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We Lost a Legend Last Week

The hospitality industry lost a legend last week with the death of Arne Sorenson, president and CEO of Marriott International since 2012. I almost missed it, amid the rapid-fire news cycle reporting a record 500,000 COVID deaths, one frozen state of Texas and a historic mission to Mars.

My PR firm has opened and promoted countless hotels. Hospitality has always fascinated me. My grandfather designed some of the most famous hotels in the world, including the Fontainebleau and Eden Roc on Miami Beach. He taught me how lighting and staircases could create a stage so that every guest feels like a star.

If you don't work in hospitality, Sorenson's name might not resonate. But if you've stayed in any of the more than 7,500 Marriott properties across 132 countries and territories, you've experienced his influence.

Sorenson was just the third CEO since the company's founding in 1927 and the first who was not a namesake. He was widely credited for being a bellwether for where the hospitality industry was trending and so positioned Marriott for success.

Probably his most significant accomplishment was leading Marriott's $13 billion acquisition of Starwood Hotels & Resorts in 2015. The company emerged as the biggest hotel operator in the world, with 30 brands, including Courtyard, Ritz-Carlton, Westin, W Hotels and Sheraton. The merger also created the travel industry’s largest and most inventive customer-loyalty program, Marriott Bonvoy, with more than 140 million members.

Beyond being a visionary leader, he was outspoken about environmental sustainability, human rights and diversity and inclusion. And from all accounts, he was a genuinely nice guy.

The last year couldn't have been easy. The hospitality industry was pummeled by the pandemic. Hotels have been operating at 10% capacity, and many have shuttered. As a result, Sorenson had to lead the company through brutal layoffs, all the while battling cancer.

Marriott announced that Sorenson had pancreatic cancer in 2019, and he fought it for two years. But the end came quickly. On February 2, the company reported he would cut back on his duties. And on February 15 he passed away.

Mine is a Bonvoy family, so whenever we get back to travel - hoping later this year - we'll be at a Marriott property, and I'll be thinking about Sorenson.

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