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The Future of Travel, With Former Marriott President and Author, Ed Fuller

Travel and vacations should be very personal. Each of us has our own measure of how much travel, beach time, museums, nightlife, shopping and exercise we want in order to relax. The needs change with age. If you ask me, my perfect vacations have changed over the years. I never would have taken a cruise […]


Travel and vacations should be very personal. Each of us has our own measure of how much travel, beach time, museums, nightlife, shopping and exercise we want in order to relax. The needs change with age. If you ask me, my perfect vacations have changed over the years. I never would have taken a cruise ship in the past. I always wanted history, history, history; great exotic destinations and fun culinary and entertainment venues. Currently, my last five vacations have been ideal. Hawaii and a Marriott timeshare on Kauai. Or some excellent cruises to Alaska, The Balkans and Norway, with two river cruises on the Rhine. These have been a combination of history, great food and relaxation. This year, we’re river cruising on the Danube.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Ed Fuller. Ed is a hospitality industry leader, educator, and author of the international Top 20 bestselling business book, You Can’t Lead with Your Feet on the Desk, published by Wiley. He is president of the Irvine, California-based Laguna Strategic Advisors, a global consortium that provides business consulting services to corporations and governments. Fuller is a director of the Federal Bureau of Investigators National Academy Associates Foundation (FBINAA). He has served as a Board Executive of several Charity Boards and Three University Boards. His 40-year career with Marriott included serving as CMO and several regional operational positions which was capped by his role as president and managing director of Marriott International for 22 years. As worldwide chief, he directed and administered corporate expansion of 555 hotels in 73 countries and $8 billion in sales. During that time, he oversaw the creation of Marriott International’s Global Security Strategy. Fuller served as a captain in the U.S. Army and was decorated with a Bronze Star and Army Commendation medals. His new international thriller, RED Hotel (Beaufort Books; March 19, 2019; $26.95) will be in bookstores nationwide on March 19.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I had a goal as I exited Boston University. I planned a career in the airline industry. After serving in Germany and Vietnam, I returned from the Army after three years only to find that airline industry was in trouble. My acceptance letters for a management position at United Airlines, TWA and American Airlines were invalid. I interviewed at Marriott for an airport inflight kitchen position with the hopes of finding an airline job. I was not excited about the job. The interviewer indicated that the hotel division needed a sales person who had a military background to make sales calls on the Washington, D.C. bases. I had worked for Pinkerton (Securitas) for four years when I was a student at Boston University. Marriott started me in security while I trained for the sales position. My 40 years with Marriott in sales was for 10 years. This was capped by four years where I was Chief Marketing Officer for the hotels. I cross trained as a General Manager (opening both the Long Island Marriott and the Boston Marriott @ Copley Place) into Operations in three years. I was a regional vice president of operations for the Midwest Region in Chicago for four years and held the same position in the Western Pacific Region in Santa Ana, California for a little over a year. I was named President & Managing Director of the International Lodging Division and held that position for 22 years. Following my retirement from Marriott in 2012, I have been working as a consultant and have operations in Mexico, Japan, China, India and the Middle East.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

There are so many stories, especially over the 22 years when I supervised International Operations in 73 countries. Crisis Management was the most challenging because it involved people’s lives and the company’s reputation. We dealt with tsunamis, the Arab Spring, bombings and kidnappings to name a few. Egypt was in turmoil during the Arab Spring; the President was being overthrown. My Chief Operations Officer, Vice President of Security, a corporate lawyer and I traveled to Egypt to visit our seven Marriott hotels (two under construction), 4,000 associates and numerous guests while the rioting was underway. We visited the seven properties in four cities. As we returned to Cairo, we were greeted by the staff and were told that the police had left the hotel property, leaving only the hotel’s security staff to control the rioters (1,200 rooms with 600 guests). Desperate and unarmed, the kitchen staff had backed up the security with knives, housekeeping with brooms, and engineering with shovels, and held the gates for six hours until the military arrived. I was very proud of the staff and we celebrated their courage on many occasions.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

There were many of these! We had negotiated a major agreement with the Otani organization in Japan. Japan is a very formal country. The negotiations had lasted almost a year, and we had replaced Starwood and the management company. The signing ceremony was to include 300+ guests, Mr. Otani and Bill Marriott, plus seven other key Marriott executives. I had written and submitted my lengthy speech when Mr. Otani asked me to give the speech in Japanese and he would give his in English (I spoke NO Japanese!). I asked to rewrite the speech (make shorter) and was told it had already been printed in the program. I studied extensively the speech in Japanese and was assisted by a Japanese Marriott associate at the corporate office in Maryland. I was rehearsing on the United flight to Tokyo when the flight attendant asked what I was doing. After telling him he said I was giving the speech in the feminine capacity and that I needed to rewrite it in the masculine position. The next day, I gave the speech and because the Japanese are very respectful, I received a nice recognition. However, my staff said I had misused several words, some of them translating to off-color remarks!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Marriott International is very well known. Bill Marriott and the company have been recognized by several associations and media over the years. The stories are many, from a small root beer stand in Washington, D.C., to what is now a company of 6,500 lodging products and over 30 brands. What I thought made the difference was the quality of Bill Marriott (family values which started with the Founder), and the culture of the company that was in place and reinforced by management for my 40 years. Working in a global market had its challenges in doing the right thing. I told Bill several times I knew he wanted me to do to right thing 100% of the time, and I knew he would and did back me up if I rejected a deal or made sure we were not involved in illegal business when it cost us money.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”? Can you share a story about that?

The hotel industry is a challenging one. The industry deals with people and a hotel is like a city. The inhabitants have a range of needs, demands and temperament. The managers who are successful reach out to their associates and guests. Therefore, they must enjoy the industry, working with people, and they must be leaders who model the skills and standards you want your associates to exhibit. This is a business first and foremost, but it’s one that requires exceptional leaders. I teach four classes a year at the University of California, Irvine, and California State University at San Diego. I teach these principles and use a book I wrote on the topic called, “You Can’t Lead With Your Feet on the Desk”.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

In a career, you should have several mentors. In my University phase, I had two mentors — Robert Watts and David Trexler — who helped me find my way in a large university. They led me to Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity. My days at Boston University were great and memorable. At Marriott, I had four major mentors — Bill Marriott Al LeFaivre, Paul Reed and Bill Shaw. I also had several peer mentors. A friend of mine has appropriately called her mentors her “Board of Directors.” Katie Bianchi uses them to guide decisions and challenges. I am lucky to be one of those “Directors.” Because of my extensive travels, I relied on my peer mentors to keep me up to date about what was going on at headquarters. My four senior mentors were noteworthy in telling me with candor about risks and opportunities, as well as advice.

Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?

Throughout my career, I have tried to be on the cutting edge of innovation. At Marriott there were so many, and yet I can still remember a few that stand out.

  1. While converting our reservation system from manual to automation, which I led in 1974, I focused on buying two major systems. The most significant was buying a mainframe from United Airlines’ vendor, giving us “last room availability” earlier than other companies.
  2. When we were reluctant to use television advertising, we created a campaign featuring Bill Marriott which was named “That’s my name over the door”.
  3. When starting the International Division for Marriott, all our focus and systems were geared toward domestic markets. To literally “get support and focus” I would pay $20 to anyone that used the word “global”. Regretfully, I wasn’t paying out that much money until Bill Marriott used “global” in his speech to the headquarters staff six times, stopped his speech and turned to me and said, “Ed, that will be $120”! It got easier, but it was still a challenge to make us a global company.
  4. Our reservation center was based in Omaha and we paid significant costs to ship our reservations to our remote international locations. In the 2000’s, I teamed up with Carl Wilson in our Information Technology Division to move our international reservations to the Cloud.
  5. In my consulting, I was able to expand the Orange County, California destination to a more global organization with no overseas effort to offices in Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Mexico City, Dubai, Japan and Delhi.

Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation?

In the examples we have discussed, that motivations parallel the challenges we face every day. The United Airlines mainframe, Bill Marriott’s advertising campaign, and the globalization of Orange County, California were focused on increasing our revenue through marketing and sales. While moving, the reservations were focused in cross-controls. At the same time, the $20 campaign in the 1990’s was an attempt to gain resources and utilize existing systems for our international organization. We are all challenges to increase revenues, decrease costs and gain support from our peer organizations. In all cases this requires leadership and relationships supporting innovation.

How do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?

There were always risks, but we did have a competitive advantage in every case of the examples I shared with you.

Can you share 5 examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers like to travel?

1. The industry is going through more changes than ever before. Consolidation and the creation of large brand companies. The acquisition of Starwood by Marriott is creating large brand companies (6,500 +) with more than 30 brands. Hilton, Hyatt, InterContinental, Accor and a few others are expanding every day. This will allow for a financial business model that is superior in many ways and less risky in the ups and downs of our economy. The challenge is having the best, most consistent brands.

2. The new models for the brand company results in their moving from ownership (in the 1980’s) to management, and then to franchising (since 2000). Companies like Marriott and Hilton are 80–90% franchised in the United States. The result is the creation of many management companies and owner/management companies utilizing Brands owned by the brand companies. The management companies employ most associates who are working in the hotel. This leads to several significant changes and challenges.

The two largest management companies are themselves developing large companies (Aimbridge, Interstate, White and Concord).

3. Ownership in the last three decades are more involved in the operation of the hotels, and in many cases have short term objectives. As a result, capital infusions are tied to the owners’ strategy regarding the sale of properties rather than the needs of the property.

4. Cost controls have resulted in staffing reductions driven by labor costs, union work rules, and a drive for efficiency. Some are creative and effective. Some have reduced the quality of the consumer’s expectation and experience.

5. Automation will be the next step. Artificial Intelligence is already being developed and tested in room service, security, limited food preparation and housekeeping. The only question is how far the automation of jobs will go.

You are a “travel insider.” How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience?”

Travel and vacations should be very personal. Each of us has our own measure of how much travel, beach time, museums, nightlife, shopping and exercise we want in order to relax. The needs change with age. If you ask me, my perfect vacations have changed over the years. I never would have taken a cruise ship in the past. I always wanted history, history, history; great exotic destinations and fun culinary and entertainment venues. Currently, my last five vacations have been ideal. Hawaii and a Marriott timeshare on Kauai. Or some excellent cruises to Alaska, The Balkans and Norway, with two river cruises on the Rhine. These have been a combination of history, great food and relaxation. This year, we’re river cruising on the Danube.

Can you share with our readers how have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

My focus is on education (Boston University, Cal State San Marcos and the University of California, Irvine). I serve on Advisory Boards, I have pledged gifts to UCI and BU, I teach at San Diego State and UCI, I’m a Trustee or a Director at Boston University, UCI and Cal State, I have served on other Advisory Boards at Cal State Fullerton and the University of Hawaii, I am a member of the Cal State University Hospitality & Tourism Alliance. Because of my focus on history, I’m a member of the Ronald Reagan Library. Because of my focus on the youth of our country, I am a former Director of Safe Kids, a Director of Mind Research, the Chairman of the SAE Foundation. Because of my focus on safety and those who protect us, I am a Foundation Director of the FBINAA. I also work with Visit California and the Orange County Visitors Association.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

An interesting question! Infinite funds, probably education. I’d focus on a program that created an educational system as big as the budget allows to create a series of trade schools like the training schools we had in the ‘50’s — ‘70’s. The schools would offer a degreed program with a minimum cost. Programs like design, trades such as auto mechanic, electricians, computer programming, etc.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Yes, readers can follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and my website which is: http://edwinfuller.com/ . Here are my additional social media links:

Facebook https://www.facebook.com/EdFullerAuthor/

Twitter https://twitter.com/AuthorEdFuller

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