Meetings Today's Tyler Davidson talks with Seema Jain, director, multicultural affairs for Marriott International, about the hotel giant's Culture Days program.

Jain travels the world training Marriott staff on how to best serve the cultural needs of its very diverse clientele, and offers critical information to meeting planners on how they can do the same for their attendees.

In this podcast, Jain details the many questions meeting and event planners should ask hotel staff in preparation for the meetings, as well as issues such as F&B cultural considerations and serving the needs of LGBTQ attendees.

Enjoying this episode? View more episodes of the Meetings Today Podcast! 

Rather read the transcript?
[Start transcript]

Tyler Davidson: Hello, and welcome to this Meetings Today podcast. I'm Tyler Davidson, vice president and chief content director for Meetings Today. We have a real interesting interview subject today, Seema Jain, director of multicultural affairs with Marriott International. Thanks for joining us today, Seema.

Seema Jain: Well, thank you for having me, Tyler. I appreciate it.

Davidson: I know a little bit about what you do, and I know that you're on the road a ton and going to all sorts of different countries. Why don't you just, in a nutshell, tell the listeners what you do for Marriott?

Jain: Sure, absolutely. So I will admit that I probably have a very cool job at the company. My job is to make sure that our hotel teams and markets are well equipped to take care of all guests coming from any part of the world or any multicultural segment, regardless of their background identity; we just want to make sure that our teams are ready to take care of them the way they want to be taken care of.

Davidson: And that is so important these days, right? Meetings are so global now. Both traveling to different destinations, and also the attendees that come in. So you probably, I guess, handle both of those areas, or do you kind of specialize more in going to hotels and setting them up for the different people from different cultures that come?

Jain: So, that's a great question, Tyler. So my program, it's the Culture Days program. And what I do mostly is help our teams.

Whatever culture they're interested in—we offer 14 different cultures—whatever cultures they're interested in, making sure they are aware of the business protocols and social protocols and customs and norms of that segment, so that they can really feel confident when they're working with that multicultural guest.

It's what we do at Marriott. We welcome all people; we welcome all guests and we want to make sure that they're being taken care of the way they'd like to be taken care of.

So it's a program we started five years ago. It is growing internationally, it's growing domestically. And it really was originally designed for internal associates to learn. So that's the basic premise of the program.

[Related: Out and Proud: The Rise of LGBT+ Representation in the Meetings Industry]

Davidson: And another thing that really amazes me is that Marriott has so many brands, you can be called into any one of those brands to assist them, right?

Jain: That is correct. The beauty of this program is it's very all-inclusive. It caters to all 30 of our brands and we can be in any of our hotels, from a Fairfield Inn to a Ritz Carlton. It doesn't make a difference; any discipline can come to my class, so it can be a general manager, it can be a concierge, it can be bellman, front desk, operations, sales, events; we welcome all the people who want to learn about another culture to our class.

Davidson: And I know, the end customer and our audience are meeting and event planners. Why should this be important to them?

Jain: Oh, that is actually a fantastic question. I feel that event planners today, like you mentioned earlier; everyone's global. Most companies we work with have some sort of global presence—international attendees coming to their meetings.

So to better serve those attendees that are coming to the meetings, we want to make sure we understand what their hot buttons are, what's important to them. Do they have dietary restrictions? What are the things that will make them feel more comfortable when they attend the meeting?

So for event planners, today it's even more imperative than ever to just make sure we ask the right questions so that our attendees are really enjoying the program while they're with us.

Davidson: What are some basic things that meeting planners should know when they're organizing an event that may include cultures that are different from their own?

Jain: Sure, absolutely. I think definitely paying attention to detail and the unique experiences. Looking at activities the planners can incorporate, maybe yoga, tai chi, Zumba, something for the breakout that's a fitness offering.

And the most important thing, I think, is really the culinary perspective; that we should serve foods that are really [from] around the world. If your guests are coming from all the continents, we want to make sure the food is reflective of what their common customary foods might be. And that way everybody gets to enjoy an interactive experience. And there's some conversation starters of, “Oh, wow, I’ve never tried this before—something new.”

So I think food has become a big part of making sure that it's not just focused on one culture, but it does include many cultures.

Davidson: And I would imagine that food labeling would be very important, especially if you have so many different cultures, so many different dietary restrictions, considerations, for cultures, religions, and then, of course, allergies.

Jain: Absolutely.

Davidson: You know, well, it's a very big area that our audience is definitely interested in. How do you kind of—for lack of a better term—bite that off?

Jain: Oh, well, food is my favorite topic, Tyler, so it's something I really believe is a universal language. It's something everybody understands.

And people around the world don't always know the different foods. So, somebody from another country may never have experienced what hummus is and we want to explain that to them and explain the ingredients as well.

There are so many restrictions today. There's so many food allergies—vegan, gluten free, celiac—so many different things that I feel the one rule of thumb or the little trick I use, is that if the meal is sufficient for a vegan and gluten-free person—and this is inspired by my niece—if that meal can substantially fill vegan or gluten-free person, then most people in the world can eat that meal.

So a perfect example could be something like rice over beans with some salad, like a Mexican style, or it could be maybe a falafel over rice or salad.

Again, meals that have substance but can be vegan, gluten free, will cater to probably 99% of people, and myself being vegetarian my entire life, it's easy for me to think that way and cook, and I am trying to help our hotels understand that as well, and they're doing a great job. Labeling is key. Labeling is key.

[Related: Industry Leaders Talk Diversity and Inclusion]

Davidson: And then when you talk about the hotels, I mean, a meeting planner might work with say, conference services or a banquet team, a catering team, what are some things that they should ask them and what is some information they should provide to them? Because I'm guessing that a meeting planner really has to come to the property with specific information so the property can serve them.

Jain: Absolutely. So we work with our meeting planners very closely. I used to be in sales with Marriott prior to this job, and it was very important for me to work with my meeting planner to make sure that we together were successful for the event. I wanted to make sure he or she looked good for their company.

And, so usually questionnaires were done in advance to the attendees. You might have seen that yourself nowadays when people are asking your dietary restrictions or do you need anything, but I think it's important to know all that before you come to the hotel so that our chefs are ready to take care of every attendee and every need that they have.

It could be anything from the food section to is there a special request for the room? Or what type of amenity would they appreciate? So getting to know the attendees beforehand will really help us make a successful program with the event planner.

Davidson: What are some things you think especially a U.S.-based meeting planner might not think about when dealing with attendees from other cultures.

Jain: Yeah, absolutely. So the beauty of the program that we work with, and the program that we've been expanding throughout the country, is we try to teach a little bit about business protocols and social protocols.

So, for example, understanding that certain cultures are maybe more lax on punctuality. So maybe people don't start exactly on the time that we're accustomed to; that certain cultures may emphasize more relationship building and not so much of a transactional based.

Or, in certain cultures, let's say for Japan, a business card is very highly ritualized, almost like a ceremony, but it's actually done so beautifully, that people take time. And if you don't know these things, you could just set the meeting maybe off a little, not, then, the best way.

So we want to make sure that our teams, and if we can help our event planners also achieve that, that's what our goals are—to make sure you look good.

Davidson: You know, and that's a really interesting point, too, because I just know, having been out in the business world for a number of years, it seems like at least in the U.S. the whole business card thing is just not as prevalent as it was anymore. But like you said, especially in Japan, it's very formalized.

Jain: It’s very formalized. It’s a high ritual, and I feel that if we all took that custom, we can't offend anybody. No one's going to be offended, Tyler, if I took time to read your business card and I gave it a thoughtful moment, but somebody could be offended if I just gave it to you and put it in my portfolio or I put it in my pocket.

So I always look at the one who's probably got the most rituals or restrictions, and I want to do that because it will probably be easiest for everybody else as well.

Davidson: And getting back to before the meeting starts, what should planners be asking their attendees?

Jain: So they can absolutely ask everything from the dietary restrictions, food allergies, those are number-one things, because if you remember, Tyler, the last meeting you went to, you'll remember the food—you'll remember, was the food good or was it not? Right? And that's one thing we all live around, and we all wonder: Is the food going to be such that I don't need to go out to eat after this meal, or was I really well taken care of.

Davidson: That's the thing they always remember.

Jain: They remember the food, right? Everybody remembers the food and that's important for our teams, because they want to make sure everybody is taken care of. So if I do have a vegan, gluten-free person, I want to make sure they get something that is not just salad, right? I need a protein; I need something substantial.

The other thing is asking them things like…let's say it's a Muslim guest that is staying with you. Do they need a separate prayer room? Do they need anything that we can do to accommodate their needs? Any special amenity in the room? They might prefer to have a hot water kettle rather than a coffeemaker, or they might like to have slippers and a robe, as we see with many of our Asian guests as well.

So these are the kinds of questions that I would ask to make sure that everybody is taken care of, and that they really come to our properties feeling special and creating a really memorable experience when they go back home.

Davidson: And what in your mind is really, like, a kind of a top-three list of what they should be really paying attention to? What are maybe the top three challenges for event planners when it comes to multicultural audiences? And how do you get through those challenges?

Jain: Sure. So, I think one is that understanding that different holidays can be celebrated throughout the world. And we want to respect if you're having a meeting during someone's holiday time, maybe that's not the best time. Maybe we look at who the audience is. If I scheduled a meeting on December 24 at 5 p.m., I would not be respectful to my friends who are maybe celebrating Christmas or Christmas Eve.

So knowing holidays is something that we want to be mindful of as we're bringing international teams together. I think that's one thing that people sometimes might forget.

And meeting times when they should be researching and understanding cultural needs and customs of that culture is essential. So it's not just about, do you need these kinds of pillows or this many towels in your room.

It's going above and beyond that, and that's what my team does when we try to set up a successful event at a hotel. We want to go in before—make sure not just in a pre-con call, which is what our event planners are used to—but taking it up a new level to help make sure they understand what does that business card exchange look like? Let's demo it. Let's look at it. Let's work with it so we set up the meeting for success.

So really understanding the cultural needs and customs is important as well. And just at the end, making sure we give a really a great, positive experience to the attendees and making sure that when they come here they felt they were special; they were taking care of the way they want to be taken care of.

Many times, Tyler, people will say, “Oh, treat someone the way you want to be treated.” But the truth is you want to treat someone the way they want to be treated. And that's the difference in learning.

Davidson: And it really sounds like you will go and sort of be the consultant for your Marriott team, but then when it comes time to plan the meeting, they're really consultants to the meeting planners to probably give them information they don't even think to ask for.

Jain: Exactly, and then, you know, it's our goal to make sure that event planners that work with us are looking good for their boss—they're set up for success, that their attendees are very happy. And we want to give them all the tools and resources as well to say, “Did you think about this?”

Or, you know, is it Saturday and maybe a Jewish Orthodox group is coming in and they can't do certain things. We want to make sure that they are also understanding, and that's our job to help them out.

[Related: How to Create Diversity and Inclusion in Your Meeting Settings and F&B]

Davidson: What are some measurable steps that meeting planners can take to make sure their event events are diversified?

Jain: That their events are diversified or with the hotel staff?

Davidson: To make sure that their hotel staff is on the same page with them? I guess maybe I'm stepping a little outside of Marriott, because people book events in all sorts of different hotels, and from talking with you, it sounds like you guys got your bases covered.

But, you know, if they weren't working with you guys, what should they be asking a staff that may not be as well versed just to make sure that they're thinking about that?

Jain: Sure. Well, naturally, a person will start with the sales manager before they book an event. And then it will be up to the sales manager; they can ask to make sure they engage with all the departments—the front desk, culinary teams, banquet, events—to ensure the property can handle the cultural needs or whatever the needs are of that particular segment.

The planner can ask what preparation will be done in advance of the group arrival. If there's going to be any cultural training before the group arrives, and then of course, all departments, especially our frontline team members, they need to be aware of the event and the needs of the attendees.

So asking those questions [about] amount of education that will be disseminated to the frontline is a great question to ask.

Davidson: Excellent. And then how about—I know there’s a big trend, and especially in the U.S.— that when people go to a destination, they want to see what things that are unique in that destination, experience activities that are really special and unique to that destination.

Are there any cultural considerations [along that] line that other people should be aware of?

Jain: You know, that's a good question, Tyler. Not that I am aware of. I think our concierge team members have to be well informed of local sites and activities.

So, for example, let's say there is a Muslim guest as part of the group, and it is Friday and they want to go to the mosque because that is their holy day. At least our team members need to be aware of where the local mosques are in the area.

So just something to keep in mind is understanding who the people are, what interest level, if they're staying before or after the event with their children and family. Maybe we know what the activities are in the area that would accommodate their family needs. So that's why understanding the attendees [is important]; who they are, what their needs are, are they coming before and [staying] after?

We really make it a really great experience as our teams work with that.

Davidson: Especially in the tech industry here—I'm based in San Francisco—there are a lot of people from India that work in that, and a lot people in global business from Asia, and, of course, Europe. Are there any upcoming places where you're seeing more business travelers coming from, such as African countries?

Jain: That's a great question. So just so you know, out of the program that I work with the top three requested segments are Indian, LGBTQ and Jewish. And then right after that are China and Middle East.

So I just came back from Europe last week where I did a little roadshow there in Zurich, Munich and London, and the cultures they asked for were India, Middle East, China and USA.

I think here, we do get Middle East, we get China; India is number-one-requested from two angles—that's business travelers and Indian weddings as well.

But these are probably the main cultures that get requested by the market. And it can be for two reasons. Either they're trying to understand that market; they're seeing the business and they're just trying to figure out how to get it in their hotel, or it could be a company just came in nearby. It could be a Japanese company, German company, Brazilian company, and they're trying to understand those cultures to better serve the company.

Davidson: And it's interesting as you were talking, too, I mean, I automatically think of different cultures as maybe religions or nations, but you said LGBTQ, also. So that is something I didn't really put together. But it's interesting, too, because I'm sure that's a huge issue in a lot of places.

Jain: Yeah, and it's something that we developed about two years ago—we started that program based on market requests. It's actually one of my favorite ones to present to.

I think it's very eye-opening. And as you know, frontline employees, you know, making sure that everybody is taken care of with equal respect, just like anybody else would be. And it's a lot about basics, but it's nice to hear it in a different format.

And nowadays, there's, you know, transgender guests, there's gender neutral; we want to make sure everybody on our team is familiar and comfortable in all aspects.

Davidson: So tell me about yourself, you must be on the road a lot going all these places.

[Related: Meetings Industry Veteran Charles Chan Massey Helps LGBT People Share Their Stories]

Jain: So, I think we were trying to figure that out last year. I think it's at least 50% to 60%. When I started it was just domestic travel and now it's grown into international.

My background is I am a first-generation Indian. My parents came in the ’60s, and I was a finance marketing undergrad. And then about 14 years ago, when I joined Marriott, I decided to try sales. And it was in my own personal case study that I learned in the sales world that if we are culturally competent, not only is it the right thing to do for our company, who welcomes all and taking care of the guests, but it also could be bottom line results as well, where you can actually see financial cases of improved revenue or increased occupancy.

So in my own story, I learned this and then took it up to corporate for further looking at, and then a year after that they developed a job—they created this position—and that's where I was about six years ago.

So I had the biggest, honestly the best job, Tyler, in the company in that every day I get to touch another person's life and help them understand another culture, and that's the beauty of trying to help people become open minded and realizing that the world can be different, and that's perfectly fine. And that's what we love.

Davidson: It is really super interesting. I do envy your job. And it sounds like you sort of created a lot of it yourself, too.

Jain: I was very fortunate that my company was very supportive of the program. They always have been. And they let me take a lot of initiatives in driving the program. And it's doing well.

And we'd like to see that people are interested and wanting to learn, and that's the first part in making everybody feel more common in learning. The differences are appreciated, similarities are there, and just being respectful to all.

Davidson: And where can meeting planners learn more about Marriott's efforts in this area?

Jain: So, basically they can either reach out to us, they can reach out to their salesperson, their Marriott account executive, and they can talk about this program, saying, “We hear you have a Culture Day program, or, What can we do? How can we engage in it?”

We do customer events as well, so it's internal. Sometimes we do external customer events with this, where we take the program to our customers. So there's many ways we can work, but I think starting with their Marriott account executive will probably be the first step.

Davidson: Great, well, anything to add, Seema. I mean, you've been all around the world and seen a lot of it. Anything you think meeting planners should know or any words of inspiration to leave them with?

Jain: You know, I think the main thing is to just be more aware that our attendees today are coming from diverse backgrounds; to learn and appreciate each of them for who they are and to take the moment in time to understand their needs. Once we get that, I think they will feel good; you will feel even more successful because you've taken care of everybody in a very holistic way.

And that's the main thing, to just learn more about people and learn what is important to them.

Davidson: Well, great. Thanks for joining us, Seema.

Jain: Absolutely, Tyler. Thank you so much and I hope you have a great day.

Davidson: You, too. And that was Seema Jain, director of multicultural affairs for Marriott International. We thank her for joining us.

And thank you, too, for listening to this Meetings Today podcast. Head on over to MeetingsToday.com and our podcast section where you can hear a variety of podcasts, with all sorts of interesting industry thought leaders. So no matter what you're doing with the rest of the day, go out and make it a good one, and thanks for listening.

[End transcript]

Read Next: Avoiding an ‘International Incident’: Expert Tips for Planning Meetings and Events Abroad