Tony Capuano knew he had huge shoes to fill when he was named president and CEO of Marriott International. It was almost unfair: He was following in the footsteps of a legend in the hotel industry, Arne Sorenson, who passed away at the age of 62 in 2021. It wasn’t Capuano’s time, and he admits it, calling it a “battlefield promotion.” But it doesn’t mean he didn’t earn it.

Capuano recently spoke at the Hunter Hotel Investment Conference, interviewed by Mitch Patel, president and CEO of Vision Hospitality Group, who, at one point during the discussion, and because of the setting in SEC country, compared Bill Marriott and Sorenson to Bear Bryant and Nick Saban, college coaching luminaries of Alabama football.

Capuano’s admiration for the two is appreciable. Bill Marriott, the nonagenarian former CEO of the company and now chairman emeritus, whose father, J. Willard, founded the company, remains active with the company, as Capuano related in this exchange. “We had a board dinner to celebrate his 40 years as chairman and CEO. The next morning I had to fly to Miami and by the time I landed, I had three voicemails from him about various hotels and transactions. Retirement is not a word that applies to him.”

A Boy’s Life

Not unlike many other lodging company CEOs, Capuano started out on the low rung of the ladder and climbed his way up to the top to lead the biggest hotel company in the world with more than 8,800 hotels globally across more than 30 brands. Capuano was born and raised in Baltimore to a father only 20 years older than he. Capuano got his work ethic from his dad, who loaded trucks on the graveyard shifts at UPS, while also getting an undergraduate degree at nearby Johns Hopkins University. “The very earliest memories I have, it was about working,” Capuano said. (He penned a heartfelt story about his father in this Father’s Day LinkedIn post.)

Capuano’s first job in hospitality came washing dishes, which is as humbling as it is needed—ingraining work ethic, a huge theme in Capuano’s life. Capuano used to carpool into Washington, D.C., about a 40-minute drive south on I-95, with a neighbor who at the time worked for what was the American Hotel Motel Association, the antecedent to today’s AH&LA. He suggested working in hospitality as a career.

Some years later, Capuano graduated from Cornell, which, not unlike the University of Alabama pumping out NFL stars, pushes out hotel executives by the bushel. He credits the school’s career services office and its access to myriad companies within the hospitality segment.

Out of school, Capuano interviewed with eight companies. He got seven job offers and one rejection—from Marriott. “I carried that rejection letter for a long time,” he said, not out of ire, but rather humility, after all, he did go on to become chief of the company. “One of the things I treasure about our company is it’s humility. They probably looked at me and saw this newly minted graduate, who thought he knew everything. He needs to go get humbled a little bit before we invite him into the fold.”

Merry and Misery at Marriott

Capuano joined Marriott in 1995 as part of the market planning and feasibility team, which propelled him to eventually lead Marriott’s development efforts in the Western U.S. and Canada for its full-service brands. In 2009, Capuano assumed global development responsibility. He began overseeing global design in 2014 and global operations in January 2020 as group president, global development, design and operations services.

About a year earlier, Arne Sorenson was diagnosed with stage II pancreatic cancer. He succumbed to the disease two years later, which created a void in leadership. At the time, it was thought to be a two-person race as to whom would be anointed next CEO, Capuano or Stephanie Linnartz, the latter holding the title of president at the time. Capuano got the nod and Linnartz left soon after to become president and CEO of Under Armour.

The pall of sadness that hung over Marriott International subsequent to Sorenson’s death was palpable and warranted. Patel, who works with Marriott brands and knew Sorenson well, called him and outstanding leader but an even greater human being, with the innate ability to connect with people on their level.

Capuano called Sorenson a generational talent, but, like Patel, praised him for the impact he made as a person, not just a hotel executive. “When you read all the beautiful tributes that were written after his his tragic passing, the thing that stuck with me was so few of them talked about him as a business person,” Capuano said. “They talked about his humanity—about the impact he had on folks that hadn’t met him for five minutes.”

But the hotel company, still navigating through the pandemic gauntlet, needed leadership. In the early days, Capuano leaned on Bill Marriott for guidance and counsel. “As we tried to navigate the challenges, big and small, he’d seen them all and the ability to tap into that wisdom was remarkable,” Capuano said.

A CEO’s role is complicated and varied and one of the biggest lessons Capuano took from Sorenson was his skill as a listener, a trait, Capuano said, is in increasingly short supply. “We live in a world of soundbites and distractions, and Arne had this incredible way of engaging with someone when they were speaking and giving 100% of his intention,” he said.

One anecdote Capuano shared with the audience that still resonates with him was the story around Marriott’s 2016 acquisition of Starwood Hotels & Resorts. In the ensuing days of the deal, Marriott executives did a world tour, visiting with Starwood executives and touring hotels. Capuano called it a fantastic but exhausting trip. At the end of that long trip, on the flight back, Capuano, looking to decompress, flipped on a movie. As it began, he happened to glance across the aisle to where Sorenson was sitting. “Arne is reading a 600-page, hardcover biography of William Howard Taft,” Capuano said. “He had this deep intellectual curiosity that made him so well-rounded.”

Sorenson’s death was a shock of sadness, but in the aftermath it was imperative that Capuano exhibit stolid leadership. He had wealth of expertise to draw on in development, but less background in operations, marketing and branding. He also needed something more important than them all: the need to understand people. He was now overseeing 400,000 associates overnight.

lt’s a daunting task and Capuano is the quarterback. He looks at it the same way as a football team would: he gets too much credit for the successes and probably the right amount of blame for failure. “One of the great advantages when I was appointed to the role was I inherited this battle-tested team of extraordinary leaders around the world,” he said, such as Liam Brown, group president, U.S. and Canada, who has been with Marriott for 35 years, and Leeny Oberg, CFO and EVP of development, who started her career with Marriott in 1999. He said that on the day of his announcement as CEO, he got nearly 30,000 emails from Marriott associates around the world, asking what he needed of them. “So when you take on a challenge like that, to know you’ve got this army of passionate leaders and professionals, it gives you a lot of options,” he said.

At the time of his appointment to CEO, The Wall Street Journal called it one of the most challenging jobs in American business. In the world of development, from which Capuano came, freneticism rules the day, jumping from meeting to meeting, closing deals. The CEO role is a different animal altogether, calling for magnetism and, like a good politician, kissing babies, if you will. Capuano draws from his father’s words to him as a boy to see him through. As a youngster, Capuano would play catch with his dad, but had trouble securing the ball. His frustration bubbling over, Capuano’s father said to him: “You are thinking about it all wrong. All you have to do is slow down the ball in your mind and imagine it entering your mitt.” Those words have stuck with Capuano to this day.

When Capuano got the CEO job, he immediately called his dad, like any son would do. He fretted over the myriad tasks and responsibilities that impacted thousands of associates, owners, franchisees, suppliers, guests and hotels around the world. His dad’s response on the phone was not surprising. “Slow down the ball,” he said.

On the Frontlines

One of the best parts of his current role is the amount of time he gets to spend with front-line associates, those who deliver the guest experience daily. It’s something that proved requisite during and after the pandemic, which Bill Marriott called the most significant challenge in the history of the industry.

The resilience of Marriott associates, and countless others who work for other brands, was palpable. In one exchange, Capuano met in Orlando with a culinary associate who was celebrating his 50th anniversary with the company. Capuano thanked him for his five decades of service with the company and asked him how excited he must be that the hotel was full again. Without missing a beat, the associate smiled and said, “That’s how it’s supposed to be.”

Capuano leads a global company with an array of constituents from owners and operators to shareholder and guests. For a publicly traded company, forward motion and growth is front and center. Today, Marriott and its peers put their focus on an asset-light strategy and deriving fees from franchising. (Marriott also manages many of its properties, typically higher-end hotels where it can exercise firmer control over the brand and guest experience.) Owners lean on their brands to help deliver profit, which today is getting tougher as expenses grow as high or higher than revenues, shrinking margins.

“Our business model is a high-growth model,” Capuano said. “And that growth is on the shoulders and balance sheets of our partners.” In a frank moment, Capuano recognized that Marriott’s business model is not the same as a hotel owner’s business model, which is to say they aren’t always aligned. Brands, for instance, thrive on growth and are rewarded for it, while established owners don’t like new competition on their block. Still, Capuano is empathetic. “I wish somebody could hit the pause button on the growth of expenses. As an organization, we have got to be keenly focused on continuing to do everything we can to leverage our channels, our loyalty platform to drive top-line revenue and look everywhere we can for margin. That mindset has to drive all of our decision-making,” he said.

No conversation with a hotel company CEO can go without mention of this question: Are there too many brands? Marriott’s brand house grew exponentially after its Starwood acquisition and its added brands subsequently, but Capuano doesn’t see it as a problem. He likens it to a Rubik’s Cube: “When I think about the constituents that we serve, the thing I love about our portfolio is the breadth of choice that it offers. It’s incumbent on us to make sure each of those 30-plus brands have a well articulated distinct positioning in the minds of each of those constituents. It’s eight years on from Starwood and I would give us a grade of incomplete. Most of those brands, we’ve achieved the objective, but not on all of them and we work every day to get to that ultimate objective.”

Beyond brand management, technology is a major force within the hospitality industry. Marriott is in the midst of what Capuano referred to as “a massive technology transformation,” which includes replatforming its reservations and property management systems and loyalty platform “that will unlock an extraordinary wealth of other opportunities, all with an eye toward improving the guest experience,” he said.

Technology, such as the lightning speed evolution of AI, is impacting the hotel industry on a daily basis, but Capuano points out that technology and automation will—hopefully, in his mind—never replace the human touch.

Marriott recently hosted MIT graduate students at its Bethesda, Md., headquarters and, at one point, Capuano was asked if, one day, there will be a hotel run with no employees. “Gosh, I hope not,” he responded.

Capuano, like many others, see new technology as freeing up time for employees that will lead to operating efficiencies. “If there is an advance in technology that creates 60 seconds of efficiency for a front-desk agent and they can use that incremental 60 seconds to better engage with the guests and understand the purpose of their trip and improve their experience, then it’s great.”

By David Eisen