Leadership Lessons: 5 Things to Know About HSMAI Lifetime Achievement Winner Ed Fuller

Edwin “Ed” Fuller spent 40 years with Marriott International, starting out in sales at the Twin Bridges Marriott in Arlington, Virginia, in 1972, and ending up as president and managing director of the company’s international lodging division. His leadership helped create 80,000 jobs and 550 hotels in 72 countries. But his original career plan had nothing to do with the hospitality business. 

Fuller served as a U.S. Army officer in Vietnam, and when he came out in 1971, he was all set to work in the airlines industry. When that didn’t pan out because of the airlines’ economic woes, he joined Marriott. “They had an in-flight operation,” Fuller said in an interview, “and I thought that would get me near the airlines, so that when things got better, I’d have relationships with the various carriers.”

Nearly 50 years later, Ed Fuller is still a hotel guy through and through. President of Laguna Strategic Advisors, which he co-founded after retiring from Marriott in 2012, Fuller recently received the Albert E. Koehl Award for Lifetime Achievement in Hospitality Marketing as part of HSMAI’s 2017 Adrian Awards. Here are five things we learned when we talked to him:

1. He automated Marriott’s reservations. “We made a major decision in using an airline-based system for our reservations. We literally went out and bought a frame from United Airlines, which gave us and continued to give us a big advantage, because our reservation system was able to do last-room availability a long, long time before anybody else.”

2. He took Marriott global (part 1). “As we entered a country, the first challenge was [that] no one knew what a Marriott was. It could have been a fruit, it could have been a vegetable, it could have been any number of things. Our strategy was to always go into a new market with a full-service hotel first, because we needed to use that as a billboard. That’s how people in that country would identify with us. Then as you went in and started to operate, the key was to understand the culture and how to do business.”

3. He took Marriott global (part 2). “History trumps culture. An example was our first hotel in Thailand. We always had an understanding that the controller would be a Marriott employee, not a locally hired employee. So I got a call in Washington that the owner was going to put a Thai controller in and not the one we agreed to. Understanding that you don’t deal with Thais on the phone, I hopped a plane, went to Thailand, and we had lunch. It came down to understanding that the issue for him was who we had selected [as controller for the hotel] was a Burmese individual. The Thais have 700 years of bad history with the Burmese. We offered a German [controller], and he immediately said, “Fine, I’ll go with that.” It’s how to approach, how to understand, how to listen, how to have a conversation that will find out what the real issue is in that country.”

4. He wrote a book called You Can’t Lead With Your Feet on the Desk. “The philosophy that Bill Marriott and his father had was that you walked around an operation. As the GM [first at the Long Island Marriott, then at the Boston Marriott Copley Place], every morning and every evening before I went home — because there were two different shifts — I would walk the entire hotel as much as I could. Just smile and let them know that I wasn’t sitting in the office. When we had a challenge — a sold-out night or such — I wasn’t hidden away in the office, I was basically out on the floor, helping the folks that were dealing with the challenges of customers that needed help.”

5. He thinks the hotel business is very different and still the same. “The one thing that remains is the people. Guests want to be greeted and treated by someone that makes them feel good about the fact that they are staying in that hotel. It is the skill of those people that will make a difference in the success of that guest’s stay. The people factor is still very, very critical. I hope we don’t see the day when they’re replaced by automation, but I think that’s safe for the next 10, 15 years.”

The Albert E. Koehl Award for Lifetime Achievement and the Winthrop W. Grice Award for Lifetime Achievement in Hospitality Public Relations awards recognize individuals who have spent a major portion of their careers in the hospitality and travel profession and have contributed to the betterment of the industry in a significant and lasting way, over an extended period of time.

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