Why Marriott Stayed

An inside account of the hotel giant’s decision to relocate its headquarters to downtown Bethesda, rather than move away

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A rendering of the Wisconsin Avenue entrance of Marriott’s new headquarters. Courtesy photo.

 

Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson. Photo by Liz Lynch.

In February 2015, Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson was heading to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, for the grand opening of a new hotel in the Bethesda corporation’s worldwide chain. Twenty minutes into the flight on a Marriott jet, one of the pilots reported a malfunction and the plane returned to Manassas Regional Airport in Virginia.

While waiting for the flight to resume (it didn’t), Sorenson chatted with a Washington Post reporter who had been invited along. The reporter, Jonathan O’Connell, knew that Marriott’s headquarters was located in an aging office park and that the company’s top leadership was having private discussions on what to do about it. He began asking questions, as reporters will. And Sorenson spilled: Marriott was going to move its headquarters.

Aside from that top leadership, no one at Marriott knew that the company was thinking about moving—and had been for three years. Until the story broke.

“It was a classic failure in engaging with the press, a real faux pas,” recalls Sorenson, only the third CEO the company has had since it began as a root beer stand more than 90 years ago. “Phones began to ring off the hook.”

Calls were coming from as far away as Florida and Connecticut, seeking to lure the hotel giant. Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe phoned in.

“That became the hot talk of the business world in Washington,” says Maryland Secretary of Commerce Mike Gill, who quickly got involved.

All things being equal, Marriott wanted to remain in Maryland and, preferably, in Montgomery County. “We all grew up here, and we really didn’t want to move out,” says Marriott global officer Debbie Marriott Harrison, a member of the company’s board of directors and the granddaughter of founder J. Willard “Bill” Marriott.

“We’d love to stay in Maryland. Let’s figure it out,” Sorenson told Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and House of Delegates Speaker Michael Busch.

“That obviated the need for us to go into a sort of auction,” he says. “Maryland moved quite quickly and quite fairly. So, we never quite competed it with other jurisdictions.”

The company first came to Montgomery County in 1955, when it moved its offices from Washington, D.C., to River Road in Bethesda near Little Falls Parkway. The building was also used to store plates and napkins for the Hot Shoppes chain that had evolved from the original root beer stand opened in 1927. The site is now home to the Washington Episcopal School.

Since 1979, Marriott has been headquartered in a rectangular six-story structure—modern-looking in its time—at 10400 Fernwood Road, part of the Rock Spring office park in Bethesda, several miles from the nearest Metro station. Here, the car is still king, and ramps to and from I-270 are nearby.

But times—and the workforce—have changed. Today, as many as one-third of the 3,500 employees at headquarters are millennials, and some 600 live in the District. Internal studies and focus groups have shown that the millennial workers prefer a vibrant urban life, with shops and restaurants they can walk to and car-free commuting via convenient public transportation.

Yet, there was Marriott, Sorenson says, settled “in our little cocoon in a place increasingly not satisfactory to our working force.”

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