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Changing of the Guard at Marriott, a Q & A
with Bill Marriott and Arne Sorenson

Their Transition and the Importance of the South Florida Hotel Market

By Hannah Sampson, The Miami HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Feb. 13, 2012--J.W. "Bill" Marriott, Jr. knows South Florida.

For more than 20 years, the head of Marriott International has vacationed at the Harbor Beach Marriott Resort & Spa in Fort Lauderdale. And his company has 33 hotels and 4,200 employees in the Miami area, with a total of 270 hotels statewide.

That portfolio is growing locally: After opening the first JW Marriott Marquis in Miami in 2010, the company is developing a hotel under another fledgling brand, Edition, in Miami Beach. That property is scheduled to open on the site of the old Seville Beach Hotel in late 2013.

Recently, the company also announced that two South Beach boutique hotels -- the Blue Moon and Winter Haven -- would join Marriott's group of independent luxury hotels, the Autograph Collection.

Marriott announced late last year that he would retire as CEO, a job he has held since 1972. Effective March 31, he will become executive chairman of the board of the company that got its start when his parents opened a root beer stand in 1927.

Arne Sorenson, who joined the company in 1996 and most recently served as president and chief operating officer, will become CEO.

The two men recently spoke to The Miami Herald about the transition, the importance of the South Florida hotel market, the recently announced 173-room Port-au-Prince Marriott Hotel and their own recent vacations.

Q: What kind of advice have you passed on to Mr. Sorenson?

Marriott: Arne's been here 15 years. It's been an evolutionary process....He's touched all parts of the company and touched them well and understands our culture very well and is committed to making sure that continues.

Q: Anything, Mr. Sorenson, that you have found most helpful to learn from Mr. Marriott or any advice that he's passed down that you're going to take with you?

He may not remember but he's given me lots and lots of advice over the course of 15 years. He has talked for years about listening. He's articulated that specifically, but also you see that every day when you watch him. It's both a very deliberate effort and it's also sort of natural. The deliberate piece is even when he's got tremendous insight into an issue... he is much more interested in soliciting the input of the people who are around him than he is about showing them that he's got a view. So he'll ask three or four or five or six people, and the tougher the question, the more people he'll ask. It's a fabulous way of getting really rich input to make better decisions, but it's also a really important way of creating a team and communicating to folks that their views are important.

Q: I'm curious to know where each of you vacationed last.

Marriott: I vacationed almost the whole month of January in Florida, at Harbor Beach.

Sorenson: My last vacation [over Christmas] was in southwestern France, near the town of Pau, an 800-year-old house.

Marriott: The weather wasn't as good as it was in Miami.

Q: What did each of you read on that vacation?

Marriott: I read the Steve Jobs [biography] by Walter Isaacson. He was certainly an interesting person, and I think Isaacson puts him up there with Edison and Henry Ford, and he probably will be as time goes on....But his management style was unique.You can learn a lot from somebody who you don't think did it right.

Sorenson: The War Lovers, a history of the Spanish-American war.

Q: Did either of you have any particularly memorable meals on that vacation?

Sorenson: We had arranged for a chef in the house we were in. The first meal we had Christmas Eve, he turned out to have had too much to drink. Very memorable for the circumstances. The last course came out at about 2:15 in the morning.

Marriott: At Harbor Beach, we were there most of the time. I was impressed with the quality of their soups. Best soups I've ever eaten in my life. Every day was a different kind of soup. Corn chowder, clam chowder, lentil soup. They were all just outstanding. I really feel that good soups are something we miss out on.

Q: I've noticed over the last couple of years that a lot of the company's new initiatives or new brands all have relevance to Miami, whether it was the first JW Marriott Marquis, the Edition Miami Beach or the boutique hotels in the Autograph Collection. Why is Miami a good proving ground to try new concepts?

Marriott: My opinion is that it's the leading edge here on the east coast -- New York and Miami -- sort of the leading edge of what's coming down the road. When I was growing up in the restaurant business with my dad, it was all about California. [Now], you go to South Beach and you see what's trendy and new and what's exciting. The way in which Miami and South Florida have come back in the last couple of years has been truly amazing and the amount of international travel coming in has been amazing. We have not only the leisure segment, we have the international segment, we have the convention segment, business hub. Different cultures, different segments and to me it's always an exciting place. I think people are going to the sun.

Q: Anything you can tell me about the new Edition?

Sorenson: It will be the best hotel in Miami Beach. It should open in the fall of 2013. It has an enormous advantage in that it has a very wide lot. It's not one of these shotgun hotels that are squeezed into Miami Beach, but will have the luxury of having considerable space to use. A lot of food and beverage and other outlets will make it stand out.

Q: The project in Haiti, you announced that this was something you were doing late last year. Why is this something that was important to the company?

Marriott: Our connection to the Haitian community comes from South Florida associates. Harbor Beach has almost 300 associates from Haiti. I got to be really impressed with their spirit, their compassion for one another, their loyalty to their company and to their country. They had that terrible devastation down there; we all talked about what we can do. From my standpoint, it was something that we really thought we should do for all our Haitian employees, who are some of the very best people I've ever seen.

Sorenson: I think in part because the Haitian associates and increasingly the connections that we started to pursue were pushing for something more permanent that could improve Haiti. We started pursuing it and what we discovered is there is a real and immediate need for hotel rooms in Haiti, which means that a new hotel was viable... We knew without a doubt that we would do in Haiti what we can do elsewhere, which is to create great jobs for the people in Haiti. The impact of that, through their families and the folks that will be involved in supplying the hotel once it's up and operating [in 2014], there will be many lives that will be impacted . It's a very visible way for the Haitian government and for Marriott to say: "Please come to Haiti. It's safe to come to Haiti. Welcome to Haiti. Haiti's open for business."

Q: Mr. Sorenson, what do you see as some of the biggest challenges in front of you?

The biggest challenge is also the same as the biggest opportunity and that is the incredible global expansion which is already underway.... India, Africa, China -- places that have been underserved. The growth is just fabulous. ...That is a challenge in the sense that we've got to make sure we have our brand right, leadership, partnerships and that we globalize the company with the opportunities that are globalizing the business.

Q: Mr. Marriott, are you planning to continue your annual visits to Harbor Beach?

Oh yes. I've been going down there for 20 years.

Q: What about you, Mr. Sorenson? Are you going to be making this part of your ritual as well, or are you going to leave it to Mr. Marriott?

I think January at Harbor Beach is Mr. Marriott's. I love South Florida, but I suspect I won't do that every January.


(c)2012 The Miami Herald

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