Lessons Bill Marriott Taught the Hotel Industry

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Back in the 1990s, I wrote a commentary titled “Taste the Soup,” which in many ways captured the genius of Bill Marriott. The nearly 80-year-old CEO of Marriott International retires in March, although he'll continue to keep his strong hand in the business as executive chairman. He may be giving up the day-to-day reins to the company his father and mother built, but no one believes he's leaving the business to sit in a rocker on the porch.

While Mr. Marriott was never known as the most cutting-edge hotelier, he's best remembered as one who could perfect ideas other visionaries brought to the scene. American Airlines may have been the first travel company with a frequency program, but Marriott Rewards has become the gold standard in the lodging business, if not all hospitality, for the ferocious loyalty of its members. Literally, hundreds of thousands of road warriors start their travel planning with what Marriott property they're staying at. Other examples abound: Jack DeBoer invented Residence Inn, but Marriott elevated it to tops in its segment; same with Ritz-Carlton. Even timeshare, once a sketchy industry populated by shady companies and characters, became respectable once Marriott entered and perfected the business.

But back to the soup and Mr. Marriott's lessons to the industry. Whereas some hotel company CEOs prefer to keep company with bankers and other captains of industry, Bill Marriott is happiest when he's touring hotels, a ritual he performs more than 200 times a year. While news of Mr. Marriott's arrival in a city sends shivers up the spine of many GMs, it also gives them reassurance that the man whose name is on the door actually cares about the hotels, their guests and, more importantly, the associates who make these properties in demand by travelers and profitable for their owners.

When Mr. Marriott arrives for one of his famous inspection trips, he doesn't sequester himself in the GM's office looking at the books or the latest Star Reports or the booking pace for next month. He visits guestrooms, meeting areas, f&b outlets, employee break rooms and even the kitchen, where perhaps apocryphally, he tastes the soup of the day. It's been this hands-on approach to the business from the man at the top that ultimately makes Marriott International the most-successful, most-copied and most-popular family of hotel brands in the world.

In the coming years, Mr. Marriott may cut back to 100 or 150 property visits a year, but I don't expect him to ever stop doing what he does best: tasting the soup.

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