|By Douglas Hanks, The Miami
HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Jan. 21, 2010--Bill Marriott Jr. enjoys more vacation options than most, and each year he ignores nearly all of them to winter in Fort Lauderdale.
This week the Marriott International CEO and his wife, Donna, wrapped up their 20th annual vacation at the 650-room Harbor Beach Marriott -- four weeks of beach reading and movie dates mixed in with conference calls and site inspections of nearby Marriott properties.
Out of the 3,200 hotels that Marriott runs around the world, Bill Marriott said he only vacations regularly at three: a J.W. Marriott in Arizona, a Ritz-Carlton in St. Thomas, and Harbor Beach.
"I like to sit in the sun and relax with my wife," said the 77-year-old CEO, dressed in a pale green sport shirt and khakis. "We're comfortable here."
His yearly vacation ritual brings a host of bragging rights to Fort Lauderdale, a destination eager to lure wealthy travelers away from high-end hotels in Miami Beach and Palm Beach.
"It's great having him in town," said Walter Banks, owner of the Harbor Beach rival, Lago Mar. "It's a tribute to Fort Lauderdale."
Marriott said he's mostly drawn to the Fort Lauderdale weather, a welcome switch from the winter climate at corporate headquarters in Bethesda, Md.
Cold particularly bothers him. Before starting an interview in a Harbor Beach conference room, Marriott switched seats to avoid the breeze from an overhead vent. Hotel workers remove the beach umbrellas from the cabana where the sun-seeking Marriotts spend most days at Harbor Beach.
"Don't even bring up the shade. They can't stand the shade," one Harbor Beach staffer said.
The sun shines equally throughout South Florida, of course. Still, the dean of America's lodging executives -- his father founded the company in 1927 and the younger Marriott took over in 1972 -- said Fort Lauderdale's pace suits him. "It's got good restaurants. It's got good shopping . . . It's a got a good playhouse. We went and saw Phantom of the Opera the other night," he said. "It doesn't have the congestion that Miami and South Beach have. It doesn't have the craziness that South Beach has. Our family prefers no craziness."
One of the most interesting aspects of Marriott's loyalty to Harbor Beach is that he's opting against Marriott International's ultra-luxury brand: Ritz-Carlton. South Florida has four of them, including one in Fort Lauderdale that opened in 2008. It enjoys a four-star rating and Harbor Beach doesn't. Bill Marriott said he prefers Harbor Beach's oceanfront location, while the Ritz sits on Fort Lauderdale Beach Boulevard.
The Marriotts used to winter in Mexico, where they owned a home. But in 1989, Marriott had a heart attack and decided he needed to stay near a U.S. hospital when traveling.
"I thought I might need bypass surgery, and I don't want to have it done in Acapulco," he said with a laugh.
That year was their first extended stay at Harbor Beach, and Marriott's concerns proved justified. On the second week of vacation, chest pains did in fact lead to bypass surgery at a Broward hospital.
Now he exercises on a treadmill in his 2,800-square-foot presidential suite about five nights a week. But he still indulges his weakness for cheeseburgers (a McDonald's quarter-pounder is a particular favorite).
Both Marriotts follow football, and hotel staff sends up popcorn and a hot dog machine to the couple's suite for NFL games. They're also both film buffs and make frequent trips to the Coral Ridge movie theater. They recently saw the political sports drama Invictus and the romantic comedy It's Complicated.
"My wife said she had to see a chick flick to balance out my love of action movies," Marriott said.
He emphasized that his Fort Lauderdale stays mix work and leisure. This trip, Marriott said he visited 42 hotels -- 38 of them run by his company and four competitors. He estimates he spends about two hours a day reading his office mail by the beach and another two hours on conference calls. The rest: reading books in the sun. His latest: Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol.
A number of Haitians and Haitian Americans work at Harbor Beach, and last week Marriott arranged for his family's foundation to donate $500,000 to relief efforts for earthquake victims. A group of Haitian workers presented him with a thank-you card last week, including one housekeeper who lost family members in the quake.
"She was too emotional to tell me who," Marriott said.
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