Steve Heitzner might have been a household name alongside Roger Federer, Bjorn Borg and Andre Agassi. That is if a little hotel company called Marriott had not come calling about three decades ago. Working his way up the ranks from his first job as a sales manager at a Chicago hotel, Heitzner has served as Marriott International’s chief sales and marketing officer for the Americas for the past eight years.
But if you think a leadership role at a major company that repeatedly lands in the top third of Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list hinders his backhand, you’d be wrong. Tennis is as much a part of the former NCAA Division 1 tennis athlete now as it was in his days at Michigan State University. Just a few years ago, he and one of his daughters, Kendall, were ranked No. 2 in the country on the father-daughter tennis circuit.
It’s no surprise, then, that Heitzner is thrilled about Marriott’s partnership with the NCAA, along with many more changes happening at his company—including its splashy acquisition of Starwood in 2016. The straight shooter served up the details for Connect.
Marriott’s acquisition was completed last September. Fifteen months later, what’s the latest on integrating the two companies?
We’ve spent a lot of time getting to know the people. First and foremost, this is a people business, and Marriott is very focused on our associates. We have made a lot of progress integrating the roles our associates play. What’s still in front of us is integrating our systems, so we fully function as one. If you talk about any acquisition, systems are often the most difficult part of the integration. Over the next 12 to 18 months we’ll be very focused on integrating the legacy Starwood and Marriott systems.
What do you see as the top benefits for meeting planners from the acquisition?
Immediately with the acquisition of Starwood, Marriott became the largest operator of convention and resort hotels in the industry. With the addition of Starwood hotels that have joined Marriott’s Convention and Resort Network [CRN], we’re up to 108 hotels focused on hosting customer meetings and events. Most importantly for meeting planners, that allows us to drive consistency across the board. [This includes] things like a Marriott partner who understands the meeting planners’ needs, preconvention meetings, post-con reports, general manager handoffs and intimately knowing everything about a meeting as it transfers from one hotel to another.
Why would one large company mean more choices than two companies for planners?
Before we acquired Gaylord Hotels, they had four great meetings hotels. Meetings circulated across those four properties, but there were no other options for customers looking at that kind of large meetings experience. When Gaylord joined Marriott’s CRN, Gaylord planners gained the ability to circulate across our big hotels, like Orlando World Center Marriott or the new Chicago Marriott Marquis. This is the same with Starwood. We’ve added in more hotels, so from a rotation perspective for planners, there are a lot more opportunities.
Let’s talk about Marriott’s partnership with NCAA. What makes the two a good match?
The NCAA partnership is something I’ve been personally interested in for a long time. We’ve always had a great relationship with the NCAA and we’ve done business with them over the years. We thought there were a lot of connections between Marriott International and NCAA, so it seemed to be a really good marriage. One of the things we’re obviously focused on in the hotel industry is creating great experiences for our guests. NCAA allows us to do that, because if you think about what the NCAA does, they create unbelievable experiences for their fans, students and alumni.
There are about 90 championships the NCAA puts on. We now can get access [to those] for our loyalty members, as well as provide great hotels for NCAA fans and teams to stay in. We’ve gotten great feedback from guests and fans, and have been able to do things at all the championships, from the Final Four to the College Baseball World Series in Omaha, Nebraska. We had a big presence there and brought loyalty members and meeting planners with us to experience the thrill of the championship.
How is Marriott keeping an edge in the experience-driven travel culture of today?
We are very focused on creating memorable experiences. It’s where travel is headed. People are most interested in traveling and experiencing new things versus buying a new car or buying that house they’ve always dreamed of. We’ve partnered with PlacePass, allowing us to offer more than 100,000 experiences to our guests all over the world. We’re looking at more of those kinds of things and how we can do a better job of providing access to these experiences. Anytime you can provide experiences to guests they might not be able to get on their own, it’s a win.
You’ve been with Marriott for more than 31 years. What are the biggest changes you’ve witnessed in how the company operates over that time?
Obviously, we’re a much bigger company today. The Courtyard brand was brand new when I joined, and now we have more Courtyards than any other brand. We’ve evolved from the limited-service space, to resorts, and now we have more resorts than any other hotel company, plus golf courses and spas. Our hotels and resorts have evolved dramatically over the years, but more importantly, we’ve become a truly global company. Prior to the acquisition of Starwood, we were already global, with hotels in 80 countries. Now we’re in over 130 countries. Thanks to Starwood, we’ve expanded our presence in China; our region in the Caribbean more than doubled in size; and our footprint in Canada became significantly bigger.
What’s the best part of your job?
The thing I like the most about my job is that no day is the same. We have close to 5,000 hotels in the Americas, for which I oversee sales, marketing and revenue management. I get involved in all aspects of our business, from conversations with owners and franchisees to exploring opportunities to grow business. There’s a lot of communication involved, especially today, with as much change as we have going on. We’re not resting on the Starwood acquisition—we’re always looking at ways to continue to expand and improve.