Culture Day trainees, Residence Inn by Marriott Sunny Isles Beach

Lessons from Marriott International’s immersive cultural training program

According to Seema Jain, director of multicultural affairs for Marriott International, “cultural competence—the ability to view a situation from your perspective and the perspective of others—is a business imperative that allows professionals to solve problems, navigate situations and develop more creative solutions.”

It’s that same imperative that led Marriott International to launch its groundbreaking Culture Awareness Day program at Calgary Marriott Downtown in Alberta, Canada, in 2014. The innovative program was first designed to help marketing and sales teams connect with and secure prospective clients, but it was such a success that Marriott expanded it across hotels internationally.

In the last year alone, demand for the program has doubled, as more of Marriott’s hotels—as well as corporate customers—have requested training. And its audience has grown. Now anyone—from front desk, events and banquets employees to operations, general managers and kitchen staff—can become culturally competent.

Marriott’s cultural affairs team uses real scenarios at the brand’s hotel properties to inform the curriculum. Currently, the program covers 10 areas: Brazil, China, Germany, India, Japan, Mexico, Middle East, Russia, South Korea and United States, as well as the Jewish, LGBTQ and Native-American cultures.

A Little Knowledge Goes a Long Way

The one-day presentations provide a deep dive into any one to three of the cultures covered, with a focus on social protocols, holidays and customs, food and more. Jain says the program is based on market request and can be customized according to market needs. “Indian, LGBTQ and Jewish [cultures] are the most requested, followed by Chinese and Mandarin,” she added.

In addition, Marriott International provides multicultural information through its intranet and company-wide newsletter, highlighting recent culture days and providing information about the holidays, events and customs of various cultures, as well as best practices for multicultural literacy. The program shows that cultural competency works. “We receive amazing success stories each day from our hotels,” Jain said.

Put People First

The hospitality industry at is all about serving people; in fact, one of Marriott International’s creeds is “Put people first,” Jain explained. “Marriott has been putting people first for 90-plus years, and this curriculum is an evolution of that value. Preparation empowers our associates to provide the best level of service to our guests.”

It’s no different for the meetings and events industry: Making and fostering relationships is how planners thrive. The ability to engage and connect with attendees from multiple cultures is crucial in our ever-expanding global market.

“Meeting planners today should be culturally competent to ensure a memorable experience for their attendees,” Jain said. “Researching and understanding cultural needs—such as prayer mats and food requirements—and the customs of the culture, including how to greet someone, will create a unique experience for attendees.

“Planners and suppliers can do their research, Jain continued. At minimum, [planners can] educat[e] themselves and their teams about business protocols—such as Japanese business car exchange—social norms, cuisine, customs and holidays provide [meeting] professionals with a foundation on which to build a working relationship with attendees.”

It’s All in the Details

Want to go above and beyond? Pay attention and accommodate. Jain says it’s important to arm yourself with information about your attendees. Be proactively attentive to their needs so they feel welcome even before they arrive. “Send a questionnaire in advance: Are you allergic to any food items, [do you have] dietary restrictions? How can we make your stay more comfortable? Do you have any special requests for the room?” Jain said.

She also suggests incorporating activities such as yoga, tai chi or Zumba into fitness offerings or breakout sessions, providing culinary options and incorporating cultural connections from the destination into your events.