At the beginning of this year, I hadn’t heard from Arne Sorenson for a week or so and had a heavy sense of foreboding that something was seriously wrong. I soon learnt that he had stepped back from his role as the CEO of Marriott International, which confirmed my suspicion that his health had taken a turn for the worse. A couple of weeks later, a former colleague broke the dreadful news to me of Arne’s death.
This sad event unfortunately came at a time when both the UK and the US were in the grip of the second wave of Covid-19 infections, which meant that it was very difficult to travel from one country to another. Arne had concurrently fought two battles – one regarding his own deteriorating health and the other that of the rapid decline of the hospitality industry which was decimated by the pandemic. I had watched him interviewing the CEO of Uber in an online video a few weeks before and he seemed to be in his usual good spirits. Due to the pandemic, I had lost my own job in a London Marriott hotel a few months previously and Arne had sent me a very sympathetic message saying how disappointed he was to hear about it and asking me how he could help in my search for a new role.
Arne’s last-born, Lars, informed me that his family planned to hold a memorial service later in the year and would let me know beforehand so I could make plans to attend. I was in Kashmir in August when I received a message from him saying that the service would be held on the 6th of November. I very much hoped that the US borders would reopen by then and I could travel to Washington. When the US Government announced in September that they would relax travel restrictions in November it gave me some hope that I would indeed be able to attend the memorial service of my late friend.
I very much wanted to cross the Atlantic again, after more than two decades, to be at the National Cathedral in Washington for the service. However, a Presidential Proclamation restricting travel is still in place. It comes to an end on the 8th of November, just two days after Arne’s memorial event. I applied for a visa waiver (ESTA), which was immediately approved, but I still needed permission from the US embassy in London to travel to the country while the Proclamation remained in effect.
I recently took a bus ride past the new US embassy in Battersea and was tempted to take a picture of its intricate exterior despite an acquaintance who works in the area telling me to refrain from doing so, implying that
it would get me into trouble. I wasn’t sure if he was joking because he said it with a straight face.
The permission letter from the embassy is tellingly known as a National Interest Exception (NIE). I sent an email to the US embassy in the sanguine hope that they would make an exception in this case and let me travel to the country. I received a swift reply from the embassy, informing me that my request didn’t qualify for an NIE and that I fall in the blanket category of people who pose a risk of transmitting the Coronavirus disease in their country. Thus I shall miss the ceremony by two days.
Arne envisioned a world without borders. As an ardent Beatles fan he very much liked John Lennon’s song, ‘Imagine’ (‘Imagine there’s no countries / It isn’t hard to do.’) Even countries like Australia and New Zealand, which closed their borders early, couldn’t keep out the virus, nor the effects of climate change, which poses an even bigger threat than the pandemic and certainly doesn’t recognize any international borders.
In the past 8 months since Arne breathed his last, I have sorely missed mailing him the occasional postcard whenever I travelled to another city. I remembered Arne on my recent trip to Kashmir since shortly after he was diagnosed with cancer he expressed a wish to travel there. On hearing this, I promised to walk with him in the high Himalayas. I am sad to think that it will never happen.
A lot of people around the world working like me in the hospitality industry, from CEOs to those at the lowest rung of the corporate ladder, have fond memories of Arne because he reached out equally to one and all. He was a true egalitarian.
I thought of Arne’s children on Father’s Day earlier this year. Lars later told me that he would trade anything to turn back the clock and help his father one more time in clearing his garden on Father’s Day, just to see a smile on his face.
A month ago I found a role again with Marriott International by joining one of its new hotels in London. I know how elated Arne would have been on hearing this news. He was optimistic about the eventual recovery of our industry and I wish he could have lived long enough to see that happen.