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Leadership The Marriott man’s million-room march around the world

An illustration of Arne Sorenson, the chief executive officer of Marriott International Inc.

Rachel Idzerda/The Globe and Mail

Born in Tokyo to a family of Lutheran missionaries, travel runs in Arne Sorenson's blood. But the CEO of one of the world's largest hotel chains still marvels at his formative travel experiences.

It was 1979 and Mr. Sorenson was then a 20-year-old college student. His father, a globe-trotting missionary who was deeply involved in what was then known as the American Lutheran Church, asked his son to travel to Lebanon. At the time, the country was engulfed in civil war and Mr. Sorenson spent three months touring around the country, meeting with locals and religious leaders.

"There was gunfire, guns everywhere. There was shelling frequently, so there were plenty of things to be worried about," he says. "But I was probably too young and stupid to be frightened."

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He still gets a kick out of telling this story to his four children, all now in their 20s. "They all actually love to travel, they are very adventuresome," he says. "But I say: 'Can you imagine if I sent you to a war zone when you came out of college?'"

Today Mr. Sorenson, 56, travels for a much different purpose. As the head of Marriott International Inc., he visits hundreds of hotels a year. Most recently, his constant travel schedule has taken him to Toronto for 24 hours in February to inspect the company's latest purchase, the 38-property Delta Hotels Ltd., which Marriott acquired for $168-million earlier this year from British Columbia Investment Management Corp.

It's an inauspicious time for Marriott to become Canada's largest hotel operator. Sinking oil prices are hammering the economy and sapping consumer confidence, while travel from the U.S. has been in steady decline for years.

"I love Canada," he says as sheets of ice slide down the windows of the private dining room Toca, the restaurant inside the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, a Marriott brand. "I don't love the weather in February. But there is a civility in Canada, which I think you don't find in lots of places. There's a bit of a small-town feel, too. If you talk to business people, they all know each other."

For Delta, the transaction grants the company's 38 Canadian hotels access to Marriott's vast global online booking system as well as the 49 million members of the company's loyalty program. For Marriott, buying Delta gives the global brand a stronger presence on Canada's West Coast, which Mr. Sorenson hopes can help capture more of the growing traffic from Asia.

Plunging oil prices also have their advantages. In the roughly eight months since bcIMC first approached Marriott about the Delta deal, the loonie's slide and the strengthening U.S. dollar have shaved millions off the purchase price.

The Delta deal, which closed Wednesday after getting the green light from the federal Competition Bureau, will put Marriott 10,000 rooms closer to Mr. Sorenson's goal of having more than one million rooms either open or under development by the end of this year. (The company, which primarily manages hotels on behalf of owners, had 715,000 rooms open at the end of last year.)

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"We'll sign another 35,000 rooms in the first half of this year," he says. "It's actually not a hard thing to achieve within 2015."

As much as Mr. Sorenson enjoys travelling, most of his time spent in hotels is strictly business. He is staying at the city's newly opened flagship Delta down the street, but likes to dine at the Ritz-Carlton to inspect the food and the service. His presence here is clearly no secret to the Ritz-Carlton staff, several of whom rotate in and out of the dining room every few minutes to introduce themselves, check on the meal and show off decorative plates hand-painted by Toca's artist in residence, Jacqueline Poirier.

In all the fuss, it's easy to forget that Mr. Sorenson is not a life-long hotelier and was once considered a long-shot for the post of Marriott CEO. Until his appointment in 2012, the company had seen just two CEOs in its 88-year history, both named Marriott.

After returning to the United States from Japan when he was 7, Mr. Sorenson grew up in Minnesota where he attended the same Lutheran college as his father and both grandfathers. He eventually eschewed the seminary for law school, even though he had never met a lawyer.

He first met his CEO predecessor, Bill Marriott, in 1993 when he was a 34-year-old partner in the Washington office of the law firm Latham & Watkins. He was representing Marriott in a bitter legal battle with bondholders over the company's plans to split its hotel management business from its debt-laden real estate holdings.

A year after the dust had settled on the lawsuit, Mr. Sorenson got a call out of the blue from Mr. Marriott, asking if the lawyer would come work for him.

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"Almost word for word the conversation with Mr. Marriott was: 'I'll come, but not to be a lawyer,'" Mr. Sorenson recalls. "He said okay; I said okay. There was zero discussion about what that might mean."

He quickly dove into managing the company's mergers and acquisitions, and within two years he was appointed chief financial officer, which made him the face of the company on Wall Street.

It didn't take long for rumours to begin circulating that Mr. Sorenson might be in the running for the top job. Media reports sometimes pitted Mr. Sorenson against Mr. Marriott's son John, then a rising executive at the company, whom many assumed to be the front-runner to succeed his father. John eventually left the company in 2006, a decision Bill Marriott would later attribute to his son's preference for entrepreneurship over the C-suite and the fact that Mr. Marriott was still years away from retirement.

The family shakeup cleared the way for Mr. Sorenson, although he insists the talk of rivalry between himself and John Marriott was exaggerated. "We weren't particularly close friends or anything, but we also weren't posturing ourselves wanting to get ahead of the other," he says. "I suspect each of us would have known that would have been a stupid and destructive move.

"I don't fool myself at all," he adds. "I have an extraordinarily close relationship with Bill Marriott. What he's allowed me to do is a gift in many respects to me and my family. But I'm certain, in the abstract, he would prefer to have a family member in the position to step in and do this."

Not that the Marriott family has gone far. They are still the company's largest shareholders. Bill Marriott, who turned 83 in March, remains executive chairman, regularly visiting the company's global hotel properties and often showing up in the media as the face of the company.

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Mr. Sorenson doesn't mind living in the shadow of his former boss. "I will never have the celebrity that Bill Marriott had as CEO and, frankly, I don't want it," he says. "My name is not over the door and it never will be over the door."

Even so, the press has been keen to play up the differences between the charismatic Mr. Marriott and his understated successor, contrasting Mr. Marriott's love of cheeseburgers and Ferraris with Mr. Sorenson's preference for salads and Toyota Priuses.

"We probably have a lot of instincts which are similar," he says. "We have personalities that are different. We have life philosophies that are different. We are both focused on our families, but I'm not Mormon and he is."

There is some truth to the comparisons. Mr. Sorenson's wife, Ruth, is on her second Prius and Mr. Sorenson drives a Ford Escape hybrid.

He also no longer eats cheeseburgers, having seen how population growth and the rising popularity of meat in countries not accustomed to eating beef is putting pressure on the environment.

"[Beef] is the least efficient way for us to get our calories," he says over a lunch of mushroom soup, octopus linguine and lemonade. "My kids still say one person won't make any difference at all, but you've got to start some place."

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Since taking the Marriott reins three years ago, Mr. Sorenson hasn't shied away from wading into the political realm. He is one of President Barack Obama's go-to CEOs on economic issues and has successfully pressed the administration to address such matters as expanding travel visas for Chinese visitors. He would like to see the U.S. overhaul its immigration system and lower its corporate taxes and is encouraged by the prospect of thawing relations with Cuba.

"Hopefully, the United States is getting towards a point where we're permitted to do business in Cuba soon," he says. (Delta once operated nine hotels in Cuba under hotelier Jonas Prince, but shed them as part of its 1998 sale to Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd.)

Under his watch, Marriott has also expanded its reach into politically sensitive regions. Last year, it acquired Africa's largest hotel operator, Protea Hospitality Group, giving the company a major foothold in the continent. It is now developing a hotel in Kigali, Rwanda, the first major chain to build a hotel in the country since the genocide in the 1990s.

As a bellwether for tourism, it is possible to judge the changing global economic climate through Marriott's hotel plans. As growth picks up across the U.S., the company is embarking on a building spree, one focused on more modestly priced properties in smaller markets. Its luxury brands, like the Ritz-Carlton, are expanding in Asia. In recession-weary Europe, Marriott is looking for growth through repositioning existing hotels, rather than building new ones. It has also partnered with IKEA on an economy hotel concept called Moxy, which is aimed at young, style-conscious travellers on a budget.

In Canada, Marriott has effectively seized the market with its Delta purchase and Mr. Sorenson sees opportunities to once again expand the brand outside of Canada.

After our lunch, I head back to the office on foot and realize that it's possible to walk between three Marriott-owned hotels in the span of five minutes: a newly opened Delta, the Ritz-Carlton and an aging Residence Inn. When I catch up with Mr. Sorenson by phone 10 days later, I ask whether the company risks saturating the small Canadian market in its quest for global expansion.

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"A place like Toronto, it's a big city, it's a great destination, it's a market where we should easily have dozens of hotels," he says. "I think there's probably more opportunity for us in Canada as opposed to less."

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