During his tenure, Arne Sorenson led Marriott to massive growth

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Arne Sorenson and J.W. "Bill" Marriott Jr., Marriott International’s executive chairman and chairman of the board, in Times Square.
Arne Sorenson and J.W. "Bill" Marriott Jr., Marriott International’s executive chairman and chairman of the board, in Times Square.

Under the leadership of Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson, who died earlier this week, Marriott was catapulted into becoming the undisputed largest hotel group in the world.

Sorenson had been battling pancreatic cancer for close to two years at the time of his death. After publicly announcing his diagnosis in May 2019, Sorenson continued to work full-time until early February of this year, when the company announced that he would be temporarily stepping back from his duties to pursue more aggressive treatment.

In a statement, J.W. "Bill" Marriott Jr., Marriott International's executive chairman and chairman of the board, said that Arne "loved every aspect of this business."

"He had an uncanny ability to anticipate where the hospitality industry was headed and position Marriott for growth."

Born in Tokyo in 1958, Sorenson moved to the U.S. permanently with his family in 1965. He initially embarked on a career in the legal field, graduating from Luther College in Iowa and the University of Minnesota Law School and becoming a partner with the law firm Latham & Watkins in Washington in 1984.

In 1996, Sorenson joined Marriott, holding a variety of roles before being appointed the group's president and COO in 2009. In 2011, he was elected to Marriott's board of directors, and in 2012, he was named CEO, becoming the first person outside the Marriott family to hold the company's chief executive post.

Sorenson's tenure was marked by many achievements, chief among them Marriott's $13 billion acquisition of Starwood Hotels & Resorts in 2016. The blockbuster deal grew Marriott's portfolio from 19 brands to 30, with the company adding Starwood flags like St. Regis, W, Sheraton and Westin.

At the time, Sorenson said the transaction would enhance Marriott's "competitiveness in a quickly evolving marketplace."

"This is an opportunity to create value by combining the distribution and strengths of Marriott and Starwood," he said. "This greater scale should offer a wider choice of brands to consumers, improve economics to owners and franchisees, increase unit growth and enhance long-term value to shareholders."

The acquisition also provided more leverage when negotiating with OTAs, a distribution channel often viewed as a double-edged sword.

And it put loyalty center stage. In early 2019, Marriott unveiled its Marriott Bonvoy platform, designed to consolidate the group's Marriott Rewards, Ritz-Carlton Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest programs, uniting the company's 30 flags under a single umbrella loyalty program.

That same year, Marriott entered the short-term vacation rental market in earnest with the debut of Homes & Villas by Marriott International, which showcased a global selection of professionally managed, high-end private home rentals.

By mid-2019, Marriott had also detailed plans to significantly increase its presence in the all-inclusive sphere, focused on flagging all-inclusive resorts throughout the Caribbean and Latin America under its full-service and luxury brands, including Ritz-Carlton, Luxury Collection, Marriott, Westin, W, Autograph Collection and Delta by Marriott.
Today, the Marriott stable comprises more than 7,500 properties across 132 countries and territories.

Concurrent with his relentless expansion of the Marriott empire, Sorenson earned a reputation as an outspoken and progressive leader, advocating for issues like diversity, equity and inclusion, environmental sustainability and human trafficking awareness.

He was often vocal about his views, denouncing racial injustice and writing about his hope to honor the memory of George Floyd "with real change" in a May 2020 blog post as well as strongly condemning January's deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol. In a letter to Marriott associates last month, he called the riot "a stunning, outrageous and unprecedented attack against this nation."

Sorenson's death elicited an outpouring of tributes. In a statement, IHG Hotels & Resorts CEO Keith Barr described Sorenson "an incredibly inspiring person to so many people."

"When he spoke, people wanted to listen, and when he led, people followed," said Barr. "That is the mark of a great leader, and his legacy at Marriott speaks for itself, not just in how he consistently raised the bar to grow the company but also in the way he championed progress on important social and environmental issues and represented our industry with such grace in the best of times and in the most challenging of times."

And despite his passion for Marriott and the hospitality business, Bill Marriott in the statement said, "the roles he relished the most were as husband, father, brother and friend."

Sorenson is survived by his wife, Ruth, and their four children, Astri, Esther, Isaac and Lars.

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