Meetings and Marriott: An Interview with Arne Sorenson, President and CEO, Marriott International
One might expect Arne Sorenson to be a little jaded when it comes to travel. After all, the Marriott International president and CEO traverses the world for his role, which he’s held since 2012—especially significant as he’s the company’s first CEO not to bear the Marriott surname. Yet when we asked Sorenson at the ribbon cutting for the Marriott Marquis Chicago last month about one of his most memorable travel moments, it wasn’t a high-end destination or a luxury hotel opening of which he spoke. It was a trip with his wife to the countryside of Norway, where after stopping to chat with a local, he was able to locate and visit the very house where his grandmother was born.
True to his Scandinavian roots, Sorenson has a pervasive practicality about him which is one of the reasons he’s so good at his job. As Marriott focuses on completing its systems integration with Starwood (the acquisition was completed in September 2016); expanding its high-end market (it will open 40 luxury hotels in 2018, according to a Dec. 11 press release); and introducing sleek, modern, social hotels for a new generation of travelers, Sorenson is also adding more to his plate. In late November, he also joined Microsoft’s board of directors—a quest that may certainly bolster Marriott’s development of “smart” hotel rooms.
Kelsey Ogletree: From the minute you walk into the Marriott Marquis Chicago, it’s apparent this highly social, uniquely designed hotel marks a new era for Marriott. Can you share what’s behind the changing philosophy?
Arne Sorenson: Our interests as consumers have evolved over the last couple decades. Twenty years ago, Marriott wanted to make sure we were delivering something that met expectations of our loyal travelers. There was an expectation to deliver something that looked similar, no matter where you were. That’s because travel was difficult, and people didn’t want to be disappointed when they traveled—they wanted a place that felt familiar. Today, we’re funny as consumers. We want an excellent hamburger no matter where we go. Not necessarily saying you do—I don't even eat beef—but I mean that you listen to consumers broadly. Particularly at breakfast: They want what they want to eat for breakfast. But they also want every experience to be rich and authentic. They want to know they’re in Chicago when they’re in Chicago. So [you can’t give them] a hotel that looks exactly like the hotel they were in in Pittsburgh or London or Bangkok. We’re trying to move in a way—not just with the Marriott brand, but all our full-service and luxury brands particularly—to provide an experience that has comfort, but at the same time, delivers something interesting, local and creative.
KO: I heard that President Obama was one of the first guests to stay here when you opened this fall.
AS: He was. The first time I met him was in 2008 was just after he got elected. He said to me, “I still have my Marriott points!”
KO: Let’s talk about the Starwood acquisition. How is the integration of Marriott and Starwood systems going?
AS: The Starwood acquisition represents both the largest acquisition and the most dramatic change in Marriott’s history. We’ve never been more optimistic about our business, our underlying competitive strengths and our long‐term growth potential. The Starwood integration is on track. We have identified more synergies and more business opportunities than we anticipated. We continue to believe we will achieve $250 million of [general and administrative] savings and expect to do that in 2018.
KO: And what can planners and guests expect from loyalty programs going forward?
AS: We have 30 brands, and the notion we have is all 30 of those brands will live together under one loyalty program. SPG, Marriott Rewards and Ritz-Carlton Rewards are the three that exist individually today, so we’re working aggressively to get those to be one program. You can expect that in the second half of 2018.
KO: What does the future look like for Marriott in the luxury space?
We have a very positive outlook for our luxury portfolio. With eight leading brands, our worldwide pipeline of luxury rooms totaled nearly 50,000 at third-quarter end, or more than 40 percent of our current distribution. In the 2017 third quarter alone, we signed or approved seven new luxury projects, including a new Luxury Collection hotel in Japan, a Ritz‐Carlton resort in Saint Lucia and an EDITION hotel in Arizona.
KO: Marriott beat Wall Street estimates in third-quarter earnings. How are meetings and events factoring into that success?
AS: During the past few months, part of our integration efforts has focused on our global sales organization. We have now fully deployed our new sales teams (inclusive of Starwood) and are committed to having each interaction planners have with our sales team be easy and rewarding. For example, we are staying on top of food and beverage trends so that planners have creative options, which they can find and help to co-create with our hotels through our meeting planners’ app. In late October, we released an enhancement to our Meeting Services App with real-time billing information. So far, feedback from planners about our new sales structure has been that transactions have been seamless.
KO: In light of recent terrorist attacks, to what extent do you think hotel brands need to be involved in security for meetings and events?
AS: Hotel security has always been one of our top priorities to keep both customers and associates safe. Security procedures and risk assessments at our properties are reviewed often, and we typically re-evaluate them after tragic acts to determine what, if any, changes may need to be made.
In addition to answering these questions, Sorenson also provided some facts on Marriott operations.
- There are 30 brands within the Marriott portfolio
- One new hotel will open every 14 hours for the next three years
- An average of 1,000 Marriott hotels go under renovation every year
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