In memory of
by Iqbal Ahmed
For more than a decade, while working as a concierge for a hotel in London, I became familiar with the name of its eponymous founder, Mr Marriott. His name was somewhat legendary for guests and hosts alike because a father and son duo had run the company for eight decades under their identical name, J. Willard Marriott, distinguishable only by the suffix ‘Snr’ or ‘Jnr’. But then, in 2012, I heard that someone called Arne Sorenson had succeeded Bill Marriott Jnr as the CEO of the company. I wasn’t entirely sure if Arne was American or European. He soon became known to all of the hotel employees by his first name. And it was only recently that I learned that his middle name was ‘Morris’.
When he took over his role as CEO, Arne appeared very youthful compared to Mr Marriott. Things began to change rapidly in many positive ways after Arne assumed his new office. The only time a member of staff in a Marriott hotel outside the US would be in close proximity to Bill Marriott was when he toured the hotel and had a group picture taken of him with the staff. He didn’t use email to communicate with his employees because he belongs to the tradition-loving Silent Generation and is therefore not entirely at ease with using modern technology.
In 2015 I had sent an email to Arne by way of commenting on an interview with him that I’d read on the Reuters website, but I didn’t expect him to reply. It was therefore a pleasant surprise when I received a swift response from him. Our email correspondence over the next few months turned into a long-distance friendship. I finally got to meet him when he visited the hotel in the Autumn of that year, and a couple of weeks later he very kindly featured me in his blogpost for LinkedIn. I had shied away from using this professional network but although Arne was 10 years older than me he had embraced the use of digital technology, which made me rethink my aversion to it.
During the last six years, I learnt a great deal from Arne. He sometimes sent me a handwritten postcard. His love for great works of literature ranged from Shakespeare to Murakami. He liked Hamlet and, in particular, Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of the play for the screen. He followed the line in Act 1, Scene 3, ‘Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice’ in both letter and spirit because he was an amazing listener. His favourite opening line in a novel was from The Tale of Two Cities – ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…’ I usually sought Arne’s advice before starting work on a new book. I once sent him an outline of a book I was planning and he remarked, ‘We are drawn to authenticity and to depth, but we read to be inspired too’. I had planned to write an epistle of disillusion but changed my mind when I received his feedback.
I was undecided about the choice of a title for my latest book and emailed a couple of working titles to Arne. He replied, ‘Not to be too disagreeable, but neither really moves me’ and
suggested that I might call it ‘The Art of Hospitality’. It was his humility that always moved me. When he visited our hotel for the second time, Arne whispered: ‘You should know that I have given a copy of your book to Bill Marriott’. He was very respectful of his predecessor and friend. I had sent him a few copies of my first book and he emailed me to say, ‘I have been handing them out like a new father handing out cigars’. I felt overwhelmed by this message.
One day in November 2017, I was at home, getting ready for the launch of one of my books later that evening, when someone knocked at the door. It was a courier delivering fresh flowers inside a big box. I was intrigued as to who could have sent these to my home. I found an envelope in the box with a congratulatory message from Arne. It was incredible that a person who had the responsibility of overseeing 6,500 hotels at that time would remember something as relatively insignificant as the launch date of my independently published book.
A year later, I was having a haircut at my local barbershop when I heard on the radio that one of the Marriott’s reservation systems was compromised, resulting in a massive data breach. I was a bit worried and sent an email to Arne when I returned home. He soon replied that the company would brave the storm and I felt reassured. His optimism in the face of adversity was exemplary.
When the Marriott was in the process of buying Starwood Hotels in 2016, the deal initially kept falling through. The official advice for the employees at our hotel was not to talk to anyone about the uncertain merger but I knew it would happen because Arne was at the helm. The next year, I received a postcard from him that stated, ‘I am en route to Shanghai to announce Marriott’s partnership with Alibaba’.
Arne championed many causes, from sustainability to gender equality. He was a staunch supporter of just causes in the world and unequivocal in his condemnation of the killing of George Floyd and the recent insurrection in Washington, D.C.
When Arne was diagnosed with stage 2 pancreatic cancer in May 2019, there was an outpouring of concern and well-wishing, not only from employees of his own company but also from his competitors. When touring hotels in the Marriott chain, he would ask his employees who among them had been with the company the longest and gave this person a hug. In the last two years, he was often asked by interviewers how he was doing and his invariable reply was “great”. Arne emailed me after his diagnosis to say that ‘I would like to get to Kashmir one day. Maybe when this health scare gets behind me, I could tag along on one of your trips.’
He passed away on the 15th February, 2021. You would be hard-pressed to find a more compassionate leader than Arne in the entire corporate world.