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Can Pasta (and Connection) Create Brand Loyalty?

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Approaching Venice from JW Marriott’s private island

Courtesy of JW Marriott

Approaching Venice from JW Marriott’s private island

It feels good to be around people who share your passions.

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A few weeks ago, I went to Venice to see if a global hotel brand could create brand loyalty by bringing like-minded people together through eating, drinking, and cooking classes.

At JW Marriott’s second annual Gather food and wine festival in Venice, hundreds of us spent three days eating, drinking wine and coffee, taking cooking classes from top chefs, trying out a tuneBed (more on that later), and talking to each other instead of scrolling on our phones the entire day.

“People want to be around like-minded people and also people who inspire and challenge them,” says Mitzi Gaskins, vice president and global brand manager for JW Marriott. “Here, you get both.” 

Against the backdrop of an early fall weekend in Venice, chefs such as Jonathan Waxman (of now-shuttered Barbuto in NYC), Angela Hartnett, Fabio Trabocchi, and Martina Caruso hosted dinners, classes, and cooking demonstrations. The first experience to sell out was a small cooking class with Giada de Laurentiis. Many were presented as “Bonvoy moments,” examples of unique experiences offered to members of the brand’s new loyalty program

Cooking school with Giada de Laurentiis in Venice

The hotel also set up “Secret Spots” on its private island that offered views of Venice in the distance, fruit-infused water, and hammocks under trees. Guests devoured pasta, took a deep dive into Sicilian wines, dressed up for multi-course dinners, learned what makes Illy coffee great, and took yoga classes. Instead of staring at screens, participants met for drinks, exchanged numbers, and made plans to keep in touch. 

And that tuneBed? I signed up for a 15-minute session, during which the bed would “use biofrequencies to switch the body to an optimal functional and emotional state” and prepare me for the best night’s sleep—that’s all I cared about. I fell into a trance-like state as the bed gently buzzed me. I don’t know how it worked, but I do know that I slept extremely well. 

Of course, it could have been the pasta and wine. We were in Italy, after all. 

A few more questions with Mitzi.  

Why is mindfulness such a big part of the brand expansion now? 

Mental health and mental happiness is becoming such a focus, even more than physical fitness and health. Our target guest is not that person meditating for hours every day. It’s actually that hard-charging, traveling person with a family, a career, and so much going on that they are seeking out ways to help them be in the moment more. Being present and mindful is one thing; nourishing the soul through eating and coming together is another piece. 

People no longer want the badge of “I get hundreds and hundreds of emails a day.”

Tell me more about the brand’s focus on “the whole you.” 

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We want guests to walk in and for their shoulders to drop and be really content. Some of it is design, with lots of greeneries and live plants, much more nature focused. Some of it is in these events with human connection. It’s less “experiences” and more “moments” at the hotel that help you be present so you can go to Venice and really be there, and you’re not looking at your phone the whole time. 

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