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by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | March 29, 2012

Cheryl-Anne Sturken, aka The Hotel Insider, with Bill MarriottThis week, Marriott International's first full-service general manager's conference in five years got under way in downtown Los Angeles at the JW Marriott. The networking is fierce among the 700 GMs from 70 countries and 300-plus Marriott associates gathered here, where star speakers such as Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, and David Novak, CEO of Yum! Brands, are headlining general sessions.

      But the real powerhouse of this event is Bill Marriott, the company's longtime leader and visionary, who at age 80 is officially stepping down as CEO after six decades at the helm of what has grown from one small hotel in 1957 to become one of the world's largest and most recognized global chains, with a portfolio spanning more than 3,000 properties.
     In a sit-down with The Hotel Insider, this industry icon candidly discussed his transition plans and perspective on the hotel industry at large.

Q. After so many years leading, what do your transition plans look like?
A.
I will definitely stay involved and continue to advocate, because this has been my vocation, but I also want to spend more time at home and with my family.

Q. You have been a strong advocate for government-sponsored travel promotion and addressing the visa application problem. Has there been progress on those fronts?
A.
The recent travel promotion piece by U.S. Travel Association has been a great effort, and the wait time for visas has improved, but Brazilians are still faced with huge delays because an in-person interview is required. They are the number-one visitors to New York City, exceeding Canada and England, and they spend a lot of money, so that has to be fixed. Every 35 visitors creates a new job. Nothing creates jobs faster -- it's the low-hanging fruit. And if we could get our international arrivals up, we could easily create 10,000 to 15,000 new jobs in this country.

Q. What are your travel plans? Are there any hotels in your brands that you would like to visit that you haven't seen yet?
A.
I will be in China for 10 days at the end of May, and then in June I'll be in Europe. I hope to get to as many as I can. But I'd particularly like to get back to New Orleans to see how our hotel there is doing.

Q. Are there other markets Marriott will be looking to expand into?
A.
We are just getting started in Africa, where we will open a hotel in Uganda soon. We also have something in Ghana, and we are working hard to get something in Nigeria. But you know, there is also a lot of demand for us in North Dakota because of the shale mining.

Q. What about the Middle East? How has the ongoing political unrest there affected business?
A.
Dubai is going to be a huge success. We have a new JW there, which is very exciting. Cairo is the problem. They need to settle down their political situation or no one will want to visit there.

Q. Will you miss those marathon eight-hour days of around-the-world conference calls, which you mentioned at the general session?
A.
Oh, I will still be conducting those, at least four times a year. And I will still be looking in on our hotels -- and the competition. In fact, yesterday I visited a few of our competitors. But I can't sneak up on our hotels like I used to. It's not fair to them. Sometimes, though, I drop in at the D.C. hotels for dinner without telling them I'm coming.