The hotel industry has suffered a profound loss with this morning’s news of the passing of Marriott International president and CEO Arne Sorenson. The long-time company executive had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer nearly two years ago in May of 2019.
While Marriott recently announced that he would be scaling back his hours to focus on more intense treatment, the news still was described by the company as “unexpected.” That characterization is most certainly a tribute to the way Sorenson continued to battle this insidious disease and remain positive and upbeat. The fact that he continued to maintain his work schedule for as long as he did was remarkable in and of itself.
My first encounter with Arne was over a decade ago as the transition of the family-run company from Bill Marriott, Jr. to Sorenson was in its early stages. I had the privilege of going to Bethesda to sit down with Mr. Marriott for a cover story interview. Needless to say I was quite excited to meet the man behind the iconic brand.
Of course, I was asked to interview Sorenson as well for the story. I must confess that I approached that interview as something of an afterthought. Who was Arne Sorenson anyway? Yeah he was part of the succession plan but who knows if that will ever really happen. And if it does, how long will he actually be at the helm? By the time I was done interviewing him I knew that Marriott was in very good hands indeed.
Sorenson had a charm and dignity to go along with a deep knowledge of the business. He was a great ambassador for the business. Someone who lived the business and the industry and always represented it well. He was a perfect fit for Marriott.
He officially became the third CEO in the company’s history in 2012 and the first not named Marriott, which should tell you something. Having carved a reputation for prioritizing issues such as sustainability and diversity, Sorenson’s true legacy is pulling off the biggest acquisition in the history of hospitality. The $13 billion deal to acquire Starwood Hotels & Resorts a few years ago effectively doubled the company’s brand lineup and eliminated a major competitor in one fell swoop. Perhaps just as importantly, the massive transition of the company while time consuming was as seamless as can reasonably be expected.
I was particularly moved by Sorenson’s one-on-one interview during The Lodging Conference roughly a year-and-a-half ago. Having received his diagnosis several months earlier, it would have been reasonable to assume that he would politely bow out and no one would blame him. Sorensen not only did the interview with former Marriott colleague Kathleen Matthews but was forthcoming and honest about his condition. He expressed both fear and optimism in discussing a critical upcoming surgery. It certainly wasn’t the kind of candor you expect from a CEO of a major company on stage at an industry event.
For a company that has made its reputation on treating its associates with dignity and respect so they will treat the customers the same way, Sorenson certainly earned the dignity and respect of the entire lodging industry.