JW Marriott Jnr: 'You have a better experience in your bed'

After seeing out the downturn, the Marriott hotel group is ready to succeed in style, as both its chief and the president of Ritz-Carlton explain to Abigail Townsend
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The chairman and chief executive of Marriott International, the world's biggest hotel operator, is the ultimate company man. JW Marriott Jnr has worked for the business - which began in 1927 as a root beer stand in Washington run by his mother and father - since 1948. He became president 40 years ago, took over the chairmanship of the board after his father's death in 1985 and, at 72, has no intention of leaving.

The chairman and chief executive of Marriott International, the world's biggest hotel operator, is the ultimate company man. JW Marriott Jnr has worked for the business - which began in 1927 as a root beer stand in Washington run by his mother and father - since 1948. He became president 40 years ago, took over the chairmanship of the board after his father's death in 1985 and, at 72, has no intention of leaving.

Small yet strangely imposing, he concedes that some people might think him "over the hill" - his words. But he sees no reason to stop doing what he loves. "I plan to continue to work." A succession plan is in place but he has no date for retiring and the implication is that he will stop when the good Lord makes the final retirement decision for him.

In the meantime, Mr Marriott is focusing on what will be a crucial year for the leisure sector. After suffering the fallout from 11 September, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Sars epidemic and a global economic slump, 2004 is chalked in to be the year of recovery. The signs so far are good. Both leisure and business travel picked up in the final months of 2003 and last week Marriott revealed an 11 per cent rise in first-quarter revenues, to $2.25bn (£1.27bn), and upped its 2004 profits forecast.

Even the reticent Americans are venturing abroad again. "With the weak dollar and strong pound, it's pretty expensive to visit Britain," says Mr Marriott. "But it is picking up this year. It won't be double digit [growth] but it will be in the single digits."

Speaking in his soft Southern accent, he says Americans' worries about travelling abroad have helped the group, as have President George Bush's tax cuts for the rich. "People are letting loose more. They are more anxious to travel and spend and people are finding good value in the Caribbean, Florida and Hawaii."

Growing the estate - currently more than 2,700 properties in 68 countries, most of which are leased rather than owned - continues to be a priority. When the Royal Bank of Scotland-owned Le Meridien chain came up for grabs, Marriott settled on the Shelbourne in Dublin and London's Grosvenor House as its preferred sites and, after four months of negotiations, secured both. "The Grosvenor House was the prime asset in the Le Meridien chain, and the opportunity to have a flagship of this size and importance, we thought was terrific," Mr Marriott says.

A multi-million-pound refurbishment will kick off shortly, due for completion in 2007. As well as updating the decor and installing Marriott's reservation systems and technology, 48 rooms will be added.

"When we initially looked at this hotel," recalls Mr Marriott, "we knew it would require a tremendous amount of attention and we worked with Royal Bank of Scotland as to how much that would be. But it's too valuable an asset to continue in the way it is." The group has negotiated a 50-year lease, but Mr Marriott is otherwise reluctant to discuss financial details - either of rent levels or the full cost of the overhaul.

Meanwhile, over in Docklands, a new Marriott will open this summer. The West India Quay site includes 300 hotel rooms and 47 executive apartments, most of which have already been snapped up. One of the penthouses recently sold for £2.8m.

High-end is what the group loves best. Mr Marriott believes people still want luxury, particularly as they are now getting it from fewer and fewer places.

"Consumers are much more demanding, sure they are, and even more so of the hotel industry because they aren't getting it from the airline industry."

Mr Marriott believes that, contrary to contemporary wisdom, efforts to strip out costs - as trumpeted by the budget airlines - have had an adverse effect on the sector, which is now finding it hard to deliver "a really good service product".

Mr Marriott is obsessed with service. Ruminating on his 47 years in the hotel trade - he was responsible for taking the group away from its Hot Shoppe restaurant roots, opening the first Marriott hotel in 1957 in Virginia - he concedes a lot has changed. "High-speed internet access, plasma TVs, better locks on the doors - it just goes on and on. The service today is vastly better than 30 years ago. The food is better than it was 10 years ago. The room decor is better, the beds are much, much better; you have a much better experience in your bed than you used to." One thing hasn't changed, though: "It's still about motivating people and encouraging people to treat the guests in the best possible way."

Which is exactly the sort of sentiment you would expect from a family firm. His three sons all work for Marriott, as does his daughter's husband. One son, he says, is blind but "is a great public speaker" and tours the country talking about the company. Mr Marriott has 12 grandchildren and none of them work for the hotelier - at least not yet, he adds, tellingly.

But Marriott is not a family firm: listed on the New York Stock Exchange, it has a market value of $11bn, though it is easy to forget that fact. Mr Marriott dominates the business, with managers and minions alike in awe of him, treating their boss with the sort of deference usually reserved for royalty, not the chief executive of a public company.

Mr Marriott is the company's largest shareholder, with a 9.99 per cent stake, and various other family members are dotted throughout the investor registrar. In total, the clan controls around 24 per cent of the group.

Mr Marriott says he never planned to work anywhere else. He even maintains he was "kinda in it in the Navy too" as he spent his two-year stint in the supply corps. So should anyone be surprised that he has no plans to quit?

In the UK, the thought of a chief executive and major shareholder at the helm of a company for 40 years would be enough to cause apoplexy among most investor groups. With Mr Marriott, though, his rules are the only ones worth following - and he isn't about to stop now.

How to win guests: run their baths and lend them a dog

Ritz-Carlton is all about the little extras. At the upmarket hotel chain owned by Marriott International, you can call on the bath butler if you are just too pooped to fill your own tub, or peruse the pillow menu (yes, really, a menu of pillows). At a Colorado ski resort, your skis are taken to the slopes and your boots warmed each morning. And, as offered at one Rocky Mountain hotel, you can even borrow a golden retriever to help make walks just that little bit more authentic.

This, and the decision of many Americans to holiday on their side of the Atlantic since 11 September, has helped Ritz-Carlton ride out the worst of the downturn. Of its 56 hotels, 38 are in the US and Caribbean, and the chain avoided cutting rates by offering "value" packages, such as room and car hire combined, to keep people coming through the doors.

Yet the company's president and chief operating officer, Simon Cooper, believes that while the downturn was tough, a new generation of travellers, who place great importance on someone else running their baths, will ensure the chain's continued success. "We're seeing greater affluence. People are paying less for commodities and more for experiences."

Like his boss JW Marriott Jnr, Mr Cooper, 58, has family links to the industry. His family owned a hotel in Torquay (the Fawlty Towers comparisons are not lost on him), run by four aunts, all of whom outlived their husbands. "They were all incredibly tough women," he recalls, citing how one used to preside over the Torquay Rugby Club as well.

He came to the hotel business by a - literally - circuitous route. Born in Essex, he decided to see the world when he was a young man. "I went to the Isle of Wight to go sailing for six months. We got caught in a storm and ended up, 24 hours later, back where we started after going round the island." Eventually, they got off and, despite the same problem occurring at the Bay of Biscay, finally washed up in the Caribbean.

After five years in the Caribbean, he decided it was time to "get serious" and took a job in a Montreal hotel. He has stayed in the industry, and in North America, ever since and in 1998 joined Marriott. (The group brought a 49 per cent stake in Ritz-Carlton in 1995, acquiring the rest three years later.) He initially oversaw Ritz-Carlton's Canadian operations before New England was added to his remit in 2000. He took up his current post the following year.

He is the first to admit that luck has played a big part in his life - from getting out of the Isle of Wight to rearranging a planned conference in New York. Realising a few weeks beforehand that he would be unable to attend, he pushed back the annual meeting of Ritz-Carlton's most senior managers and directors, due to be held in the at World Trade Center, by 24 hours to 12 September 2001.

His plans for the chain, though, have little to do with luck. "We are looking to do more internationally," says Mr Cooper, "both in Europe and Asia." He is keen to move into Scotland - "I would love to be in Edinburgh but I don't know that the market is quite robust enough" - and is looking for properties in Ireland and England to convert into country resorts. The chain is also launching boutique hotels with Italian jeweller Bulgari: the first opens later this year in Milan.

Mr Cooper is a busy man - and likes it that way: "My wife will tell you I have been saying I'm going to retire in five years for the last 20 years." Just like his boss, he isn't for quitting, though the two have slightly different motives. "The reason I haven't [retired] is because the standard of living she expects just keeps rising."

BIOGRAPHY

Born: 1932.

Education: University of Utah.

Career (first job, 1948): Hot Shoppe root beer and restaurant chain.

1953-55: Officer, US Navy.

1956: Joins Marriott full-time.

1957: Manager of Marriott's first hotel, Twin Bridges, Virginia.

1964: Executive vice-president.

1964-72: President.

1972-85: Chairman of the board and chief executive.

Other posts: Director of the Naval Academy Endowment Trust; director of National Geographic Society; member of US Travel and Tourism Promotional Advisory Board; executive committee member of the World Travel & Tourism Council; chairman of President's Export Council; presidential advisory committee member on export trade; chairman of the Leadership Council of the Laura Bush Foundation for America's Libraries. Active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

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