Photography by Stephen Denton; J. Willard “Bill” Marriott Jr.

Vacation Visionary

Written by Douglas Towne Category: People Issue: June 2018
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Hotel icon Bill Marriott reveals his surprising history with the Camelback Inn and the four most important words in the English language.

When hospitality magnate J. Willard “Bill” Marriott Jr. travels and books a room, he has his pick of more than 6,500 hotels in 127 countries. But each spring when it’s time to celebrate his birthday, he heads to his favorite, the JW Marriott Scottsdale Camelback Inn Resort & Spa, as he’s done for the past 50 years. “My family grew up vacationing at the Camelback Inn,” he says. “You just can’t duplicate our memories here, no matter how fine the hotel or how exotic the destination.”

Marriott celebrated his 85th birthday last year at the historic resort nestled between Camelback and Mummy mountains with his wife, Donna, and 53 relatives. “Family is everything to us,” he says.

At an age when most people have departed for a permanent vacation, Marriott’s vigor remains undiminished. He’s executive chairman and chairman of the board of Marriott International Inc., and spends more than 200 nights at hotels each year. In 2012, he retired as CEO after nearly 50 years. During his tenure, Marriott transformed a restaurant chain into a global lodging empire.

The Camelback Inn holds a unique allure for the hotelier. Marriott first stayed at the resort with his parents, J. Willard and Alice Marriott, as a 16-year-old in 1948. He recalls it as a pretty, quiet place with horses. His dad, founder of the Marriott Corporation (later Marriott International Inc.), loved riding. The equestrian enthusiasm didn’t carry over. “I wasn’t much for horses. I was a city boy.”

Marriott, who grew up in Washington, D.C., got his thrills when he was allowed to take the family car for a spin in the desert. “I remember the big dips in the road leading to the inn,” he says. “When you got going fast, you could get the wheels off the road.”    

A few years later, Marriott visited Camelback Inn while attending the University of Utah. Ironically, he ended up with the worst room, but the humble accommodations didn’t hinder his fun. “The hotel was full, so they put a cot in a tiny, 8-foot-by -12-foot room by the pool that they normally used to store outdoor furniture,” Marriott says. “I had a great time here on spring break. I dated a Miss Phoenix, and that was a pretty good deal.”

Photo courtesy Marriott International; J. Willard Marriott Sr. (left) with wife Alice and son J. Willard “Bill” Marriott Jr. in front of Mummy Mountain at the Camelback Inn, circa 1970sHe graduated from college and served in the Navy before he joined the family business. Hot Shoppes restaurants were an outgrowth of an A&W root beer stand his parents started in Washington, D.C., in 1927. Marriott’s introduction to the hotel industry began when his family purchased land in Arlington, Virginia, for a food preparation facility. A company executive suggested the location was better suited for lodging, and they opened the 365-room Twin Bridges Motor Hotel in 1957. Marriott succeeded his father as company president in 1964 and opened its first resort three years later.

The Camelback Inn was opened in 1936 by hotel vet Jack Stewart, financed by entrepreneur and philanthropist John C. Lincoln. The resort had a successful 30-year run as a posh celebrity retreat before Stewart put it up for sale in 1967. Marriott tried unsuccessfully to bargain down the $2.7 million asking price. He phoned his father for advice, and Marriott Sr. told him it was too much money.

“I was having breakfast the next day at Mountain Shadows Resort, and the hostess came to the table and said that my father was on the phone,” Marriott says. “He said, ‘Do what you damn well please!’ and hung up on me. So I took it as that was a go and we bought it.” Marriott still relishes the story of his father’s exasperated “approval.”

It’s evident Marriott enjoys reminiscing about his youth and early days in the lodging industry. However, the nostalgia only goes so far. He’s much like his beloved Camelback Inn: proud of his past, but more interested in staying relevant. His influence is behind two recent upgrades: The Paradise Ballroom conference center will feature floor-to-ceiling windows with views of Mummy Mountain and a unique amenity in the Marriott portfolio: his dad’s Western art collection. “My father would go into Scottsdale back in the 1970s and negotiate the best prices to get the best art,” Marriott says. “We’ll still keep a few pieces in our boardroom in Washington so that our senior man doesn’t forget that, at its heart, this is a Western company.”

Marriott was also the driver behind last year’s opening of Lincoln, the first JW steakhouse in the nation. The concept was a searing success at London’s Grosvenor House Hotel. “My favorite dish is the Dover sole, which few steakhouses offer. When you eat it covered with butter, because it’s fish, that means you’re getting by with no cholesterol,” he says, with a laugh.

When asked about the phenomenal growth of the Marriott brand during his tenure, Marriott demurs to a lesson he learned long ago. He was a low-ranking Navy officer when President Dwight D. Eisenhower visited his family farm in Virginia in 1954. Guests were deciding whether to go quail hunting on a bone-chilling day when Eisenhower said, “What do you think we should do, Bill?”

“Here’s a five-star general and the president, asking me what we should do,” Marriott says. “That’s how we won the war. With the tremendous egos he had to work with like Montgomery, de Gaulle and Patton, he got them on the same page by understanding what they wanted, what was important to them, and how to make it all work.”

Marriott applies that lesson daily. “I found a lot of CEOs think they know it all, and they don’t get their people on the same page,” he says. “You don’t make good decisions when you’re in a vacuum by yourself. You need to get the team to participate, and you do that by asking, ‘What do you think?’”

80 Years of Paradise
A few highlights of the Camelback Inn’s illustrious history:

1934 – Jack Stewart contracts with Edward Loomis Bowes to create plans for a resort.

1935 – Stewart recruits John C. Lincoln to help finance the resort.

1936 – Camelback Inn, “Where Time Stands Still,” opens its doors.

1937 – Snowball, an abandoned albino burro, becomes the resort’s mascot, a post he holds for 27 years.

1938 – Camelback Inn goes wet, opening the Sleepy Spanish Cantina, serving 30-cent martinis.

1953 – Camelback Inn donates 180 acres to create the Paradise Valley Country Club in return for playing privileges for its guests.

1964 – Camelback Inn is the election night headquarters for Barry Goldwater’s unsuccessful 1964 presidential campaign.

1965 – Camelback Inn provides a complimentary week of food and lodging to 60 American servicemen who had been stationed in Vietnam.

1967 – Stewart sells the inn, which consists of 170 rooms and no air conditioning, to the Marriott Corporation.

1989 – Camelback Inn opens the first spa in the Marriott chain.

2004 – Camelback Inn is rebranded as a JW Marriott resort.

2011 – A $50 million renovation is completed at Camelback Inn.