Bill Marriott on his past, the future of hospitality and the wisest choice he ever made

Bill Marriott was five years from being born when his father, J. Willard Marriott, first laid the groundwork for what would become the largest hotel company in the world. In 1927, on their wedding day, J.W. and his wife, Alice, pulled out of Salt Lake City in their Model T Ford and fixed a course for Washington, D.C., to open the first A&W root beer franchise east of the Mississippi. 

The root beer stand birthed Hot Shoppes, which became a D.C. metro area phenomenon. (Marriott also founded such fast-food chains as Roy Rogers and also at one time owned Big Boy Restaurants.) Marriott's business expanded and in 1957 he opened his first hotel, the Twin Bridges Motor Hotel, in Arlington, Va.

The rest you could say is history. Today, Marriott International has more than 6,100 properties and over 1 million rooms across 30 hotel brands spanning 124 countries and territories. All that from a soda stand.

The company is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year and while J. Willard is credited with founding the company, it's his son, Bill, who cranked it up, giving it its forward thrust.

I met Mr. Marriott (never Bill—and people who have worked with him for thirty years will call him the same) in person once, two years ago, at the Marriott Marquis. It was like taking a meeting with the pope—there's a bubbling of angst and nervousness, which was accentuated when I first glimpsed him striding through the Marquis lobby and not being able to get more than a few steps forward before being stopped by a Marriott associate, who was just looking to express his or her thanks and, in many cases, adulation.

Subsequent to our meeting, I read Mr. Marriott's book, "Without Reservations," the double entendre of a title not lost on me. It's a good read, at turns anecdotal, instructive, introspective and opinionated.

I referred back to the book for the second time I spoke with Mr. Marriott. This time it was on the phone as Marriott made its now executive chairman available to the press on its 90th year.

Before I got to my questions, in a perhaps a feeble attempt to gain some common ground with Mr. Marriott, I stumbled through a story about a commonality we shared that involved deep-fryer accidents when we worked at restaurants in our youth. After my rather long-winded replay of it, his response was succinct. "Okay," he said.

Here, then, is my 18 minutes with Mr. Marriott.

1. Marriott was founded in 1927 as a root beer stand. When you take a step back, are you surprised at what it became? Or was there always this kind of confidence by you and your father that this company would grow into what it is today: the largest hotel company in the world?

Bill Marriott: I knew that if we kept moving ahead, opening hotels and providing opportunities for our people, providing a great management team, that we would eventually be successful and I think we've been successful growing the company pretty well since we went public in 1953. We've grown at 16.7 percent a year in terms of earnings growth and stock price growth. I used to say we build our hotels one brick at a time, and we didn't start doing acquisitions until the 1980s. So I've never really sat back and said I'm surprised. I've never sat back and looked at it like I should, but I really began to realize now, at my age, that we have really created something special and I'm very proud of what my team has been able to do.

2. One of the things you make clear, time and time again, is that Marriott exists and succeeds because of the work of its associates, many of which have been with the company for years and years. In fact, it’s one of Marriott’s core fundamentals: Put people first. Can you put into perspective the importance of Marriott’s people, especially in an epoch where we are seeing digital automation, in many ways, upend customer interaction and service?

Marriott: I received a letter yesterday, as a matter of fact, from a customer who stayed in one of our hotels, The Mayflower Hotel, in Washington, D.C. It said: 'I want to inform you of the wonderful employee I encountered who made my stay so pleasant. She's at the front desk of the hotel. Upon check in she greeted me by name and quickly processed my reservation. While I was on my way through the lobby, to meetings, she would say good morning and ask me about my day. Imagine my surprise one evening when upon my return to my room I found a telephone message from her. She had not seen me that morning and wanted to make sure I was okay. I was okay, I had just gone out the back door for a meeting across the street. She's very engaged with the guests, going out of her way to ensure that everyone has a good stay. It's a legendary hotel for its service and she keeps that tradition alive. I can't thank her and the Mayflower enough for making my stay such an enjoyable one. I hope you'll pass along my praise to her.'

This is what it's all about. Taking care of people, making them feel good when they're away from home, making them feel that they're appreciated and recognizing them. You can't do that with a computer. You can only do that with personal contact and that's what we talk about all the time—he importance of personal contact.

3. You handed over the role of CEO to Arne Sorenson in 2012, the first time the company was led by a non-Marriott. When your father made you president of Marriott in 1964, he wrote a letter to you, and tucked it into your desk. It showed how proud of you he was and also shared 15 guideposts. When you tapped Arne for the CEO role, did you leave a note behind a note for him? If so, what did it say?

Marriott: No note. Not necessary. I'd been working with him for 20 years and I knew his capabilities and I knew he had what it took to become a very successful CEO and he has already done that. He's, I think, one of the most amazing business executives in the United States and I'm just so fortunate to have him. I can learn more from him than he can from me; every now and then I give him a few little nuggets based on my experience. But I don't think there's much I can do to help him because he really doesn't need it.

4. You shared in your book that your father was a perfectionist and could be hard on you. As you sit now, what do you think your father would say about the man you’ve become and the job you’ve done with the Marriott company?

Marriott: My father was very short on praise. He used to tell me his father never told him he was doing a good job and he said that's why I never tell you that you're doing a good job. Yes, he was extremely tough, extremely demanding, but deep down inside I think he appreciated what I was doing. Every now and then he'd write in his journal at night, which he wrote every day, that I was doing a good job. He was proud of me. Now, this wasn't very often, maybe once or twice a year, but I got the sense after looking at these old journals that I was appreciated more than he would tell me.

He was a tough, tough guy. But he taught me self-sufficiency more than anything else. He taught me by not giving me answers. He taught me by saying, 'Here is the problem. You go figure it out.' Once, I remember, I couldn't figure it out. I was at my wit's end and he came in the office, sat down at the desk and told me exactly what I needed to do and he was right on every count and I realized that he usually had the answer to everything but he knew I wouldn't develop if I didn't come up with the answers myself. 

...Your kids work in the family business, too. Are you as hard on them as your father was on you?

Of course not! They're all doing great and they're working hard and they're smart and they're more in tune with what's going on in the marketplace today than I'll ever be. So I'm not about to give them any advice. But they're really doing well.

5. You’ve said that listening is the most important trait a manager can cultivate. You’ve also said that selective listening is as bad as not listening at all. You went on to illustrate that point by discussing the ramifications of the hotel industry being overbuilt at the end of the 1980s. There are some signs of that today—that supply is at a tipping point. You might be able to say the same with brands—that there are too many in the marketplace. What, today, then, are the threats to the hotel industry that no one is listening to?

Marriott: Everybody is trying to figure it out but I think we're all listening to the fact that we have disruptors out there who are really disrupting our business. The first one you think about is Airbnb. They've got two million rooms and that's a lot. But they're appealing to a little bit of a different clientele than we are, different guests. I think they're younger and they're looking more for a bargain. And I don't think they get very many business travelers. They don't get any group business travelers. But I do think they get a lot of young people—and that's a real concern.     

The other one would be the Expedias of the world who are trying to take away the loyalty from our brands and put it into their own brands. Then you have another thing we're all concerned about and that's the labor situation in New York City, where the unions have pushed the prices of the wages up so high in New York that hardly any hotels in New York have a food-and-beverage operation anymore.

These are the kinds of things. Global politics, of course, is a real concern when you think about the travel bans and laptop computers on airplanes. These things are deterrents to travel and things we should be concerned about.

...Those are some of the threats. Are there any opportunities out there that you see that hoteliers aren't taking advantage of that they should be?

If I knew what they were I wouldn't tell you. (Editor's note: Mr. Marriott said this in a light-hearted manner and in a way not to reveal anything to the media that might be proprietary.)

6. Marriott, while not loathe to it, was shy about franchising. Today, the franchising of brands is a preferred method of growth. What is your take on franchising today? What are the risks involved versus the benefits?

Marriott: The biggest risk is meeting standards. When people visit your hotel they want a consistent experience across the board. They can't tell whether it's a franchise hotel or a managed hotel because they're all the same and high quality. That means we've got to be very careful about who we select as a franchisee—the selection of the franchisee is very important to get the right people. We have to stay close to them and make sure that they're following our standards and they're reinvesting in their hotels and they're training their people and they're giving the kind of hospitality that we want to give. We have some franchisees that are doing a fabulous job and we have some we continue to work with like anything else. Our managed hotels need some continued work, as well. But that's the big risk—to get them to follow your standards and give the guest the same kind of experience they would get at any kind of managed hotel.

7. You’ve worked with President Obama to promote and champion travel. President Trump’s travel ban executive orders, which have continued to be struck down by the courts, strike against the notion of travel promotion. What is your opinion on the travel ban order and does it have a deleterious impact on travel to the U.S.?

Marriott: So far it hasn't, but I think it could this summer—the problem is going to be concerns about security and traveling with your laptop. You have to check everything in your bag. And I think the slowdown in the security lines and the hassle you have to go through to catch an international flight is going to have some kind of impact. I don't know what it's going to be. So far the travel ban for the Middle Eastern countries and the conversations with Mexico have had a small, tiny impact, but not anything significant. But we're concerned as we go into the summer months that they may be clamping down too hard on the security piece of this and so I think there could be disruption.

...Beyond the security is there an overall perception though that that's being put out there that the U.S. is less welcoming than it was under prior administrations?

Marriott: I think that's true. The fact that we put out there that we don't want people to come here under certain circumstances and I think that means that we're not as welcoming as we should be.

8. You’ve long been motivated by the likes of Starwood and its introduction of such seminal ideas as the W brand and the Heavenly Bed. Arne Sorenson said he was at first skeptical of pulling the trigger on acquiring Starwood. Were you?

Marriott: Well, I was... When I first heard about it, I said to Arne, 'You know, we're in a great position.' We've got about $2 billion of free cash flow every year, which we're using to buy our stock back and pay dividends and I said we just keep continue rolling along. 'We're doing fine'. And then I got to thinking about how through the years I've preached the adage that success is never final. Here I was taking the position that my success is final and I don't need to do much more—you're not listening to the adage you've been putting out all these years. So I said, 'Well, I think we ought to do this.'

...What is the biggest long-term benefit of acquiring Starwood?

It gives us tremendous presence internationally. We have a lot of hotels around the world, particularly in Asia, and the brands are very strong. And they bring a new dimension to life. They are strong marketing people and strong creative people and innovative people and I think that's going to help us a lot.

9. Marriott acquired Starwood to make it the largest hotel company in the world. Any regrets not acquiring Disney when you had the chance to in he early 1980s? Would you have done it knowing what you know today?

Marriott: No, I don't think so, because it's an entertainment company. Back then we were thinking about how many hotels we could build in Disneyland and Disney World and all the hotel business we could send and we weren't looking beyond the veil to see what business they really were in, which is the entertainment business, which we aren't. I told Michael Eisner that if he was around, I might have thought differently about it, but he wasn't there. The company was struggling at the time, but we couldn't fix it without somebody like Eisner who understood the entertainment business.

10. Ninety years is a long time for a company, and Marriott is still, in some ways, just scratching the surface of its potential. While your father started the company, you were the one who grew and built it into the global sprawling company it is today. What would you like your lasting legacy to be?

Marriott: I think the fact that we've provided so many opportunities for people through the years. Half of our general managers come out of the hourly ranks and we really developed a lot of leadership for the industry. I think half the major hotel company managers, CEOs... all have come out of Marriott. So it's really satisfying to know that's the kind of opportunities we've been able to provide people.

You talk about taking poverty away. We have over 600,000 hourly workers around the world and they are supporting families of one, two, and three people or more. I think that's the key to this—really taking good care of people and providing them opportunities to grow and develop and provide better for themselves and their families. And that's the legacy that I'd like to be remembered for.