Assassinations, bombings, hazardous material incidents, human trafficking, jumpers, undercover stings, protests and environmental and social challenges are among the crises and issues that major hotel corporations must be prepared to confront.
Chautauquan Roger Conner served as Marriott International’s senior vice president of communications and primary spokesperson from 1977 until 2011. For decades he developed, managed and directed public relations messaging for the company’s personnel, external stakeholders and the general public within the United States and world-wide.
At 9:15 a.m. Thursday, June 27 at the Chautauqua Women’s Club, Conner will open the CWC’s 2019 season and Chautauqua Speaks series with his talk, “Crisis Management: My PR Experiences at Marriott, the World’s Largest Hotel Company.”
Marriott International owned the 22-story Marriott World Trade Center, situated between the Twin Towers at 3 WTC for 20 years. Conner said it was at full capacity on Sept. 11, 2001.
“As the second tower came down, it took down the hotel; we were talking about a morbid and tragic situation,” he said. “All the people that were in the hotel — we think — were removed, except the two people who were on the line with me. They were in the lobby of the Marriott. There’s a huge tribute to them in the lobby of Marriott headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland.”
Currently, Marriott International owns 30 brands and more than 7,000 properties situated in 131 countries and territories.
Not only is this global lodging company leading in size, but also in stature. It has amassed numerous prestigious awards. Fortune magazine included it in five lists for 2018: “World’s Most Admired Companies,” “2018 Fortune 500,” “100 Best Companies to Work For,” “100 Best Workplaces for Women” and “50 Best Workplaces for Parents.”
“Marriott always had a good reputation for corporate social responsibility,” Conner said. “Its motto is that if you take good care of your people, they’ll take care of the guests and the business will take care of itself. Marriott is very well-respected in terms of largesse.”
The Alliance for Workplace Excellence gave Marriott its 2018 “Seal of Approval” for Workplace Excellence and for Health and Wellness, its Diversity Champion Award and two certificates of recognition for best practices in supporting workers of all abilities and workers over the age of 50.
Marriott was also included in eight other notable lists recognizing best employers and workplaces, disability, diversity, Latinas, veterans, ethics and reputation for corporate responsibility in 2018.
While grand openings in exotic locales were among Conner’s myriad responsibilities, his day-to-day challenge was conveying Marriott’s distinctive attributes, values, mission and vision quickly and effectively, in good times and bad.
“If there was an issue, we were so large that we were targeted,” Conner said. “I had to deal with PETA because Marriott restaurants served so much veal. … Also, there were a lot of hotels with adult movie entertainment. That was kind of hard to defend when you think of the mistreatment of women and the prurient nature of the material.”
Conner began his education and training in PR and communications via the journalism route.
While growing up in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Harrisburg, Conner was on the staff of his high school newspaper. He said that as he was applying to journalism schools, he was also dating the daughter of the publisher of the Harrisburg Patriot-News, which was owned by the Samuel I. Newhouse family.
“Syracuse came front and center because it opened up the Newhouse School of Communications in 1964,” Conner said.
Renowned architect I.M. Pei had designed and President Lyndon B. Johnson had dedicated the new building, which enhanced and expanded Syracuse University’s journalism school. Johnson marked the occasion by giving his famous “Gulf of Tonkin” speech.
Two years later, a scholarship to the Newhouse School enabled Conner to attend Syracuse from 1966 to 1970.
After graduating, he returned home to work as a reporter for The Patriot-News (even though he and the publisher’s daughter were no longer dating). When the paper opened a small office and bureau in Hershey, Pennsylvania, Conner said he became its “opening reporter.”
“Hershey is the matriarch company in a small town,” Conner said. “There was a rumor that they didn’t like my reporting, so they offered me a job in PR. I’d taken a course or two in Newhouse’s PR sequence. I was making $7,500 at The Patriot-News. I could do PR for the Hershey theme park and earn $10,000. I told someone I was ‘set for life.’ ”
In Hershey, where the Ice Capades were founded in 1940, Conner met Suzy, the Hershey Figure Skating Club pro who would become his wife. He said that in ice dance, Suzy was second in the U.S. Championship and seventh in the World Championship.
After meeting a “Marriott PR guy” at a conference in Virginia, Conner said he accepted an entry-level PR job with Marriott, which at the time owned about a dozen hotels. He and Suzy moved to Washington, D.C., in 1977, where he began his 34-year tenure with the company, which grew to encompass 3,000 hotels around the world.
“As I used to say as I spoke around the world, hotels are like little cities within a city,” Conner said.
To assist him and his team, Conner hired PR resources around the country.
“All the properties would call us when there was a sticky situation,” Conner said. “We would get called 24/7. … We’d decide whether the response would come from us or them. … I became a specialist in crisis communications because our hotels were in the line of crises.”
With the advent of social media especially, Marriot’s communications evolved.