ATLANTA— Hotel leaders should fight the perception that staying with them is frivolous and their jobs are low paying, and should turn all employees into the industry’s ambassadors with fair wages and working conditions, said Arne Sorenson, president and CEO of Marriott International, during his keynote speech Thursday at the 25th annual Hunter Hotel Investment Conference in Atlanta.

Sorenson noted that the event hotel, a Marriott, employed 700 associates, with average work tenures of 16 years. His company believes that offering employees fair compensation and good working conditions is good for business.

“If you take care of the associates, they will take care of the guests, and the guest will come back, again and again.” Sorenson said, quoting Bill Marriott, executive chairman and chairman of the boar at Marriott. “We think it is the right thing to do, and it is good for our business.”

The hotel industry must fight against the perception that hotel jobs are “aren’t good enough,” because workers earn low pay and are not respected. “Collectively, we’ve got to do the things we can do so that that perception of the industry is changed,” Sorenson said.

The 3 million people working in hotels daily are the industry’s ambassadors to the public, to give them a “favorable opinion of the hotel industry, got to make sure we continue to move forward.”

He cautioned that the industry must fight against a public perception that travel is “frivolous, something discretionary,” that can be cut. Hotels create priceless family memories when they host weddings, honeymooners and family vacation, he said.

“We've got to be collectively unapologetic of the value of what happens in the hotel business,” said Sorenson. The hospital industry helps local economies, creating jobs.

The federal government sequestration may “have a profound impact” on the industry. Noting partisan political struggles over government spending and entitlement reform, Sorenson said the economic fallout will “disproportionately affect our business” because of perception that travel is discretionary.

Beltway blues

Hoteliers should back immigration reform which could have a positive impact on the hotel industry, Sorenson said. Both the president and the Republican Party, following last November’s trouncing, seem interested in making a deal, he noted. At a White House meeting Sorenson attended in January, he noted that most seemed to support the “stapling of a green card to a doctorate,” offering a path to citizenship to those who have been educated here. That is easy to approve; Sorenson advocated for the 12 to 14 million immigrants in the U.S. with insufficient documentation, “who are here,” cannot fully contribute to the U.S. economy, but “they're not going home.” If offered a clearer path to citizenship, they will begin to invest in the U.S. and “will make our economies grow stronger and better,” he said.

“We’re in the business of welcoming people from all over the world,” Sorenson said. “We are filled with stories of fabulously successful immigrants. Industry can and should take a powerful step forward” in advocating for immigration reform.

Regarding the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, Marriott was estimating $120 million to $200 million in added expenses, and cautioned the industry to watch and be careful.

The industry may be “at the beginning of a new golden age of travel,” Sorenson said, noting that 65 million foreigners visited the U.S. in 2012, a number that the Obama administration predicts will rise to 100 million in 2021. If the U.S. had the same share of global travel that we had in the year 200, before 9/11, which would mean 35 million new visitors every year. Those that would book hotel rooms would stay 5-10 days, which could boost hotel occupancies by 4 to 5 points, a “transformational” opportunity.

In China, getting a visa to come to the U.S. used to take 90 days, but is now down to fewer than five days. If the U.S. made China one of the countries whose citizens didn’t need visas to visit, the hotel industry could see a huge surge in visitors. He also noted a Brand USA campaign being launched by the federal government in 18 countries, a welcoming message designed to attract foreign tourism.