Opinion: Mr. Sorenson Tenure As Marriott’s CEO

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While Marriott mourns the loss of its highly successful CEO Arne Sorenson, LoyaltyLobby would like to take a few minutes to reflect on Arne’s tenure.

Due to the transaction’s size and its impact on many of our readers, we’re using the Starwood merger as a major benchmark.

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Technology

Arne either didn’t understand or want to commit to making technology a priority. This was reflected in the high-profile Starwood data breach but others as well.  The jettisoning of a lot of technology on the Starwood side is a regrettable loss of intellectual property. Overnight, customers coming from Starwood had features, and the ability to do business online rolled back. Even today, customers have to make phone calls (or fax!) to accomplish many tasks that should be done online or via the app. And speaking of the app, for a company whose executives love to use the term “mobile-first,” Marriott has a pretty lackluster app, with even a recent refresh sending you to a mobile website to accomplish tasks. Rate information and point earning detail are missing on the app.

Marriott’s one-size-fits-all approach to their website resulted in the loss of detailed information about and photos of many properties. Many suddenly treated long-time guests as new ones at the property level due to the loss of stay history (and preferences) when converted to Marriott’s system. If Marriott had embraced Starwood’s technology that displayed and detailed resort fees, they likely would not have been sued by several state Attorneys General for lack of transparency on those fees, let alone the better customer goodwill of properly disclosing those fees ahead of a stay.

Marriott CEO SPG Members Too Rabid

Culture

Starwood had a different culture through a more global footprint and, therefore slightly different customer base. Design-centric brands such as W and aloft were now mixed in with the company running Courtyard and Fairfields. St. Regis was a less stodgy competitor to Ritz Carlton.

Starwood was comfortable partnering with trendy restauranteurs to create destination restaurants, while Marriott was more comfortable with the JW Steakhouse or Sports-bar concept. Starwood had an official director of music on the staff and innovated with trendy brands of toiletries, once owning Bliss and commissioning Le Labo to create a custom scent for Le Meridien Hotels’ lobbies.

The New York Times even mused about the loss of the “cool factor.” The SPG program lead the industry in innovation and keeping guests highly engaged (or as Arne later referred to as “rabid”).  Many of those innovations and “frills” seem to have been lost under Arne’s streamlining and company-wide sourcing. Understanding and building on cultural differences would have served Arne better to grow and differentiate each brand. It’s the loyal travelers who watch these details and fret about them. It was a strategic mistake to think the points scheme was the only factor driving such fierce loyalty among SPG members when culture played a big role in their being so “rabid.”

Remember To Check What Marriott Hotel Facilities Are Open On Specific (Hidden) Website

Transparency

The resort fee example above is one example of many where Marriott takes a do not disclose attitude. Marriott’s CFO making a factually incorrect statement about always clearly disclosing resort fees sets a tone that Arne clearly condoned. It’s been difficult for customers to know what amenities and facilities are open or closed during the pandemic. Marriott took a half-hearted approach with a separate website (what to expect) that doesn’t link to most property home pages, nor does it seem to have most of the properties featured, and when it does, the information isn’t always up to date.

Marriott App’s Confusing Message About Cancellation Fees

Why should we need to know the 4 digit code of a property even to use that website? As we recently noted: confusion with cancellation fees saying one thing but doing another seems by design. Due to our unvarnished approach to covering hotels and airlines, John isn’t at the top of the list when Marriott’s communications team has news to share, nor does Marriott seem to want to engage and respond to queries in the way that Starwood did. Marriott’s social media team seems to focus more on sales than engaging and responding to customers. Starwood’s social media “lurker” who wielded unusual access across the company to resolve issues or raise them left the company, with his replacements far less empowered and engaged.

Pandemic

While it’s far from over, and impact on the hotel business cannot be understated, we worry that many of Marriott’s cutbacks to housekeeping, facilities, and amenities “due to the pandemic” are permanent. It’s not good for the broader travel and loyalty industry to have such a hodgepodge of policies and a lack of enforcement of brand standards.

Conclusion

Arne was highly successful by many metrics, but there are shortcomings, especially for guests, as we have outlined above. We wish Marriott’s new leadership all the best but hope the Board of Directors can take some of Arne’s (or his direct report leadership team) shortcomings to heart as they move Marriott into a new era.

No matter what happens, you can count on LoyaltyLobby to continue covering the good as well as the not-so-good. In the meantime, we reiterate our thoughts to the family and associates of Mr. Sorenson.

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