By Michael Matthews
March 22, 2012 -- Two of the nicest and most intelligent men I've ever had the privilege of meeting are Isadore Sharp, the founder of Four Seasons, and Bill Marriott, the legendary leader of Marriott for the past 40 years.

Both gentlemen are totally unassuming, sharp questioners and great listeners. Both travel without entourages of Yes men and both take a genuine interest in their respective staffs throughout the world.

Bill Marriott will turn 80 years on March 25 and has chosen to retire at the end of the month as Marriott's chief executive. He'll remain chairman of the board. His successor as ceo is Arne Sorenson, the first top man not named Marriott at the 85-year-old firm.

Allow me a personal tale about Bill Marriott because I think it says something about him as a person, lodging as an industry and, maybe, the difference between hoteliers and the self-styled "sky gods" who run the airlines.

Seventeen years ago this month, when I was running the former Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Hong Kong, my secretary, a sweet Chinese girl, poked her head into my office and said, "There is a Bill Marriott on the phone wanting to speak to you."

"Ha, ha!" I said. It was surely some friend being a smart-ass. I took the call and answered "This is Michael Matthews. Can I help you?"

"This is Bill Marriott," came the answer. I could tell that whoever was calling was a serious and somewhat older gentleman. So I was careful, thankfully, and said nothing.

"Can I come and visit you?" he asked. "I'm up the street at The Marriott."

"Certainly, sir, can I send our car for you?" I responded, still not 100 percent sure it wasn't a joke.

"No, I will walk. See you in about 20 minutes."

Panic then set in. Probably the most famous hotelier in the world was coming to see little ole me.

I put out a call to all my department heads, told them what was happening and urged them to have the staff on their collective toes. Meanwhile, I rushed down to the hotel entrance, checked that my shoes were shined and my fly done up. I inspected the doormen and the immediate area. Everything looked good.

Mr. Marriott tells a story about hotel visits. Whenever he goes to a Marriott hotel, and he visits about 250 a year, he carries a small supply of paint remover. "They always paint the place before I come," he explains.

Well, as you could guess, we had no time to paint.

Down the street, wearing a gray suit and tie, came Mr. Marriott. "Hello Michael," he said, holding out his hand. "How kind of you to take your valuable time to show me your hotel."

"It's no trouble, sir," I managed to stutter.

"Please, call me Bill," he said.

"Would you like some refreshment?" I queried. "Maybe tea, coffee or a Coke."

Big mistake, Mr. Matthews. Your new friend Bill is a Mormon and doesn't drink anything with caffeine.

"Water would be fine," he said politely. So up to the coffee shop we went.

For the next hour, my friend Bill pumped me about the hotel and its operation. We took a tour of the front and back of the house, my friend Bill asking questions all the way.

After touring the hotel, we ended up back in the lobby. Bill thanked me profusely and wished me every success.

"We just purchased Ritz-Carlton Hotels," he added. "It will be announced today in DC. My team will look forward to working with you."

I was amazed, of course, and probably the first Ritz-Carlton general manager to know the news. He then took off, by himself, walking back to The Marriott. A small, thin, unassuming man, blending in on the crowded Hong Kong street.

But the story doesn't end here.

Two weeks later, I received an envelope in the mail--bearing a real stamp, not franked--containing a letter from the Watergate apartments in Washington. It was a handwritten note from Bill, on his private letterhead, thanking me for my time and saying how much he enjoyed visiting with me.

That, gentle reader, is genuine class.

I left Ritz-Carlton not too long afterward and I've never seen or spoken to Mr. Marriott since that afternoon in Hong Kong.

But I wish my friend Bill a very happy retirement. I can't think of anyone who deserves it more.

ABOUT MICHAEL MATTHEWS Michael Matthews has managed and marketed fine hotels around the world for more than 45 years. He spent 14 years in Hong Kong building the legendary Regent International group. He has also worked with St. Regis, Ritz-Carlton and Rosewood hotels. Matthews is currently based in Arizona. He began writing Do Not Disturb in early 2004.

THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Michael Matthews in the spirit of free speech and to encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Matthews. This column may not be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Michael Matthews.

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