In some respects, Mr. Sorenson was an unusual choice as chief executive of Marriott, a global hotel empire and one of the largest companies in the Washington area, with 30 brands and some 170,000 employees worldwide.
He was not a Marriott, a member of the family that had led the company from 1927, when it started as a nine-stool root beer stand in Northwest Washington. And he had not spent years in the hotel industry, learning the ins and outs of housekeeping, room service and elevator maintenance like his predecessor, J.W. “Bill” Marriott Jr., who took the reins from his father and ran the Bethesda-based business for four decades as CEO.
Mr. Sorenson was instead a Washington lawyer, and had impressed Bill Marriott while representing the company in a 1993 court case, following debt troubles and lawsuits from angry bondholders. The two men bonded in part over their religious convictions — Marriott is a Mormon; Mr. Sorenson was the son and grandson of Lutheran ministers — and a few years after the case, Mr. Sorenson received a job offer from his former client.
“Almost word for word the conversation with Mr. Marriott was: ‘I’ll come, but not to be a lawyer,’ ” he later told Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper. “He said okay; I said okay. There was zero discussion about what that might mean.”
Mr. Sorenson joined Marriott in 1996 and went on to oversee mergers and acquisitions for the company, handling a $1 billion deal to buy the Renaissance Hotel Group. He was named chief financial officer within two years, served as president and chief operating officer in the midst of the global financial crisis, and became CEO in 2012.
Under his watch, Marriott became the world’s largest hotel chain, growing to more than 1.3 million rooms, according to the data and consulting company STR, and vaulting ahead of rivals such as Hilton Worldwide. “I want to be as big as possible,” Mr. Sorenson told Forbes in 2019.
At the same time, the company faced challenges including a massive data breach — one of the largest in history — that began at Starwood and was revealed in 2018. Hackers accessed more than 5 million passport numbers, as well as credit card details and other personal information for more than 300 million guests. British regulators fined Marriott more than $20 million last year following an investigation into the cyberattack.
The company had acquired Starwood in 2016, adding the Sheraton, Westin, W and St. Regis properties to a portfolio that already included some of the best-known names in travel — Marriott, Courtyard and Ritz-Carlton. Mr. Sorenson called it “a transformative event for Marriott” and said the acquisition would save $250 million in annual costs.
As part of his expansion efforts, Mr. Sorenson added new hotels in China, South Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. He also focused on building a loyalty program, Marriott Bonvoy, and frequently spoke out on political issues, joining a group of other business leaders in opposing a North Carolina state law that removed anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. He later fought President Donald Trump’s 2017 ban on travel from predominantly Muslim countries.
In a phone interview, Michelle Russo — chief executive of HotelAVE, a hotel asset management company and consultancy — said that Mr. Sorenson was “not just a leader of Marriott, he was a leader of the industry,” and highlighted his advocacy on behalf of hotel and tourism employees during the coronavirus pandemic, notably in a White House meeting with Trump last March.
Later that month, as the pandemic was worsening around the world, Mr. Sorenson delivered a widely shared video announcement declaring that he would not be taking his salary for the year and that the company would start furloughing its U.S. employees.
“Covid-19 is like nothing we’ve ever seen before. For a company that’s 92 years old, that’s borne witness to the Great Depression, World War II and many other economic and global crises, that’s saying something,” he said.
For some employees and industry analysts, the video was especially jarring because it was one of the first times Mr. Sorenson had appeared in public following his cancer treatments. “Our team was a bit concerned about using a video today because of my new bald look,” he said in the announcement. “Let me just say that my new look is exactly what was expected.”
Arne Morris Sorenson was born Oct. 13, 1958, in Tokyo, where his parents were Lutheran missionaries. The family moved to St. Paul, Minn., when he was 7. His father preached, and his mother worked as a public school teacher.
He studied religion at Luther College, a Lutheran school in Decorah, Iowa, and received a bachelor’s degree in 1980 before graduating from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1983. The next year he married Ruth Christenson, whose parents owned an ice cream shop in Decorah; they met when she served him a cone.
In addition to his wife, survivors include their four children, Astri, Esther, Isaac and Lars.
Mr. Sorenson was on the board of Microsoft and the Special Olympics, and was also a trustee at the Brookings Institution. He worked at the law firm of Latham & Watkins before joining Marriott International, where he reportedly beat out John Marriott III, the chief executive’s son, in the run-up to succeed Bill Marriott.
“I will never have the celebrity that Bill Marriott had as CEO and, frankly, I don’t want it,” he told the Globe and Mail in 2015. “My name is not over the door and it never will be over the door.”