Executive Conversations: Building Resiliency with Arne Sorenson, President and CEO, Marriott International
Arne Sorenson, President and CEO of Marriott International, joins Joanna Todd, Head of Worldwide Accommodations and Lodging at Amazon Web Services (AWS), for a broad-ranging discussion about the recent disruption faced by travel and hospitality companies – and his company’s response to that disruption. Marriott International offers 30 brands and 7,000+ properties across 131 countries and territories to give people more ways to connect, experience, and expand their world.
This Executive Conversation is one of a series of discussions held with industry leaders, where we seek to learn more about their resiliency, tenacity, and capacity for innovation. The series follows the publication of the AWS Travel and Hospitality E-book: “Building Resilience For The Long Run.” Filled with strategic observations, hints, and tips, the E-book provides guidance for building a more resilient organization, potentially serving as a useful resource as travel and hospitality companies address both current challenges and those yet to come.
Joanna Todd: While your business is recognized publicly by many, what’s one unique characteristic or feature that is either lesser known or understood about your company?
Arne Sorenson: In these trying times, I find myself thankful for Marriott’s core values, particularly its TakeCare culture, which puts people first. J.W. and Alice Marriott founded the company 93 years ago against tough odds. We’ve weathered the Great Depression, multiple wars, natural disasters, terrorist acts, and economic downturns. Through it all, Marriott always has stood tall, relying on the humanity in all of us to look out for each other. Despite all the sobering headlines, I continue to hear uplifting stories of Marriott associates the world over, taking care of each other, our guests, and our communities. I’m talking about simple acts of kindness, not one that would change the world. But collectively, they show the power we have when we join together to take care of one another as human beings. One of my favorite stories is about 30 associates in Suzhou, China, who heard a surgical mask factory needed workers. They left their hotels to operate the machinery and pack the masks into boxes. The work was taxing but with the help of Marriott volunteers and others, the factory produced an amazing 100,000 masks per day at a time when the world needed them. That’s the Marriott way.
JT: Many companies across travel and hospitality have been managing through a period of unprecedented disruption. What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced during this recent period and how have you managed through them?
AS: The COVID-19 pandemic has had a more severe and sustained financial impact on Marriott’s business than 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis, combined. This is like nothing we’ve ever seen before. From the very beginning, when we saw the first impact on our hotels in China, we’ve taken a number of steps to adapt and strengthen our business, including reducing costs significantly. In a heart-breaking decision, we furloughed and reduced work schedules for thousands of associates and rolled out a voluntary transition program for others who may choose to leave the company and pursue other opportunities. At the global peak of the pandemic, we temporarily closed about 25 percent of our hotels worldwide. As global trends have started to stabilize, we have been diligently monitoring various data points and developing a global cross‐discipline recovery plan. In addition to tracking the booking and cancellation information and macro‐economic indicators, we are also looking at COVID‐19 testing and cases, and government regulations – all with an eye toward ramping up our business in a thoughtful way as restrictions are lifted and market conditions improve.
JT: As we all prepare for the next phase of traveler or guest demand, what are some of the changes your company has taken (or plans on taking) to adjust to the current operating environment?
AS: Although there is tremendous pent up demand to travel, it is also quite clear that no one will, or should, travel until they feel safe. Working with health experts, we have instituted new rigorous cleaning, social distancing, and food and beverage protocols for our properties, following the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. Mobile room keys and contactless check-in, payments, and room service (where available) are now the norm. And in collaboration with the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA), we are requiring our guests and associates in North America to wear masks while inside the public spaces of our hotels. Looking forward, we have a lot of changes in the works as we rethink the entire event experience. Group events will probably be smaller at first as we try to accommodate social distancing. In our space design, for example, we may seat four people to a table instead of ten as we use more square footage in our rooms. There may be fewer buffets and more grab and go options. And coffee breaks may be staggered. Every event will differ, but safety and hygiene always will be top of mind.
JT: In the face of the current disruption to the travel and hospitality industry, we’ve observed incredible innovations coming from across the industry. How has your company innovated through these challenging times and what are you most proud of?
AS: I’m proud of the team at Marriott for so many things we’ve accomplished this year. During an unprecedented industry disruption, the team has put in place a Commitment to Cleanliness program designed to meet head-on the many health and safety challenges presented by COVID-19. As part of that program, we rolled out the Marriott Global Cleanliness Council, which consists of experts in food and water safety, hygiene and infection prevention, and hotel operations. Working together, the council has an ongoing mission to develop a new generation of global hospitality cleanliness standards and behaviors for our more than 7,400 properties around the world. We also initiated plans to roll out enhanced technologies at our properties over the next few months, including electrostatic sprayers and the highest classification of disinfectants recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization to sanitize surfaces throughout hotels. Absent national standards on masks, we partnered with the American Hotel & Lodging Association on an industry approach to require masks while inside the public spaces of hotels. Collectively, these efforts will help slow the spread of COVID-19 and help us all to eventually get back on the road again.
JT: The travel and hospitality industry is incredibly resilient. As you look toward recovery, what role does technology play for your company moving forward? How do you see technology enhancing the customer experience and improving operational efficiency?
AS: In the midst of this pandemic, technology has been a key component of our recovery efforts and I don’t see that changing, even after we eventually return to “normal.” While we are using technology extensively during this period on everything from supporting data-driven marketing to deploying new technology like electrostatic sprayers to enhance the cleaning of our hotels – I think the sweet spot right now is when technology can be used to help customers more easily navigate traveling during a pandemic. Technology has allowed us to effectively practice social distancing through efforts like mobile room keys and contactless check-in, payments, and room service. All of those things improve our operational efficiency by allowing associates more time to focus on other areas of customer service. Looking ahead, I don’t see guests returning to the use of traditional room keys or in-person check-in once they’ve adapted to using mobile keys and contactless check-in. The new approach is just easier, faster, and smarter – but when paired with a warm welcome and everything else that goes into true hospitality, it provides the perfect hybrid approach.
JT: There’s much talk at the moment about how the guest experience has changed and that there will be a “new normal” going forward. What does this “new normal” look like to you and how do you think the travel experience will look 3 years from now?
AS: I think the hotel business will look differently on the back end of this. The entire industry is making adjustments in our cleaning, hygiene, and food and beverage protocols. We won’t be able to accommodate large crowds for a while at our bigger convention hotels in the way our guests are used to, but we’ll find new ways to bring people together safely. Some of us will turn to digital keys and other technology to help provide social distancing. Many changes are on the way. We can adjust, but at the center of what we do must be the safety of our guests and associates. As we look forward to the recovery, let’s not lose sight of the importance of travel in cultivating cultural awareness and understanding. It is through travel that we inspire new perspectives that often teach us that we have much in common. Particularly in a post-pandemic world, the need for cultural understanding and coming together couldn’t be more important. In hospitality, we get to play a vital role in that effort because we are in the business of welcoming all – people from different backgrounds, perspectives, countries, and cultures are all welcome at our hotels.
JT: What makes you excited for the future of travel and hospitality? As a traveler or guest, where are you looking forward to visiting next?
AS: During this pandemic, I have been living with my wife and four adult children and I can tell you firsthand, we are all ready to travel. That desire to travel, to collect experiences and to get together in person has not diminished in this crisis. And we’re not alone. As the summer unfolds, the industry is beginning to see people tentatively embrace leisure travel, primarily at drive-to destinations – the nostalgic road trip. That will be followed by domestic air travel, then international, and finally group. This recovery will be led in most instances by young people who are not only more adventurous, but they have a greater need to get back to their engaged lives, whether that’s to grow in their careers, to learn and explore, or just get out of their homes. So many life events have been postponed – weddings, vacations, anniversaries. There is no virtual replacement for that. For me, I’m looking forward to traveling again with my family – despite the fact that we’ve shared a lot of quality time recently. There are no other people I enjoy more in this world and we have so much fun when we are discovering a new destination together.
Learn more about the new Travel and Hospitality E-book: “Building Resilience For The Long Run.”
See more Executive Conversations and industry insights on the AWS Travel and Hospitality Blog.
Arne Sorenson is president and chief executive officer of Marriott International. In his role, Sorenson presides over one of the world’s largest hospitality companies and some of the most iconic travel brands. An outspoken corporate leader, he has advocated for environmental sustainability, human rights and diversity and inclusion. Sorenson joined Marriott in 1996 and held a number of positions before serving as president and chief operating officer. He was elected to Marriott’s Board of Directors in 2011 and became CEO in 2012. Sorenson is active on multiple boards including Microsoft, the Business Roundtable, The Brookings Institution and Special Olympics.