Since relinquishing the day-to-day leadership of Marriott International last year, Bill Marriott Jr. has shown few signs of slowing down. At age 81, he is no longer the CEO, but he remains active as executive chairman. He authored the recently published memoir Without Reservations: How A Family Root Beer Stand Grew Into A Global Hotel Company. In an interview with Lodging, Marriott says he’s eager for his associates, as well as guests, to learn from his words.
Lodging: How much have you slowed down your work pace since handing over the CEO reins to Arne Sorenson?
Marriott: I would say probably 20 percent. I average 35 to 40 hours a week. I’m really not retired. I’m executive chairman of the board. I feel a need to get out with the people and let them know that this is not a faceless corporation, that there are still Marriotts hanging around. I’ve visited 50 hotels so far this year.
Lodging: You recently said that the best way to grow the hotel industry in the United States is to attract more foreign visitors and that the federal government isn’t helping. In what way?
Marriott: Government needs to focus very strongly on the visa situation and making it easier for people to come here. One of the top priorities should be to get visa waivers for Brazil. Brazil is one of the top five or six countries providing visitors to the United States, and I would imagine we could double it. When we provided visa waivers in South Korea, we went from 500,000 visitors a year to 1 million visitors a year in two years. For every 35 visitors from a foreign country, we pick up another job in this country. When they do come and have a wonderful experience, our position in the world is greatly strengthened.
Lodging: Throughout the book, you emphasize the importance of putting people first. Can you explain?
Marriott: During the Depression, my dad hired a doctor to take care of his people because they couldn’t afford health care. He really believed in it big time. For some companies, the key ingredient is to just build more hotels or buy hotels or something like that. But ours is basically to provide opportunities for people. They’ll help you grow the business and provide good experiences for the guests.
You also have to encourage your people to take risks. Sometimes you just have to suck it up and go with your heart and say, “Let’s go and try this.” And if it fails, don’t put the guy or lady in the penalty box. That’s how you develop people. You have to try things. You have to encourage them to try things and be supportive of them. The four most important words in business are, “What do you think?”
Lodging: You weren’t, however, much of a risk taker when you first ventured into franchising, were you?
Marriott: We started our franchising with a very timid approach. We didn’t want the franchise hotels to look like Marriott hotels. They had to be different. That was a big mistake. We hope that the franchise hotels look just as good or better than the Marriott-managed hotels. We’re developing standard operating procedures so there’s no difference in the eyes of the customers.