How a chance phone call secured a Norfolk company big Marriott hotel deal

The opening of the 100th Marriott hotel in Maui, in 1981

The opening of the 100th Marriott hotel in Maui, in 1981 - Credit: Paul Thomas

Marriott hotels are found all around the world – from Norfolk to New York. But they got a foot up in global publicity thanks to a small company based in Norfolk. Its founder, journalist Paul Thomas, takes up the story

As my Norfolk publicity company was growing in the 1970s, we were becoming more ambitious – including opening an office in London. East Anglian clients and local staff were up for the benefits too. We were getting to know national newspaper and travel trade editors well – and one mentioned a prospective US hotel business opportunity, crazy though we both thought it was, that Publicity Plus could pursue.

My motto of “if you don’t try, onwards with luck” – kicked in. And boy, it sure won! I’d been told they were in London, hunting for a PR company to publicise them in Britain, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Could little young PPL win that? Doubtful, but if you don’t ask. Everybody knows of Marriott Hotels today. More than 7,000 properties worldwide, a multi-billion dollar income. Nearly half a century ago, in 1976, they were small – just 64 hotels – but growing.

JW Marriott Senior and his son in the 1970s.

JW Marriott Senior and his son in the 1970s. The group started in 1927... when JW sold beers by the can in Washington DC. - Credit: Paul Thomas

I chased the head of communications Paul Lazzaro who was in London from the USA interviewing. Sadly I only traced him when he had just left for a flight home to Washington DC. I knew he’d interviewed six big stature London-based PR companies.

Ring him by telephone in America instead I thought, who knows? In those days that phone call was a rare operation, and very expensive. I made my so significant call to Washington DC, their HQ – then it cost about £25, probably £100 today, but today of course such a call would be virtually free. By now we were planning to open a desk in the London Press Centre.

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But my phone call astonished Mr Lazzaro He said: “You’re more interested in what Marriott want than those posh London PRs who just said how great they were and who didn’t ask what Marriott wanted. 

“And now you’re spending cash chasing me by phone, well done,” he said. We dreamed up Marriott proposals, they were posted to the states, and a week or two later Mr Lazzaro said that subject to my visiting Marriott at their HQ to meet them all – we would be hired.

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That was astonishing news, I had to fly to America to say hello, prove our proposals were workable – and then, hopefully, see some of their hotels and get on with the task.

A big fuss was made of the 100th hotel opening in Maui in 1981

A big fuss was made of the 100th hotel opening in Maui in 1981 - Credit: Paul Thomas

How did Marriott start? J. Willard Marriott Senior opened it as a root beer stand in Washington DC in 1927. That was to lead to the hotel empire we were to help grow – then 64 hotels, virtually all in USA, but with one in Amsterdam which I had told Mr Lazzaro we were closer to in Norwich with daily air transport – than London was!

While that was a pretty naïve way of selling us – it had worked, we were appointed – with a budget in dollars which would be paid to us in pounds sterling. I mention that because over the years it varied from a dollar per pound to two and a half when USA hit bad times by comparison with our economy and vice versa. And we suffered and won, accordingly. More luck!

One of our first tasks was to help Marriott find a London property, their first in the UK. We succeeded – with a building on the west side of Grosvenor Square in the very elegant Mayfair area of London. During the Second World War US President-to-be General Eisenhower’s headquarters were there - and Grosvenor Square became popularly known as Little America. Shortly after our appointment, we needed to introduce and bring Britain’s media to the Marriott Hotel. That led to my introduction to the British Guild of Travel Writers, international journalists writing about the world, tourism, and all its growth.

BGTW members were our guests at the formal opening of that London property – and many of them remain friends of mine today, albeit we are all ancient now. One of them was Robin Mead who was among about 25 journalists I subsequently invited to the opening of Marriott’s 100th hotel – in the Hawaiian islands.

Marriott Grosvenor Square

Marriott was small in the 1970 with US hotels only and one in Amsterdam. But they needed a London hotel and Norfolk's Publicity Plus Ltd helped them find this great place in Grosvenor Square - and open it - Credit: Paul Thomas

That was a great highlight of Marriott days – and PPL helped a lot in those early days – I spent time helping them build and open new hotels in Kuwait (with a super opening event, very hospitable), Saudi Arabia (very different including keeping my mouth shut in Dharan while the Saudis had the Marriott manager locked up for a mild mistake), Cairo on the Nile, more in the US. How I travelled! Marriott Hotels, growing fast and publicised well – brought us more reputation, and budget!

Today Marriott has more than 7,300 properties in 30 leading hotel brands spanning 130 countries and states. And PPL held the business for a decade – before other developments in our life!

Meanwhile in the mid-to-late 1970s more was happening, both in Norfolk but also with our London ambitions, a growing team – and belief we could win more major business. Our Norwich staffer Mary George had introduced a friend, Chris Broadbent to help develop our London office. And he helped lots.
You learn a lot from thinking luck. 

And Marriott was not the only big win… more business came by us asking! 
Plus some luck – bad, and good! From the first simple London desk, we had moved into an office in Fleet Street, then later into even more space in Whitehall

As our travel PR expanded, so did our contacts and involvement with the travel trade media. We met Travel Trade Gazette and Travel News journalists frequently and amazing leads and opportunities arose – abroad, here in East Anglia – even leading us to a remarkable opportunity to win another world-famous business – and yet another to celebrate a renowned princess in the 1980s.

My coming features will tell you more – including a near disastrous client going bust threatening our future. But luck was working for us … read all about it in coming Weekend features.

Paul’s biography, My Life, My Way, telling much of Norfolk business grow over two thirds of a century, is available from £10.75, including post and packing, from:

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