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Travel businesses won't recover from COVID until 2023-24: Marriott CEO

Arne Sorenson, CEO of Marriott International Inc., predicted

Arne Sorenson, CEO of Marriott International Inc., predicted the number of business trips and major vacations will not return to pre-pandemic levels until COVID-19 vaccines are widely used.  Credit: James T. Madore

The travel industry won’t fully recover from the coronavirus for three or four years, the head of one of the world’s largest hotel companies said Wednesday.

Arne M. Sorenson, CEO of Marriott International Inc., predicted the number of business trips and major vacations will not return to pre-pandemic levels until COVID-19 vaccines are widely used. His company operates more than 7,000 hotels in 131 countries under the Marriott, Sheraton, Westin and Ritz-Carlton names, among others.

He told a virtual conference of business journalists, "If you ask folks in travel broadly, ‘When will we get back to the 2019 levels?’ We tend to focus not on 2020 or 2021, but on something more like 2023 or 2024."

Sorenson, who has worked for Marriott for nearly 25 years, said tourists and business travelers aren’t going to feel safe until most of the world is vaccinated. Until that time comes, he predicted "extremely messy" and "choppy" financial results for publicly traded travel companies like Marriott.

Sorenson said President Donald Trump, Congress and the scientific community should explain to the public how the vaccines were developed, the approval process they must undergo and the distribution plan.

"For the American community to take these vaccines requires us to be really transparent about where the crisis is, be really factual, be really thorough in letting people understand the safety and effectiveness of these vaccines," he said during the conference organized by the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing, or SABEW. "It requires building some credibility right now. I think it would be dangerous for our economy and our society for that work to be deferred until after the [presidential] inauguration in the end of January."

Sorenson helps to lead health care policy for the Business Roundtable, a group of CEOs whose companies have a combined workforce of 15 million people. The roundtable has lobbied since last spring for a federal law requiring individuals to wear masks. However, it opposes shutting down all nonessential activity to slow the virus’ spread.

"While masking and social distancing works, a national lockdown doesn't necessarily help the overall health situation and badly undermines our ability to work our way through this [pandemic] economically," Joshua Bolten, the roundtable’s CEO and former top aide to President George W. Bush, told business journalists.

Earlier Wednesday, Jared Bernstein, a longtime economic adviser to now President-elect Joe Biden, said the next federal stimulus package should include help for small businesses that didn't qualify for loans under the Paycheck Protection Program and Main Street Lending program because they lack a bank account.

"I’d like to see more direct help for small businesses who've been left behind, who don't have access to the PPP," said Bernstein, who now works for a Washington think tank. "My understanding is about 400,000 small businesses have permanently shut down…Small businesses are really stressed."

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