In conversation with David Marriott on legacy, leadership, and innovation


At the Canadian Hotel Investment Conference (CHIC) 2024 held in Toronto this April, I sat down with David Marriott for a one-on-one conversation on what it means to be a scion of a legendary hospitality family, known for their pioneering and enduring legacy in the global hotel industry. 

Our conversation serves as a glimpse into the Marriott ethos of putting people first, a principle that has steered the company through nearly a century of business.

As of 2024, Marriott International has demonstrated strong performance in the world economy, reflecting a significant recovery and growth trajectory post-pandemic. In 2023, Marriott reported a 7.2 per cent increase in worldwide RevPAR, with a notable 17.4 per cent increase in international markets and a 3.3 per cent rise in the U.S. and Canada.

Marriott’s development pipeline is equally ambitious. As of the end of 2023, Marriott’s worldwide development pipeline included 3,379 properties with approximately 573,000 rooms. This pipeline suggests a focus on expansion, with significant growth projected in the luxury and extended stay segments, as well as new brand introductions like Four Points Express by Sheraton in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) and StudioRes in the U.S. and Canada.

The company has outlined a three-year growth plan through 2025, aiming to add 230,000 to 270,000 net rooms. This plan focuses on leveraging its leading Marriott Bonvoy loyalty program and expanding its brand portfolio across varied market segments to enhance global room growth and fee revenues.

Overall, Marriott’s strategic investments and its resilient, asset-light business model are positioning the company to capitalize on global travel trends and continue its growth trajectory, maintaining a strong competitive stance in the hospitality industry.

Marriott International may be a global enterprise today, but its start was humble, family-oriented, and brave. In the following interview, David Marriott shares insights into his personal journey within the family business, the evolution of Marriott’s operations, and the company’s forward-thinking strategies in sustainability, social responsibility, and technological advancements.

Alice Sheets Mariott and J. Willard Marriott


Q: How did your early experiences shape your decision to follow a career in the hospitality industry?

A: My grandparents, J. Willard and Alice Sheets Marriott, founded our business in May of 1927 as a nine-seat A&W root beer franchise in Washington D.C. They drove 2,100 miles across the country in a Model T Ford with a couple of hundred dollars in their pocket and a small loan to open their dream.

They knew early on that if they took care of their people, the associates would take care of the customer and the customer would come back. That idea is the foundation of our culture and core values—putting people first. Growing up, I observed my dad interacting with associates, going back into the kitchens and the loading dock, shaking hands and thanking them. He had an innate ability to convey how much he cared. My grandparents put a doctor on the payroll very early on in our company’s history, well before healthcare was widely available to ensure that if their associates needed healthcare, they had someone they could go to within the organization.

My grandparents, and then my father, invested in training and focused on empowering our associates and encouraging them to take risks and pursue opportunities. I think my dad would tell you that the thing he’s most proud of in his 66-plus-year career with Marriott are the opportunities that we’ve provided for our people.

Q: When you decided to move into this career path more formally, what was that transition like for you?

A: When I graduated from college and went to work, I pursued my passion for food and beverage. I was assistant sous chef for a year at the Salt Lake City, Downtown Marriott Hotel. My wife was teaching at the time. And then we moved to Boston and I decided to learn the sales side of the business. I started selling small meetings at one of our convention hotels in Boston, the Marriott Copley Place.

I spent about nine years in sales and just loved working with our customers, selling our products and managing a team. Sales is a passion—I think we’re all in sales when you think about it at the end of the day.

I worked my way up through the sales organization and eventually led our global sales team for about four years. I enjoyed the experience of travelling the globe and learning how we sell our rooms differently in different parts of the world.

Then I went back to the operation side of things, overseeing a couple of markets on the East Coast U.S., then overseeing the entire East Coast and then as president of the U.S. Full Service Managed by Marriott team for a few years before I joined the board of directors.

At one point, my dad came to me and said, “Look, I’m going to retire at 90…” I find that comical. We can argue whether or not he’s retired! This business is his love and his passion. But, at the time, he also asked me to fill the seat as chairman. It was an important conversation and very humbling.


Q: Please share some examples of how Marriott has applied its core values throughout the history of your business.

A: Regarding our culture and core values, we have five pillars: The first is to put people first. The second is to pursue excellence. The third is to embrace change, which leads to innovation. The fourth is to act with integrity. The fifth is to serve the communities where we operate.

Our history is full of changes and innovation starting from a nine-seat root beer stand in the summer months in Washington D.C. In 1927 when the summer cooled off, root beer sales dropped off and my grandparents had to change their business. My grandmother was a double major in Spanish and in English graduating from the University of Utah. She used her language skills to go to the Mexican embassy to request recipes for tamales and chili to begin serving food in their restaurant, The Hot Shoppe.

Then as they expanded their restaurant business, they used to stand on the street corners with a clicker and count the number of people that would walk past corners, and the number of cars… these were simple innovations before the ubiquity of computers and big data. They collected their own data to determine what the best street corners were to expand on.

It was nearly 30 years before we opened our first hotel. That in itself was a major innovation. My grandfather had acquired a piece of land in Arlington, Virginia, just on the other side of the 14th Street Bridge from downtown D.C. He believed that roads could change, but bridges would never change in terms of their location. My father and another executive convinced him to put a hotel there and our first hotel was realized in Arlington in 1957, The Twin Bridges Motor Hotel, later known as the Twin Bridges Marriott.

Eventually we shifted focus to lodging as our core business, but it was a journey to get there. Before that, our hospitality business had grown into theme parks and cruise ships—we’re back into the cruise ship business now with the Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection.

We were the first company in our sector in lodging to have a rewards program. We were also the first hotel company in our industry to have a full portfolio of brands.

We strive to evolve how we engage with our associates. A recent innovation here is our “Be” strategy. It’s a concrete way for us to engage with our associates to help them along their career paths. We want our associates to see Marriott as a career and not just a job, and to help them find the opportunities that exist within this industry.

We’ve also extended our brands and platforms to embrace more customer segments, giving our customers choice within our ecosystem to have a place for each of the types of stays that they want to have with us.

In today’s climate around housing affordability and extended stay models that are meeting some of those needs, as well as our recent leap into the mid and moderate-scale space, with the acquisition of Cities Express Hotels and the creation of StudioRes. Some of the brands we’ve created overseas, like Four Points Express, aim to address that space in Europe.

We’re constantly looking at ways to engage more customers, innovate and bring more customers into our Marriott Bonvoy ecosystem. Some of these innovations include our partnerships such as our recent partnership with Taylor Swift. We have partnerships from Formula One to the NFL to Manchester United in the Premier League, all to engage with our Bonvoy members to provide them with those lifelong memories and experiences that they’re seeking and tie that into their loyalty and their experiences with Marriott.

Q: Please speak to us about the sustainability and social responsibility aspects of your business today.

A: Our approach to sustainability stems from that core value that I touched on of serving our communities and serving our world. It’s a key focus for us to help make the world a better place. We feel this is our strongest competitive advantage in our space because it’s authentic, it’s quantifiable.

As we’ve grown to now nearly 9,000 hotels around the globe, it becomes more challenging to keep the culture and core values strong and to keep that focus on making the world a better place. So we’ve implemented processes and structures to help us do that.

We have business councils around the globe, and these business councils, well over a hundred of them are made up of a collection of hotels within those various markets. They work together to look for ways to serve the communities within which they work. They also work on government challenges and issues within each municipality that might impact or affect our business. They work together on key strategic issues within the company. We see how we hire our general managers and our business councils as a way to protect and preserve our culture.

Then we have our platform called Serve 360, which enables us to engage with all of our associates around the globe.

For environmental sustainability, an example is the work we’re doing around EV charging. Thousands of hotels across North America in the U.S. and Canada now have charging stations for electric vehicles. And there’s so much more that we’re doing within that space; we’re striving to have more LEED-certified hotels and we have a goal to be carbon neutral by 2050.

When we talk about empowerment, again, it’s really about giving people opportunities. Looking at female leaders within our company at senior levels, 47 per cent of our leaders at senior levels in the company are female. We are working towards a goal of gender parity.

We look to my grandmother as the inspiration on that front because when you think in 1927, she was essentially our first chief financial officer, she was our first executive chef, and she was always involved in design. She was our first female board member. She was a dynamic personality, a remarkable person and a real inspiration for leaders in our company. When you look at minority leaders in our company, we’re about 22 per cent in senior levels and working towards a goal of 25 per cent by the end of 2025.

We have a goal to hire 3,000 refugees across the globe by the end of next year. As you can imagine, a lot of people who are displaced are coming to the U.S. and Canada and we’re hiring them.

We are working to prevent and mitigate human trafficking. We’ve provided training for 1.2 million of our associates over the years, and counting. This training is designed to help identify those moments when associates might observe the signs of human trafficking, to help put a stop to that and curtail the terrible tragedies that occur in that space.

When we talk about nurturing, it’s about taking care of the environment and members of our local communities. We have a goal to reach 15 million service hours by the end of 2025. In Canada, we have a big focus on the Children’s Miracle Network. The business councils and the team up here have raised about $4.5 million to give back to the communities, $700,000 of that was raised for the Children’s Miracle Network.

We are working with organizations locally to help with food waste to redeploy the food that’s safe to redeploy, to make sure that it’s getting into the hands of those that have need.

We created a committee at the board level more than 20 years ago called our Committee of Excellence. Today it’s called our Inclusion and Social Impact Committee. It came about as a way to focus on promoting diversity within and we were one of the very first public boards to have a committee like that.

When you’re taking care of the people who are working with you, it serves the company, it serves the community and it serves society. We feel like it’s the core of who we are, and that is the most important thing for us to hold onto and to continue to promote as we go forward.

Q: How has changing technology affected your business?

A: The company has operated for close to a century, through a myriad of societal changes, through wartime and peacetime, throughout movements and ever-changing geopolitical landscapes—these events and ideas have informed our business practices.

Take the evolution of data and technology, it has changed business exponentially and it’s more important today than it’s ever been. Thank goodness we have this incredible Marriott Bonvoy program, which has more than 200 million members now, which is exciting. This enables us to get to know our customers better and to have better data and information so that we can serve their needs better going forward.

We believe the minute that data and technology replace the human touch, industry loses its way. That would be something that would damage our industry because it is based on relationships, it’s based on that person-to-person contact, and it’s a service industry. But we can utilize data and technology to help us engage with the customer more efficiently and more effectively and in a more targeted manner to help them have more memorable experiences when they’re staying at our hotels.

Then of course, with AI becoming a focus and interest around the globe, we are experimenting with AI within our brands to provide customers with suggestions based on their travel history and their preferences on where they might like to stay next. We’re going to learn from that and see how that might apply to a broader platform. But we think using AI technology to engage with our customers to enhance their experiences and provide the experiences that they’re looking for is something that will make people’s travel even more impactful and meaningful.

Bill Marriott

Q: What does your career mean to you personally? What is your advice for other professionals?

A: Engagement with people is critical and building trust so that those around you are willing to share the good, the bad, and the ugly. I think with every team that I have built, one of the first exercises that I’ve gone through is building trust and having those open conversations and that open dialogue with them.

It’s not easy to bring your boss bad news. It’s even more difficult to bring your boss bad news when his or her name is on the building. We’ll work through these issues and challenges together and we’ll figure out how to get past those obstacles. That’s important for me.

The other piece is taking risks and listening. So don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t be afraid to take risks. Let’s try to push the envelope and try new things that haven’t been done before. If it doesn’t work out, we’ll pivot and we’ll move on to something else. But take risks and take risks in your careers—challenge yourself. Put yourself in uncomfortable situations, that’s really where you grow the most.

When I think about teams that I’ve built, I encourage people who aren’t necessarily experts within certain disciplines to weigh in on those disciplines and those conversations. I encourage my human resource leaders to weigh in on sales issues, or our finance leaders to weigh in on operations. Our operations leaders weigh in on revenue management.

In addition to building trust, and taking risks, I would say maybe the most important thing is to be a good listener.

Dm 2 copy

Q: What’s on the horizon for Marriott International?

A: Well, my dad’s favourite word has always been “more.” We want to grow more. When you look at our distribution as a company, we have between 16 and 17 per cent of the supply in the U.S. In the industry outside of the U.S. we have 3 per cent of the supply. It nets out to about 8 or 9 per cent of the supply globally. We have a lot of growth opportunity outside of the U.S. We have growth opportunity inside of the U.S., especially within that mid-scale segment that we talked about. And luxury continues to grow as well.

We want to grow our platforms globally—including the growth here in Canada. We have 283 hotels in Canada today with 84 hotels in development, which is super exciting.

The growth we’ve seen here in Canada under Don Cleary’s leadership has been outstanding. The team will continue to build on his legacy. We want to continue to look for partnerships like some of the ones that I touched on, and how we might grow our footprint and how we can get more engaged in more aspects of the entire travel lifespan from start to finish.

We’ll continue to challenge ourselves, push ourselves on the technology front, and look for ways that we can create more exciting opportunities for our guests to stay globally with us, whether it’s on a Ritz-Carlton Yacht, whether it’s in the Maasai Mara at our new JW Hotel or two of the Ritz-Carltons that are under development there.

We will continue to expand our frontiers and provide more options for our customers to stay with us and to experience Marriott customer service through adjacencies, partnerships, growth opportunities, and acquisitions. We want to continue to grow and continue to own the travel space as best we can.

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