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Bill Marriott, Jr Sees Bright Future for
 South Florida Hotel Market

By Douglas Hanks, The Miami HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

December 21, 2009 --For obvious reasons, Bill Marriott Jr. doesn't lack for vacation options. So it's of more than passing interest in South Florida's hotel industry that the CEO winters each year in Fort Lauderdale.

Marriott, CEO of the hotel chain that bears his family's name, routinely checks into the Marriott Harbor Beach for up to three weeks of pilates, movies, working in an oceanfront cabana and just general beachside relaxation, Marriott executives said.

It's one of only two regular vacation stops for the 77--year-old hotel chief (the other is the JW Marriott in Camel Back, Ariz.) and a cherished coup for the Fort Lauderdale hotel.

"It's a pretty big referral," said Jay Marsella, Harbor Beach's sales director. "We love it. . . It keeps us on our toes."

Marriott keeps its headquarters in Bethesda, Md. But the company behind Ritz-Carlton, Residence Inn and all the hotel brands carrying the actual "Marriott" name is the biggest player in South Florida's lodging industry, managing more than 7,000 rooms.

And as one of the country's top hotel markets, South Florida carries big stakes for Marriott as it struggles with the worst lodging downturn Bill Marriott says he has ever seen.

The downturn took him to the White House in March, when he and other hotel chiefs met with President Obama over the so-called "AIG Effect." That's the term for corporations fearing ridicule for holding conferences in resort destinations -- an acute concern for Marriott's Ritz-Carlton chain, which has four locations in South Florida.

Marriott was in town recently for the reopening of the 361-room Miami Airport Marriott after a $74 million renovation of the campus there, which includes an expanded Courtyard by Marriott and a new 163-room Residence Inn. Owned by Thayer Lodging, the Marriott was the chain's first Florida hotel when it opened in 1972.

Mr. Marriott -- as all Marriott employees seem to call him -- swept into the hotel's front door to a receiving line of employees.

Later, he sat down with Business Monday to discuss the good old days of Goldman Sachs conferences, Miami's lock on the Northeast travel market, and why he thinks President Obama regrets what he said about Super Bowl junkets.

Q:Any signs of recovery?

A: [Laughs.] How did I know that might be first on your list?

Q: Well, what do you think? Recovery? More decline?

A: No, we're not seeing more decline. We're seeing some green shoots, but they're very sparse at this point. But there are some green shoots. We're seeing small amounts of group business pick up.

We had one hotel for instance that was 30 percent behind in group pace six months ago, now they're only 10 percent behind. It's a significant hotel, a 1,000-room hotel. So we're starting to see some business meetings and convention business come back.

Q: How much does the current lodging market compare to what you thought it would be at the start of the year?

A: This is the worst lodging decline I've seen in my 55 years in the business. [But] it's better than we expected. We're doing better than we forecast.

Q: Down here we hear so much about the group market getting hammered. Do you think we'll ever get back to the spending on meetings we had?

A: I think so. I think it will take a while. The financial institutions were really big spenders in the luxury tier.

At Ritz-Carlton, they were our biggest customers. The Merrill Lynches, JP Morgans, Goldman Sachs -- they were spending a lot of money in the luxury segment. Right now they're being very careful.

They have to be. The government in a lot of cases has taken an interest in their business and is watching very carefully what they do. But this isn't going to last.

Q: Miami has had the biggest inventory growth of any of the major hotel markets in the last year. Has too much been built here?

A: Well, this is a very attractive market. You've got great air service. You've got great weather. You've got a lot to do.

When you think about the East Coast, and the population of wealth between Washington and Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Connecticut -- you've got a lot of wealthy people and it's awful easy to get to Florida.

I've always been bullish on South Florida. I've always felt South Florida was going to be good long-term for whatever is built here.

Q: We always hear talk of Marriott getting involved with the Fontainebleau. I was curious: Have you been there recently?

A: I was there last January.

Q: What prompted that?

A: Well, I like to check out the competition. I wanted to see what they'd done.

I was at that hotel the day JFK was assassinated [in 1963.] I was there for a hotel association meeting. I landed at the Miami airport, probably around 3 in the afternoon.

I saw the flags flying at half-mast, and said, "What's that all about?"

I think I was the last person in the United States to learn he had been assassinated.

So we went to the Fontainebleau that night. It was very sobering. You always remember where you were when something like that happens.

Q: We've been talking about the convention business and the AIG effect. What's your take on the White House's response to that?

A: I think they were embarrassed. I think they didn't think about what they were saying.

[At a February town hall meeting in Indiana, President Obama said of companies receiving federal bail-out dollars: "You can't get corporate jets. You can't go take a trip to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayers' dime."]

I think when they said don't go to the Super Bowl, don't go to Las Vegas, don't fly on your corporate jets -- I think they recognized after they said it and after everyone got upset with them [that] they should have been more careful. That was a very very damaging statement they made. It impacted thousands of jobs.

It's one thing to take the fat cats and say you can't go to the Bahamas or whatever. It's another thing to decimate the luxury end of the business and layoff tens of thousands of people because of it.

It was a statement that was counter to what they're trying to do for employment.

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Copyright (c) 2009, The Miami Herald

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