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 Sports.
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 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.