The Romneys and Marriotts go way back. J. Willard was a dear friend of Mitt’s father, George, with whom he sold tamales in Washington during the Depression Era. Forty years later, J. Willard Marriott asked his namesake Willard Mitt Romney, a young consultant with Bain & Co., to help with his Roy Rogers fast-food chain. But Bain prevented those at the firm from working for any client who employed their chief competitor, McKinsey & Co., which Marriott did. Or from working in a peripheral part of the business, which Roy Rogers was.
Romney had to call up “Uncle Will” — as he called him — to decline the work, according to Mike Farmer, who accompanied Romney on the sales trip.
But Romney, who once sat on the Marriott board, has stayed loyal to the Marriott empire. And now so has the phalanx of campaign operatives, television producers, camera operators and reporters, checking in behind the candidate with corporate cards in hand. (On Sunday, the Obama campaign press corp was also camped out at a Courtyard Marriott in Williamsburg.)
“It’s our home away from home,” said Rick Gorka, a spokesman for the Romney campaign. “We’ve converted a lot of press.”
To build brand loyalty and try to beat the competition, Marriott rewards guests with lodging’s version of frequent flyer miles for each stay. A steady accumulation of Marriott points bestows first silver, then gold and finally platinum status, each precious metal coming with its own precious perks.
“I’m platinum,” Gorka said proudly as he swirled a large glass of bourbon on the back of the press plane. Having spent at least 150 nights in Marriott hotels since January and racked up a half-million points, he spoke reverentially about the “Taste of Platinum” program. He became almost misty discussing the time the West Palm Beach Marriott upgraded him to a two-bedroom condo with balcony, hot tub, washer and dryer. He said he daydreamed about a prolonged, free stay in a perhaps tropical destination with his girlfriend, who eagerly monitored his point total back home. “Points,” he said, “are gold for us.”
On his way back toward the front of the plane, Gorka hovered over the aqua-blue screen of a reporter’s laptop. She was gazing at the crystalline waters surrounding Marriott’s Scrub Island Resort, Spa & Marina in the Virgin Islands. “It’s a new Marriott, autograph collection” she explained to Gorka. “It’s on a private island, 52 rooms on the marina. It looks amazing.”
“Let me know if you go,” Gorka said.
The day had started, as so many of them do, with Romney staffers and Romney press corps members climbing out of their Marriott mattresses and picking at eggs in a private breakfast room off the lobby, this time of the Columbus Airport Marriott. One of the camera crew interrupted the breakfast of one of the embedded television reporters to ask, “Are you triple platinum now?”
“Oh, yeah,” she responded matter of factly. “I, like, lived in the Marriott New Hampshire. I have 200 free nights.”
It came time to board the bus, and a circle of cameramen discussed the finer points of Marriott points, saying things like “mega bonus.”
“Have you enrolled in the platinum challenge?” one asked this reporter, who had a lowly silver status. He described an alchemy by which every two-night stay results in a free night in another Marriott. As long as it isn’t too high end, interjected a colleague, “Only category three or four, not five.”
The press then loaded onto the bus, following Romney as he campaigned around the state. Then they boarded the plane, flew with him to Boston and boarded another bus to bring them to their hotels. As the coach rolled toward the entrance of the Courtyard Marriott in Waltham, one of the embedded network producers shouted to no one in particular: “Why don’t we stay at the Westin out here? Why does the Marriott own our souls?”