Up the Corporate Ladder With Arne Sorenson

At yesterday's Opening General Session, Marriott International's Arne Sorenson told CNN's Mel Robbins that he travels 200 nights per year, with the goal of making sure Marriott is known for being the best, not the biggest.

At yesterday’s Opening General Session, Marriott International’s Arne Sorenson told CNN’s Mel Robbins that he travels 200 nights per year, with the goal of making sure Marriott is known for being the best, not the biggest.

Marriott CEO on His Past and the Hospitality Industry’s Future

Convening Leaders attendees got an intimate look at the personal and professional life of Marriott International President and CEO Arne Sorenson during yesterday morning’s Opening General Session. Interviewed onstage by CNN commentator Mel Robbins, Sorenson shared everything from his early upbringing in Japan under his preacher father to how he became the first non-Marriott to take the helm at the hotel giant in 2012.

Talking to a crowd of more than 4,000 attendees, Sorenson offered insights into Marriott’s recent acquisition of Starwood Hotels & Resorts, including what will change and how the two organizations will complement one another. Initially, Sorenson said, Marriott wasn’t interested in the deal, viewing it as too expensive and requiring too much effort. But a second look showed promise.

The resulting deal has made Marriott the largest hotel company in the world, with more than 1 million rooms in 100 countries. “The question becomes, how do we create a bigger community?” Sorenson said. “Think of it as a couple coming together. We are creating a new community.”

A sense of community is what Sorenson believes makes a difference for Marriott’s guests, right down to each and every property. “You can quickly grab a sense of community within a property,” he said, “and if that doesn’t exist, it’s not likely to be experienced by the guest.”

Sorenson began his career as an attorney for a Washington, D.C., law firm, where he represented Marriott’s legal interests in the early 1990s. It was at that time that he got to know then-CEO J.W. “Bill” Marriott Jr., who later recruited Sorenson to join the hotel company’s M&A division. Bill Marriott quickly took a liking to Sorenson and advanced him to CFO, even though Sorenson had no accounting experience.

Today, Sorenson travels 200 nights per year, with the goal of making sure Marriott is known for being the best, not the biggest. Sorenson is also focused on customer loyalty. “People ask me if loyalty is dead,” he said. “People are loyal to companies, brands, or products because they feel they are getting something of value back.”

Addressing a question from Robbins about being the first non-Marriott to lead the company, Sorenson said he loves the pressure involved, and joked that his tenure likely would be far less than the 40 to 45 years that Bill Marriott and his father — founder J. Willard Marriott Sr. — each served.

Robbins and Sorenson surprised attendees with “The Future of Meetings & Events,” a short video showcasing the results of a new study on which PCMA and Marriott collaborated. The study details five emerging trends that will drive change and innovation within the meetings industry: sensory analytics, tribalization, content safaris, living 360°, and immersive telepresence. (Watch the video at convn.org/marriott-video.)

When asked by Robbins where he would focus his efforts if he weren’t the Marriott CEO but rather a meeting professional, Sorensen said content would be his number-one priority. “Content has to be powerful enough so that attendees say, ‘I could not have done without that,’” he said. “And that means mixing it up, not making it the same each year. That comes from collaboration.”