We’ll all miss Arne Sorenson’s influence

Arne Sorenson’s legacy encompasses many qualities—from his leadership and empathy to his business acumen and embracing the big picture of humanity.

Arne, who died Monday, February 15, at age 62 after a nearly two-year battle with pancreatic cancer, was the consummate communicator. He understood his audience and almost always had a tailor-made response to questions. His even-keeled, measured approach to delivering messages became one of his most important calling cards.

The shock of his passing runs deep because we thought we’d have more time to experience his passion for the hotel industry—even after the company announced two weeks ago that Arne was temporarily reducing his workload to focus on his health.

During many of the interviews I had the good fortune of conducting with Arne over the years, he often talked about the importance of taking the lead and lending a voice. That’s something he did with aplomb—and it’s why he was held in such high esteem by an entire industry.

For example, during the ALIS Winter Update digital event on January 25, Arne talked about the need to keep in mind those hotel industry employees who have lost their jobs because of the global pandemic . “Dealing with our people has been singularly the most difficult aspect of this challenge,” he told interviewer Stephanie Ricca, editor-in-chief of Hotel News Now. “[There were] far too many people who [had] their jobs profoundly impacted. … We’ve got to do our best to make sure we are bringing them back, keeping them close until they come back.”

Arne was a man of action. The story behind Marriott’s 2016 acquisition of Starwood Hotels & Resorts demonstrated his ability to rally the troops. When it appeared that the entire deal was going to fall through and another company was going to end up with Starwood, Arne revived the conversation and ended up with a $13-billion deal that created the world’s largest hotel company. He said at the time that keeping all 30 brands intact and relevant could be done—and steadfastly maintained that stance even as owners worried that some brands might be sold. The portfolio remains intact to this day.

Born in Tokyo, Arne’s life was filled with a global presence from the beginning. As he grew into the CEO role at Marriott, it was clear he had a global vision with local wisdom. He knew the big picture was built piece by piece.

He wasn’t afraid to voice his opinion even when it wasn’t the most popular thing to say. His support of diversity and inclusion made a difference, as did his stance on immigration and many other issues.

Arne at times made tough decisions that challenged the status quo—that’s the duty of a good leader. He always seemed to appreciate the pros and cons of every decision he made and weighed his comments before speaking.

An anecdote from Arnie Weissman of Travel Weekly about Marriott cutting group and meetings commissions in 2018 epitomizes Arne’s ability to see the big picture and communicate well. Check it out here.

Arne graced the ALIS stage many times over the years, and it was more than his hotel knowledge that the crowd came to hear. He possessed a rare combination of humility, empathy, and a sense of humor to complement his business wisdom. That’s the Arne people wanted to hear.

And it’s what drew tributes like these this week (these are only highlights of the many statements issued):

  • “Arne was an exceptional executive – but more than that – he was an exceptional human being. Arne loved every aspect of this business and relished time spent touring our hotels and meeting associates around the world. He had an uncanny ability to anticipate where the hospitality industry was headed and position Marriott for growth. But the roles he relished the most were as husband, father, brother and friend. On behalf of the Board and Marriott’s hundreds of thousands of associates around the world, we extend our heartfelt condolences to Arne’s wife and four children. We share your heartbreak, and we will miss Arne deeply.”— J.W. “Bill” Marriott, Jr., Executive Chairman and Chairman of the Board of Marriott International
  • “While Arne’s business accomplishments are apparent to all, his championing of social change made our entire industry better for everyone. Many will remember Arne as the first non-Marriott to serve as CEO of the iconic hotel brand, but Arne will be remembered most for his decency, generosity and compassion.”— AHLA Chairman and Hyatt CEO Mark Hoplamazian and AHLA CEO Chip Rogers
  • “When he spoke, people wanted to listen, and when he led, people followed. 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.”—IHG CEO Keith Barr
  • “God Bless one of the greatest leaders we’ve ever been gifted to have led our industry over the years on so many different levels. Arne will be missed in more ways than we will ever know.”— Wyndham CEO Geoff Ballotti
  • “We have lost a giant. As a father, husband, friend, leader, and steward. But more than anything, as a human being. Arne was a brother, mentor, and incredible inspiration to me, and I will forever remain grateful to have been in his grace. God bless his adoring wife, Ruth, and his beautiful soul.”—Noble Investment Group CEO Mit Shah

That sampling of responses shows the respect and admiration Arne earned during his tenure in the hotel industry. All of us at The BHN Group and Northstar Travel Group extend our sincerest condolences to his family, colleagues, and the hotel industry in general during this sad time.

May we all utilize what his leadership and approach to life taught us as we go through the difficult task of rebuilding our industry. That, I believe, would make Arne proud.

Jeff Higley
President, The BHN Group