Dallas – When Bill Marriott (84), renowned hotelier and executive chairperson of Marriott International came home from his first year in the navy in 1954, his dad told him they were meeting then US president Dwight Eisenhower at their farm to go quail hunting.
They got to the farm and were standing around the fire trying to decide whether or not the president was going to go out to shoot quail.
It was Christmas time, bitter cold and the wind was howling.
Eisenhower turned around to Marriott, a lowly officer in the navy at that point and asked: “What do you think we should do, pal?”
“I said: ‘It is cold out there. Let’s stay in by the fire.’ And we did,” Marriott (pictured) told an audience at the World Travel & Tourism Council’s (WTTC) Global Summit.
He thought about this exchange a lot afterwards. This was the commander in chief of the armed forces in the US and he’d probably used the expression many times before in trying to deal with all the egos to pull them together to win the war.
Marriott said he realised that if you thought you were the smartest guy in the room and didn’t ask other people what they thought, pretty soon you would be the only guy in the room.
Sometimes employees and colleagues can be pretty vocal, but a lot of the time it is just about being heard and being included.
“And that comes back to those magic words: what do you think?”
What began as a root beer stand set up by his father in 1927, Marriott International has grown into a global hotel behemoth. The group will have about 5 500 hotels in over 100 countries following its Starwood Hotels & Resorts acquisition. Protea Hotels is also part of the Marriott stable.
Marriott joined the group in 1956 and became CEO in 1972.
Looking back at his career, Marriott said they have been taking a lot of risks. Probably the single biggest risk was in 1982 when the company built the New York Marriott Marquis Hotel, a 2 000-room property in Times Square.
“Times Square was pretty seedy back then,” Marriott recalled.
A friend had a 200-room hotel in the area and was running 90% occupancy at a time when the rest of the city was at 70%.
The friend explained that it was thanks to the convenient location close to the theatre – the hotel filled up with theatre guests every weekend and with business clients during the week.
“So we rolled the dice built a 2 000-room hotel in Times Square. It worked out fine but it took three or fours years to build up the occupancy. Today it has done very, very, very well, it was a huge risk at the time.”
It also took a lot of courage to recommend the big bet it made on Starwood, but it comes down to “success is never final”, he said.
The group launched its Moxy Hotels brand, a lower priced hotel aimed at millennials in 2013.
The rooms don’t have closets, but rather have pegs on the wall where guests can hang their clothes.
“The millennials don’t unpack their suitcases so they won’t use those pegs anyway. I tell them I see them around our corporate offices they look like they haven’t unpacked their bags,” he joked.
But while these guests may not see the need for a closet or even a desk, they do want a great bathroom, bed and a “huge TV”. They also seem to be fine with hardwood floors, which they believe are cleaner than carpets.
Having your name on the door is scary. It makes you realise that everybody is looking at what you do and you have a certain obligation to your guests, employees and investors to do better, Marriott said.
“I used to get in arguments with my father of course, as most sons do, and I came to the conclusion that he couldn’t fire me and he came to conclusion that I wouldn’t quit. So the old Russian standoff and we got along okay after that understanding.”
Having your name on the door adds a certain dimension to the energy you put into the business and the responsibilities you face in the business, Marriott added.
* The journalist attended the Global Summit as a guest of the WTTC.