] staff's professionalism and attentiveness to our group made our distributors staying at Marriott Marquis a truly memorable experience. It was an absolute pleasure."

Marriott pulled out all the stops, recreating for the Amway attendees the Grammy Awards after-party menu it offered in January to VIP attendees to the music-awards show. Guests took part in an eclectic mix of food stations inspired by the New York neighborhoods Chinatown, Little Italy, Spanish Harlem and Williamsburg, with destination management company Shackman Associates NY ensuring the party went smoothly. 

"Due to the size of the group, various areas of the hotel [were] transformed to reflect different ambiances, each with a completely different look and feel including a nightclub, jazz club and an avant-garde quarter replete with a full Cirque du Soleil sensibility," said Karen Shackman, president of Shackman Associates. 

Other highlights of the program included visits to museums, Broadway shows and an awards gala at Madison Square Garden. But while they explored the unique offerings of New York City, when the attendees returned to their hotels they felt right at home. 

"We want them to go back and say that the hotel understands our culture," said Jain. "Walk your guests to the elevators. It shows a great deal of respect." 

Jain added that the fact that the lobby of the New York Marriott Marquis is on the eighth floor is advantageous, since in Japan, eight is an auspicious number. (One lucky feature of the Marriott Marquis is that there are no guest rooms on the fourth floor -- and four is considered an unlucky number in Japan, associated with death.)

Jain consults with Marriott employees not only about Japanese customs but about 13 other cultures, ensuring that workers are not just being culturally sensitive but are elevating the experience of diverse groups of guests. The three most in-demand seminars she leads are focused on Indian, Jewish and LGBTQ groups.

Preparations for the Amway Japan group extended to brief trainings of the almost 2,000 employees of the New York Marriott Marquis and JW Marriott Essex House. These workers learned to say konnichiwa ("hello"), sumimasen ("excuse me") and arigato ("thank you") when they saw the visiting incentive winners.