“Arne is always the smartest guy in the room.” That’s how Marriott Hotels & Resorts’ CEO Arne Sorenson was described to me by one of the executives at a company conference in Orlando back in June. Others colleagues painted him as extremely accessible and approachable, cool under pressure and never flustered, and a formidable leader and strategist.
That’s high praise for someone who only last year took over for one of the industry’s most beloved figures, Bill Marriott, Jr., who retired, at age 80, as the head of the family business. Before he left, Marriott handpicked Sorenson, over his own four children, to take his place in the corner office, making Sorenson the first head of the company to have a last name other than Marriott. He’s also only the third CEO in the company’s storied 86-year history.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Sorenson at a generals managers’ conference in June for a piece that is scheduled to appear in the October issue of SUCCESS magazine. We had such a great conversation, though, that I thought I’d run the rest of it here.
You were born in Japan, correct?
Yes. I lived there until I was 7.
How did that experience affect you?
It helped me to be curious about the world. It helped instill an interest in history, food, and culture around the world. I shutter to think what this job would be like if I didn’t really love seeing the world, which I do.
You didn’t start out in the hospitality business, did you?
No, I was a lawyer.
How does practicing law help someone prepare to be CEO of the largest publicly traded hotel chain in the world?
The kind of law I practiced, which was a trial law, dealing with cases involving corporate transactions with lots of financial aspects to them, meant that I always had to rely on other people to tell their story, to provide the expertise. In essence, it helped me be part of a bigger team. To make sure you always have the right people with the right ideas in place and that you’re always trying to accomplish the same thing.
You actually first met Bill Marriott in the early 1990s, when your firm was hired to help Marriott defend itself against a lawsuit, right?
Yes. My introduction to him was at one of the times of greatest crisis in the company, and I was representing the company in the midst of that crisis.
You obviously made a good impression, because in 2012, Bill Marriott handpicked you, over his own children, to take over for him as CEO. Does that add to the pressure for you to succeed?
It does in a way. It’s such an obvious fact, though. I can’t pretend to be a Marriott, right? And I can’t pretend to be Bill Marriott. So clearly there is a difference, and the difference is a significant one. So that has to be factored into how I go about things.
What was your first impression of Bill Marriott?
Oh, you know, open, friendly. But by “open” I mean inquisitive, interested, accessible.
Would you describe yourself as open and friendly as well?
I hope so. Yeah, I try to be.
What would you say is your biggest success since taking over as CEO?
I think the transition has gone really well for the company as a whole. I think the Marriott culture continues to be alive and well. I think when you listen to people across the company, they are still very proud to be associated with Marriott. I think they believe the company is on the right course. I think they would say that what’s most important at Marriott has not been lost. I don’t take credit for that myself alone. Bill Marriott provided great support to me and to the transition itself. It’s about pulling people in and making sure the team collectively is moving in the same direction.
What have been your top goals since taking over?
There are a few principle areas of focus and priority. One is global expansion, another is brand strategy, and then there’s attracting the new, younger traveler. The Gen X and Gen Y crowd. It’s not an easy task. And it’s not a task that we will ever look back on and say, “Okay, we’re done. We’ve accomplished that.”
It seems almost everyone in the hospitality industry is changing gears in order to attract younger travelers. How does a brand even go about making the transition?
We’ve been dominant with the boomers for a long time. [So we have to ask ourselves,] how do we make sure we translate our strengths and skills in a way that allows us to be dominant with the younger traveler?
Where will the transition be most noticeable?
I think it will be around technology. I think it will be around product design, fundamentally.
As you point out, these millennials, as they’re called, are tech obsessed. Do you think they expect everything to run on iPads and self-service kiosks now? Do they even value good customer service?
They’re not necessarily running toward an impersonal world in which everything is self-service. I think they’re running toward a world in which they can still be welcomed and they can still feel like they’re important as people. We’ve been in this business of hospitality for 86 years. There’s a genuineness to the way Marriott approaches interaction with its guests that I think resonates really well with younger travelers.
Travel is a tough industry. How has Marriott been able to survive the economic roller coaster of the past 80-plus years?
It starts with having a long-term focus. We have always been a company that was focused on winning, but not winning tomorrow at the expense of winning forever. When the recession hit in 2008, we had a strong balance sheet, because we were set up to last forever. Having a strong balance sheet gives us a lot more flexibility than we would have otherwise, but we also have good, strong brands and a culture of people who want to pull through it together and succeed.
One of Marriott’s tenets has always been that if you take care of your employees, they’ll take care of the guests. And one of the ways you honor your employees is through the annual Awards of Excellence. Why are the awards so important?
The awards are a very deliberate way for us to celebrate our people, especially those who have the least fancy jobs but who are often making a really profound difference to our customers’ experience at Marriott. To be able to celebrate those stories in a way so that the company as a whole hears them and see their examples is just great.
You also talk a lot about corporate social responsibility (CSR) at Marriott. Why so?
The company has talked about CSR for decades. It’s actually more about community engagement where we’re doing business. It feels right. It has an aspect of citizenship, of giving back. It pays us dividends in terms of both customers and employees.
Being the leader of a global brand like Marriott seems like it would be a 24/7 job.
It is an all-consuming job, and the time could be filled many times over by simply saying yes to everything. The challenge is to make sure I do the things that are most important as opposed to just all of the things I’m asked to do. It’s a matter of prioritization. It’s a matter of being deliberate about what your priorities are for the company and then thinking about how that ultimately relates to the way you allocate your time.
How many days each year do you travel?
I don’t know. A lot.
It must be stressful overseeing a $12 billion franchise with more than 325,000 employees and 3,700 hotels. Not to mention the countless days and nights on the road, the endless e-mails, the constant comparisons to your predecessor.
Hmmm [pauses]. It’s a great job. It’s a really fun job. And I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
You’re following in the footsteps of someone who held the position for a very long time. Do you foresee yourself, like Bill Marriott, being 80 and still doing this job?
I don’t think that’s the right thing to plan. I certainly won't make it 40 years like Bill did since I started at age 53, so I’d have to be 93 to have as many years here as him. That ain’t gonna happen. I’m 54 now. You take it a day at a time obviously. I love my job and would like to do it for as long as I can be helpful.