Secrets of Success: How Marriott’s Jeremy McClellan Became a Household Name

Jeremy McClellan is very customer-centric and uses personalization tactics when engaging with luxury travel advisors. //Photos: Yu Zhen Ming

If you’re a luxury travel advisor, it’s very possible that when you think of Ritz-Carlton, St. Regis, Bulgari or the Luxury Collection (or any of Marriott’s other luxury brands, for that matter), you think of Jeremy McClellan. It’s likely that this very strong association with his name and the eight luxury brands that he represents is why he’s twice received the Award of Excellence for the Top Luxury Sales Executive Worldwide, as determined by the readers of Luxury Travel Advisor

We caught up with McClellan recently to find out how he achieved such an honor. His answer? Personalization. 

“‘Personalization’ is such a keyword right now,” McClellan, the global account director, travel industry for Marriott International Luxury Brands, tells us. “Travel advisors are working to personalize the experience for their customers and to tailor trips to the preferences of their customers.”

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McClellan is very customer-centric, and, in his case, his customers are luxury travel advisors. He uses the personalization tactic when engaging with them. 

“I look at personalization through a different lens: I want to make sure that I am tailoring my communication and my sales approach to each individual agency or advisor,” he tells us.

McClellan gets extremely creative when seeking to engage with luxury travel advisors — one such way is his “JM Travel Blog,” a series of e-mail updates with the latest from Marriott luxury properties and their destinations. In fact, any type of communication McClellan sends has a personal spin to it; he wants to be seen through his writing, he tells us. That way, the advisor feels connected with McClellan — and vice versa — even if they see each other just once a year.

“I challenge myself to find a way so that these advisors know what’s happening in my life … this way, they still feel like they can come to me at any time and know that I care about them because there’s a personal bond that’s been crafted over sharing information about myself and caring about the information that they share with me.” 

When we spoke, McClellan was visiting the newly opened Perry Lane Hotel, a Luxury Collection Hotel in Savannah, GA. His plans for the night included writing 50 postcards to his advisor customers to keep them updated on his whereabouts and the latest in Marriott’s luxury portfolio.

Working directly with a luxury travel agency to drive sales is another favorite strategy. Working with Brownell Travel in Birmingham, AL, McClellan came up with the “Brownell Bowl,” inspired by the agency’s proximity to the University of Alabama and Auburn University — two college football powerhouses. McClellan divided the agency by revenue production and hosted various games based around bookings. Games included the highest cumulative revenues, the highest ADR and the most bookings within a certain brand; games spanned two weeks. Everyone received a prize, he tells us, but they varied, with top prizes being a complimentary night at a hotel. The games were hosted by different properties, bringing visibility to each.

We learned that two other aspects of McClellan’s nature that makes him so successful are the speed in which he responds to his customers and his proactive approach to anticipating the needs of advisors. The former is a result of living in 2018 — everyone can be connected at any given time, and if a client has a concern, an advisor might have a question and McClellan must be there to respond as quickly as possible, because response time “can sometimes be the differentiator in whether or not we are successfully able to book a piece of business,” McClellan says. As for the latter, McClellan tells Luxury Travel Advisor that if he can anticipate a few questions or needs of the advisor, it could make the sale that much more fluid. For instance, during his day, McClellan will identify developing trends. “If I see that I’m getting enquiry after enquiry with a specific lead or request, then I try and put some things pen-to-paper or to e-mail where I can send it out to customers,” he says. If advisors are asking similar questions, it may be because of a broader issue. If McClellan can clarify any concerns before they become a problem, he may help advisors grow their book of business more efficiently. “I try to be creative throughout the day to address issues proactively and come up with sales solutions,” he adds.

Jeremy McClellan, here seen at the  Great Wall of China, says traveling is one of the best perks of his job.

McClellan says that his success isn’t strictly derived from his relationships with the advisor — it’s also the hoteliers who make everything happen for the advisors and their clients. In addition to “understanding that each agency has their own DNA,” McClellan ensures that Marriott’s luxury hoteliers are primed for success with each agency. “I feel we [sales executives] have a fiduciary responsibility to educate our hoteliers and to make sure they understand the advisor,” he says.

When hoteliers meet with advisors, McClellan makes sure that the general manager, or whoever it may be, is prepared. The hoteliers “need to know what they should talk about, what would resonate with the office, what the business mix of the office is, and they must be able to provide key differentiators that an advisor can respond to and assess within their book of business.”

Another reason McClellan is such a success with the travel industry? He best bridges the gap between advisors and his suppliers. “These advisors are working so hard to ensure that everything is perfect — that all their I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed in regard to itineraries and price points,” he says. “We need to do our part in making sure that the hoteliers are being responsible in terms of time management and how we present to advisors.”

Building His Business

In May, McClellan was named the Top Luxury Sales Executive Worldwide at Luxury Travel Advisor’s Awards of Excellence, hosted at The Breakers Palm Beach Resort. It marked the second time he received the award — the first being in 2015 — making him the only person to receive the honor twice.

Prior to his role as global account director, travel industry, Marriott International Luxury Brands, McClellan held a similar role for The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company. As its director of global accounts, travel industry, he was responsible for The Ritz-Carlton, Bulgari and Edition Hotels. When he moved into this role in 2010, it was the first time that McClellan had ever worked with the travel industry; he previously serviced the leisure market, diplomatic affairs, and group, sports, entertainment and transient sales.

When he started in the new role, he was very open with his new luxury travel advisor customers. “I said, ‘Tell me what it is that you need. Tell me what I can do for you and how I can help you,’” he says. 

“I try and be 100 percent honest and vulnerable with my customers so that they know that everything I do comes from the heart,” he tells us.

Of all the stops that he’s made in his career, McClellan says that he “couldn’t be happier” with where he currently is. So what is it, specifically, that he loves about working with the travel advisor community? It’s the relationships, he says. 

A Luxury Beginning

McClellan got his start in the business as a sales coordinator with Four Seasons in their global sales office in Atlanta. It was his first job right out of college (James Madison University), where he majored in political science, but especially enjoyed the hospitality classes he took. He moved on to The Ritz-Carlton; one gig included business travel sales manager at The Ritz-Carlton, Pentagon City, where he started just months after September 11. It was a difficult sell, to say the least. “I felt like I worked harder for the business and I learned to cut my teeth there,” he says.

Other positions included senior business travel sales manager, then director of business travel, leisure sales and diplomatic affairs at The Ritz-Carlton, Tysons Corner; director of sales at The Ritz-Carlton Georgetown, Washington, D.C.; and director of sales, group and transient, back at Pentagon City.

In these stops, McClellan worked closely with numerous Middle Eastern countries because of the hotels’ proximity to diplomatic residences. He was also able to sell variously sized properties, and found opportunities to run his own “enterprises,” learning more about budgeting and forecasting.

At one point, the D.C.-area Ritz-Carlton hotels planned a joint sales mission to the Middle East and McClellan was selected to lead the group. There, he had an “aha” moment, that as he’d grown into leadership roles, he missed being on the road, connecting with customers. He relayed that sentiment to the global sales office back home. Less than a year later, Alexis Romer was named vice president at The Ritz-Carlton’s GSO. Romer, who now serves as vice president of sales, luxury travel industry at Marriott International Luxury Brands, was tasked at the time with assembling a new team. She hired McClellan, who was now able to go back to forging relationships on the road, this time in the travel industry segment.

No Typical Day

When he isn’t traveling, McClellan works remotely from his home office in D.C. His “work day” begins when he wakes up and checks his iPhone for the 50 to 75 e-mails from international hoteliers. “I try to respond to them as quickly as possible, knowing that maybe I can still catch them while they’re in the office,” he says. He’ll read some more e-mails on the elliptical at the gym, then, back at his desk, he might have an hour of “quiet time” when domestic luxury travel advisors are just getting into their offices. Things pick up around 10 a.m., then it’s all about planning trips with advisors, confirming bookings and ensuring that clients have been “VIPed,” in addition to proactively finding solutions to potential problems. At 10 p.m. to 11 p.m., enquiries from Asian properties will start coming in. Occasionally, he will have to jump on a call before bed. Then, it’s “sleep and repeat.”

McClellan loves the energy of all of it. “The busier I am, the more I feel like I’m being optimized.” Throughout the day, McClellan says he’s always asking himself, “How can I do this better, or how can I grow my customers’ books of businesses? How can I recognize my customers so that they know that I realize that I don’t take the business for granted — that I’m saying, ‘Thank you’ enough and that I feel appreciative?”

McClellan enjoys working from his home office, but staying organized is key. “I have worked very hard to maximize my Outlook to build appointments, to build my distribution list and to keep notes about my customers, so that I have everything at easy access.” 

He doesn’t have a team working under him, per se, but he and the four other U.S. global account directors share three coordinators. McClellan works with one very well: Ly Tien, who’s based outside Philadelphia. “She is my right-hand person and she manages me just as much as I manage her,” he says. “With traveling 220 days a year I couldn’t do the job without her. My agents know her. They trust her. Many ask me to bring her to their offices because they want to meet her since she often fills in for me when I’m on the road.”

About the Marriott International merger with Starwood Hotels and Resorts? “It’s exciting,” he says. He takes pride in the fact that few brands can compete with Marriott’s selection of luxury offerings. Depending on the type of trip, the experiences desired or the preferred hotel aesthetic, McClellan can offer upwards of nine hotels in a given city to help place an advisor’s clients in the right situation.

McClellan and his colleagues worked hard to learn the history and the essence of each of the brands in the newly expanded luxury portfolio. He also created incentives for his agencies to learn what he had learned.

But it’s not just about the differences between each brand, McClellan says. It’s also about “drilling down and understanding how each is carried through within its own destination.” With roughly 400 hotels, it can take some time to nail down each individual property, but McClellan tells us, “I pride myself on continuing to evolve and to be able to understand them.”

McClellan notes that during the merger, many advisors were “so gracious and patient” when working with the sales team. “They trusted that if we didn’t know the answer right away, we were going to figure it out and come back to them very quickly,” he adds. 

Always Traveling

McClellan is on the road approximately 220 days a year. Some trips are for road shows that he’s organized to engage and visit advisors. On some trips, he’ll visit with advisors specifically to share their revenue results and challenge them to grow where he sees opportunities. He’ll also travel for Virtuoso Travel Week, International Luxury Travel Market (ILTM) or the Ultra Summit to meet with his advisor customers and airline partners.

“I work very hard to cultivate airline relationships, so that I can take customers to see the destinations,” McClellan tells us. “There’s no better way to sell a destination and a property than if an advisor has experienced it. I never do fam trips without air — I’m told I’m a rare bird in that sense because I have wonderful airline partners that I work with.”

He adds that travel is important for someone in his position, but he does admit it’s one of the job’s best perks. “I feel so incredibly fortunate to be able to see the world this way and it’s a privilege to be able to do that.”

When we spoke with McClellan, he had just returned from China with several advisors, where they were visiting The Bulgari Shanghai, which opened in June on the Suhe Creek. What did he think? “It’s simply stunning,” McClellan says. “They’ve masterfully done what Bulgari does so well, which is taking an Italian craftsmanship and décor aesthetic and weaving it within the local destination.”

In Shanghai, McClellan got a sneak peek of the Shanghai Edition. “It has contemporary décor aesthetic: Very whimsical, great energy. All of the advisors that were with me said that they’ve never been so excited about an upcoming hotel opening.”

After Shanghai, McClellan headed right to Savannah to check out the Perry Lane Hotel. “It has the spirit of Savannah” he says, noting influences from local shops, such as Satchel, a handmade leather goods store. Treats from Byrd Cookie Company can be found in each of the guestrooms. 

On the horizon, McClellan might be traveling to Iceland to visit the Reykjavik Edition, which opens in 2019. It’s a new-build perched right on the waterfront. With Iceland’s soaring popularity, McClellan expects it to do well, especially since Iceland has very few true, luxury hotels.

While most of the 220 days on the road are for work, McClellan makes sure to plan trips for him and his husband, Matt. Last October, McClellan visited several luxury hotels in Greece and “fell in love with the country.” The Monday before the Fourth of July, he took his husband and six other friends to experience it together.

“I am very cognizant of my personal life: I know I have the best husband in the world, who allows me to travel and be away so often because he sees how passionate I am about what I do,” McClellan tells us. “I try to make sure he always feels included in being able to see our properties and some of the destinations I’ve been able to experience.”

McClellan wouldn’t spill on his favorite properties; however, he did say that Matt is a big fan of Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve. “The resort is magical,” McClellan says. “So, I think it has a special place in his heart, for sure.” After the hurricane destroyed much of Puerto Rico, Dorado Beach took the time to completely renovate. When it reopens in October, all furniture and fabrics will be new, the spa will be entirely upgraded, and the restaurants will relaunch with new concepts. 

In Beijing: McClellan recently traveled with advisors to China to show them the new Bulgari Beijing and Bulgari Shanghai. Left to right: Jane Castelli, American Airlines; Haisley Smith, Brownell Travel; Shannon Byrne, Bulgari Hotels; Guy Rubin, Imperial Tours; guest; Daren Southgate, Tzell; Jeremy McClellan, Marriott Luxury Brands; Jessica Griscavage, McCabe World Travel and Joshua Bush, Avenue Two Travel.

The Evolving Consumer

Most of McClellan’s life has been spent on the road, he tells Luxury Travel Advisor. He was born in Alabama and moved to Germany when he was 18 months old. His parents divorced when they were still in Germany when McClellan was around three; his mother stayed and his father returned to the U.S. He traveled back and forth unaccompanied on Pan Am “probably five times a year or so.” While in Europe, he had the chance to visit Austria, Switzerland and Italy, among others. “I saw all of these cultures and had this ability to travel at a very early age and so I think that has really influenced me regarding the passion that I have for this business.”

Over the course of his life in travel, he’s seen a distinct change in how people travel.

“I think consumers have become much smarter,” say McClellan. The Internet created some challenges for travel advisors, at first, with the growth in “DIY” travel, but now it’s allowed experienced travelers to become that much more educated on destinations. Even social media has allowed consumers to become much more aware of what’s out there. As a result, they continue to pose more interesting questions than ever before and are always seeking increased personalization. 

To help nail these “awe-inspiring or ‘Wow’ moments,” McClellan wants his advisors to “tell us [sales executives] everything that your customer shared with you when you were talking with them.” The more information shared, the more likely they are to succeed in creating the perfect itinerary, he says. McClellan likens the inner workings of the industry to “a circle of information requests and fulfillment.” To meet this requirement, he says industry professionals need to dig deeper into the motivations of why a client is traveling and what they’re looking for during their trip.

“We want to provide elevated service, access and personalization, so that when customers stay with us and have this great experience, the first thing they think of is calling the advisor and saying ‘Thank you so much. I can’t believe that you did this, this and this for me. Everything was tailored to me; they recognized me by name; they knew that I had allergies; they knew that we were celebrating XYZ; they knew we were bringing our kids or our dogs. I can’t imagine booking with anybody but you and I’m going to tell all my friends to book with you.’” In the end, it’s a win-win-win for everyone: Client, advisor and supplier, he says.

Another trend? McClellan says consumers are showing a desire to visit different destinations by staying at multiple properties. “Maybe a customer is going to Japan, and they want us to connect Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, and come together with a full package for a tour,” he says.

From McClellan’s perspective, it certainly is an interesting time to be in the industry.

“I am more excited about the next 10 years of travel than at any time since I joined the hospitality industry, primarily due to the remarkable growth in luxury travel,” he says. “From a supplier perspective, there are so many new brands emerging — not to mention brand extensions like Ritz-Carlton Reserve and The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection.” He enjoys in particular advising which brand will work best for each customer and for each trip.

McClellan continues: “With this supplier growth in new brands and destinations, I also feel great security in the travel industry segment, holistically. Consumers need advocates and trusted advisors to guide them to the best destination, experience and journey. It’s this need for knowledge that has really propelled the growth of the advisor community.”

And just as consumers need trusted luxury travel advisors to guide them through booking their travels, those advisors need rock-solid supplier partners to help make it happen. 

Jeremy — no last name required — certainly fits the bill.

“The best suppliers understand and respect the role of the advisor as a trusted partner and friend in curating ‘Wow’ experiences while guests are in-residence, and I love being a part of that process,” he says.

Marriott International Luxury Brands:

  • W Hotels
  • The Luxury Collection
  • JW Marriott
  • The Ritz-Carlton
  • Ritz-Carlton Reserve
  • St. Regis
  • Edition
  • Bulgari Hotels & Resorts

Get to Know Jeremy McCLellan

Vacation spot: I love getting away to Ocracoke Island in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Matt can fly us there in his plane and within two hours we can be disconnected and completely isolated on some of the most beautiful beaches in the country.

Hotel (not your own): I loved my stay at andBeyond Kichwa Tembo Tented Camp when Matt and I visited Kenya.

Travel memory: As part of our Inner Circle advisory board, we took customers via heli-copter from Tel Aviv to Masada for the opera. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Restaurant: Casa Luca in Washington, D.C. Maria Trabocchi, a partner of the restaurant, with her husband, Chef Fabio Trabocchi, and I worked together at The Ritz-Carlton, Tysons Corner. We have celebrated birthdays, anniversaries and rung in the New Year many times with Maria and Fabio.

Band: Coldplay as a default, classical music in the background while working and EDM while working out.

Book: “The Great Gatsby.”

Hobbies: Working out and staying fit and being the plus-one when Matt flies his plane on the weekends; he has a pilot’s license and we have access to a Grumman Tiger. 

Current Netflix binge: Chef’s Table. Ironically, they just opened a Milk Bar four blocks from my house and we went for the grand opening and met Chef Christina Tosi.

ADVISOR INSIGHT:

Anne Morgan Scully, President, McCabe World Travel

“When Jeremy speaks, the travel industry listens. He is an industry leader as a communicator, listener and, above all, as someone who is there to help advisors with their own growth and development in sales and marketing. 

“He defines the multiple brands of what he sells, I think, better than anybody. And what he really gets more than anyone, is he understands the shoes we [advisors] walk in every day. But best, he doesn’t just come in to present the Ritz-Carlton or Marriott or Bulgari — he wants to know about us. He really cares about our day-to-day lives.”

Haisley Smith, VP of Marketing & Development, Brownell Travel

“If you say the name ‘Jeremy’ to anyone in the industry, they know exactly who you are talking about — no last name required. He has managed to develop sincere relationships grounded in trust that give his properties an edge.

“Jeremy gives advisors confidence in his portfolio and hoteliers because he has a perfect track record. He responds immediately, nothing falls through the cracks, and he is a straight-shooter. Jeremy is like Superman. We have no idea how he is able to pull off everything he does in a day — it’s like he disappears into a phone booth and there are actually 10 Jeremys doing his work.

“Even if the hotels are apples to apples, or if one has a slight edge, advisors almost always choose something in the Marriott International Luxury portfolio because Jeremy has proved time and time again that he’s going to have the advisor’s best interests at heart and always operate with integrity.

“Lastly, he’s a great storyteller. When he visits our offices or with our advisors, he always has several stories to share that highlight the special ‘Wow’ moments his properties create. Stories are much easier to sell than facts and figures about square footage and thread count.”

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