by Loren G. Edelstein | June 05, 2017
At the NYU Hospitality Industry Investment Conference today, Rebecca Jarvis of ABC News conducted a Q&A with Arne Sorenson, president and CEO of Marriott International. Following are highlights of that conversation.
 
Rebecca Jarvis: How are you feeling about the state of the hospitality industry right now?
Arne Sorenson: If you get consumed by the news, it can feel like a tough world, and too often we don't take the time to say the positive things. We have two really powerful tailwinds. One is, throughout the world, including in the United States, we want more and more experiences. Second is global growth of the middle class. Literally hundreds of thousands of people want to travel for the first time.
 
They all want to come to Europe and the United States, almost without exception. They're places they've seen in movies and on TV and in the books they've read.
 
What is the status of the integration of Starwood's SPG program and Marriott Rewards?
One thing we were not prepared for was how rabid the SPG elites were about their program; it is very, very important to them. We have 100 million unique members between the two platforms. Millions have linked their accounts. But it's still early; we don't have one program yet. Until we get the technology done and have more discussions with our customers, we won't have that completed.
 
Do you expect and need 30 brands to exist 10 years from now?
Yes! More choice is better to create a powerful loyalty program. It gives us the ability to have our own ecosystem, know are customers well and satisfy our customers in whatever way they want to be satisfied.
 
I think we have six or seven hotels in Manhattan. That gives the customer the ability to choose where they want to be, and what they want to spend, and they can find that within our brands.
 
Is there space for more brands?
Oh, definitively. Before Starwood, we acquired five or six brands in the last few years. In each one of those, we found a reason that it made sense for us to do that transaction. We now are at the remarkable number of 30 brands, yet we are only a small percent of the global hospitality industry. But for right now, we've go our hands full.
 
We think we have 675,000 people wear our name badge every day around the world. Not all are technically our employees because they are at franchised hotels. But you see the associates say, "I want to be part of this bigger company because it represents more opportunity for me."
 
I know you want to touch the customer directly. Where does that leave your relationship with online travel agencies?
Whether it's with Expedia or with other OTAs, we each have areas where we want to grow our businesses, and we each have opportunities where we can grow our business together. For us that is with the very occasional leisure traveler.
 
What technologies are on the horizon that will help garner even greater loyalty?
Services in anticipation of and within the hotel are a really important space. Think of that as opening your guest room door with your phone, without having to stop at the front desk. Think of it as room service waiting in your room when you arrive. Think of it as wanting something on the beach without having to trudge back through the sand to get it. We have the technology to do this now, but penetration of this level of service is very low. Within a few years, I think it will be commonplace.
 
With respect to digital room keys, we discovered those who were most likely to not want to use the digital key were people who wanted to see if they could work the front desk to get an upgrade. What we need to do to avoid that is to also automate the upgrade experience.
 
You've been pretty vocal about your concerns about policies of the Trump administration. What, specifically, are you worried about?
When you think about doing business in the rest of the world, the question is whether we will somehow be made to pay the price for our American heritage. When you look at the kind of political conversation that is occurring around the world, countries might say, you know what, we're going to favor you a little less.
 
Are you seeing any reduction in inbound international travel?
When you look at arrivals from the Middle East and arrivals from Mexico, they look like they're going to be down 20 percent-plus. My guess is we'll see those number look worse over the next couple of months than we have over the last couple of months. I think over the next couple of years, global travel will continue to grow, and the U.S. share will decline. We'll see more and more people go to Europe and other destinations where the reception seems to be warmer.
 
Have you talked about, as a company, what to do if a viral video shows a guest being mistreated in one of your properties?
Yes, we have talked about that. Nowadays you see a customer arguing with a front-desk person or an airline employee, and with their own cell phone they are filming the entire conversation. Some people are never going to be satisfied, and you can only do your best to satisfy them. Ultimately you've got to have the confidence in your people -- which we do -- that they're going to be able to navigate through something like that.
 
What was the worst -- or best -- advice you've ever received?
The best advice is easy. I've had the pleasure of working with Mr. Marriott for 21 years. He is an icon to me. He has said, "Listen to your people, listen to your partners, listen to your competitors. And if you fill the void with your own knowledge, you're not going to hear what you need to hear."