So What REALLY Happened When Marriott Left 35 People Behind on St. Thomas?

Marriott had a boat evacuate guests from the Frenchman’s Reef & Morning Star Marriott Beach Resort on St. Thomas after Irma had passed and in advance of Hurricane Jose. By all accounts they did a great job for their guests.

Reportedly though the US Coast Guard told other American tourists looking to get off the island to hitch a ride on Marriott’s boat charter. They knew there were plenty of extra seats.

But those people weren’t allowed to board. And they blamed Marriott. Although as I noted they weren’t stuck riding out another storm, and they were evacuated — by a cruise ship company.


Marriott St. Thomas, Credit: Marriott

The people refused transport blamed the highest levels of Marriott, indeed claiming the decision to leave them behind was made by Marriott’s CEO.

  • From the start I said there’s no way the decision to leave beyond stranded people, albeit not Marriott guests, was made by Marriott’s CEO.

  • I’m certain Arne Sorenson wasn’t aware of the people trying to get on Marriott’s chartered boat until after the fact. It wouldn’t have made it to his level, and it seems unlikely that the modest efforts at helping would have been the call he’d make. But it seems likely that someone did seem to screw up.

Indeed, it was Marriott’s initial response sounded both at fault and cavalier about it.

There were a number of additional people gathered at the dock who were not our guests who also expressed a desire to leave St. Thomas. We very much wanted to assist these other travelers to Puerto Rico, however, the Marriott team on-the-ground was told they had no authorization to board additional passengers.

With Hurricane Jose on a path to St. Thomas, the ferry had a tight window to pick up passengers and safely depart.

As a company, Marriott places a priority on the safety and security of our guests, but we also have a long tradition of looking out for the greater community. In this case, we weren’t able to help and as grateful as we are that we were able to transport our guests, we are saddened that we were not able to do the same for more people. We continue to work with local authorities in St. Thomas to help support the relief efforts there.”

Saying in effect we were in a hurry and the use of the third person meant to imply they were helpless to do more (“the Marriott team on-the-ground was told they had no authorization”) is reminiscent of virtually every government non-apology ever made (“mistakes were made” “just following orders”).

Several folks left a story in the comments of my original post and shared with me on Facebook the purported ‘inside story of Marriott’s high seas rescue’ of guests stranded on St. Thomas.

What this is is Marriott’s ‘official story’ version 2. Indeed, Marriott has sent the piece around broadly inside the company. Here’s what Marriott’s President of the Caribbean and Latin America has to say about the incident.

We did everything we could to help, ultimately to no avail. Approximately 35 people who were not Marriott guests, and therefore whose names were not on the detailed manifest required by the local authorities, arrived at the dock gates wanting passage off the island.

…The security personnel employed by the dock company would not—and we asked them repeatedly–allow them through the port gates and boarding area, because they were not on the manifest we prepared in advance, as a requirement for the boat to depart for international waters.

The general managers who run our hotels on St. Thomas tried to work with dock personnel to allow them to get on the ship—we certainly had room aboard, which makes this both frustrating and disheartening.

Marriott’s version two of the story has definite elements of truth to it, even if also sounds like less than the full story.

  • I’m sure they were told “you can’t take people who aren’t on the manifest” but Marriott isn’t sharing what measures if any they tried to take to amend the ship’s manifest.

  • And they aren’t sharing what they did to try to escalate matters with authorities, especially considering that the U.S. Coast Guard reportedly told these people to meet the inbound ship.

Someone screwed up here. Probably plenty of people. I’ve made mistakes and wrong bets at my job. Fortunately they’ve never been in extreme emergencies, with lives potentially on the line. Adrenalin is running high. It’s difficult to reach busy people in the Caribbean during a major disaster on the weekend. People made judgment calls.

Did a bureaucrat say “you can’t just have people board a boat”? I’m sure. But does “we asked the dock company if these people could board” exhaust Marriott’s obligation? Or should they have spoken to supervisors, government officials?

I don’t think Marriott’s obligation was endless, but the shrugging of shoulders ‘we tried’ along with patting themselves on the back for taking care of their customers is a bit much although the preparations they made for their customers would otherwise have been a fantastic story.

This would have been a total non-story if the first response from Marriott had been,

    In our hurry to evacuate guests over the weekend during an emergency the folks on the ground didn’t do enough to track down the people who would have been able to give authorization to take on other passengers. We are deeply regretful for that and will put procedures in place to do better in the future.

Instead the response — especially the initial response from Marriott corporate communications — of ‘we were in too much of a hurry to help’ and ‘hey we would have but we were told no’ deserves criticism in my view.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. The 35 people are looking to blame anyone–whether or not Marriott or someone else screwed up. Those same 35 people also knew they had taken a risk by vacationing in the hurricane prone season.

    It is impossible to know if Marriott really screwed up or not. But Marriott is also an easy (and wealthy) corporate target. Until more evidence comes to light to show Marriott screwed up, I’ll believe that conflicting stories and expectations conspired to not allow the extra 35 people to board the escape boat. I’ also believe that those 35 people knew the risks when vacationing at that time of year in the Caribbean.

    I’ll stick to blaming the 35 people trying to scapegoat Marriott for the unfortunate circumstance of being on holiday when a hurricane struck. Shit happens…and this time it happened to them. They have themselves to blame for sure for choosing to vacation in a risky time of year.

  2. I’m sure this will be an unpopular opinion, but I don’t see why people are blaming Marriott for not evacuating non-guests on their charter.

    Why not blame any of the airlines, cruise ships, or even the government/coast guard then? To be clear, I don’t blame any of them, just not sure why Marriott is being singled out for blame.

  3. I guess wherever the 35 people stayed didn’t do the same for their guests as Marriott did.

    If Marriott had done nothing for their guests we probably never would have heard a word about it. How many hotels went to the same measures as Marriott did?

    We don’t know the whole story, but it certainly appears to be another case of no good deed goes unpunished.

  4. This is certainly a sensitive topic for many and at first when I heard the story I was upset with those being left behind
    But I hadn’t heard the Marriott side of the equation and I believe in my decades of experience
    I am able to discern between corporate speak and reality
    I’ve been up to my ears in both
    Have been in Hurricane situations like Katrina and other similar emergency evacuations
    elsewhere over my decades in a variety of brands or read about them
    Brands like Marriott Hilton Sheraton Westin Hyatt and others show who they really are during such emergencies with respect to making sure that their guests are safe inside and with guests departing from their hotels.
    During Katrina
    I was blown away how legendary Former GM Fred Sawyer of the Hilton Riverside heroically got his guests out of the city on a private chartered bus at 3 AM in the morning safely when law and order was not in place and they had to duck rifles/ bullets and looters by driving off with its lights out in pitch darkness of the night
    It was one of many reasons I was proud to work for Hilton Corporate/HH after that down the road some years ago
    Sheraton New Orleans also did a great job evacuating caring for guests during Katrina

    If it had be me trying to leave and I was not on the manifest I would be devastated but I understand the Marriott position with the liability of unregistered guests and their responsibility

    Having said that for all the airbnb and guest house etc stay folks you really want a big brand name hotel that has scripted emergency contingencies in case of a disaster striking for so many reasons
    This is where these big brands typically show in emergency that they are truly heroic
    and why its worth staying with these chains during hurricane season or other time of possible concern
    I am a regular and ardent critic of Marriott and its stingy Platinum breakfasts and 100 other things that they do that tick me off but IMHO they got this one right taking care of their guests first and foremost and I personally salute them
    You can never pry me out of chain hotel when it comes to hurricane potentially plagued areas
    I learned from experience that in a true emergency you don’t have much better resources then a multi billion dollar hotel chain that has an evacuation plan in place generators and a way to feed you temporarily
    Just look at how lucky Disney guests were recently (interesting reading)
    I salute Marriott and Disney as Corporate companies of the year during the
    tragedy of the most recent events.
    Its a reminder and wake up call we should all give great thought and reflection on
    Regardless of where we stand individually in our personal opinions
    with how it came down and what was the right thing to do in the given situation
    This recent situation and my own past experience will stick with me the rest of my life and go along way when I decide who to book with

    777Globalmilehound
    Hyatt Ambassador @ Flyertalk.com

  5. People whine too much. Those stranded people need to blame themselves. I had friends cancel their trip because of Irma. Why don’t they blame the place they stayed at. Marriott doesn’t owe non guest anything. And this is coming from somebody that is still mad at the SPG/Marriott merger.

  6. These situations are dynamic and fast changing at the time of the event. It is so easy to be hypercritical after the fact. In the end, those 35 folks on the island should have left long before the last minute? Is Marriott responsible for their transportation?

    “Lack of planning on your part doesn’t constitute an emergency on mine.”

  7. From my point-of-view, Marriott was under NO OBLIGATION to evacuate anyone, regardless of whether they were guests or not. (I mean, seriously, where in their equivalent “Contract of Carriage” does it say “We’ll evacuate you in case of a hurricane”?) But evacuating people was the MORALLY right thing for Marriott to do. Choosing to evacuate their guests first? Absolutely, perfectly fine. Leaving others to their fate? Not cool. That it all turned out OK — so far as I know — is great, but doesn’t mitigate the fact that (seemingly) Marriott’s boat (for one reason or another) left 35 people on the dock with a hurricane boring down on them.

    Now, am I going to boycott Marriott because of this? No. I’ve been a loyal SPG member for years, and still am; that now means I’m in the Marriott fold. But Gary is right that their initial statement made things worse, and the second one wasn’t a whole lot better. And so I remain disappointed in Marriott . . .

  8. Again, a few selfish comments in Replies above. In a real life or death emergency situation passenger manifests go overboard without question. This extreme weather event could have turned even nastier for all those people, and if lives had been lost there would have been massive recriminations the oily Marriott PR mavens would have had trouble smoothing over.
    Thank god these readers were not present ticking off the manifest in the loading of lifeboats prior to the Titanic sinking!

  9. The fault would seem to lie with the Coast Guard for telling people to get on a ship that they were unauthorized to board. I don’t get why this was Marriott’s fault. Why didn’t someone with the Coast Guard make the necessary phone calls?

  10. I don’t buy the “not on the manifest” story at all. I have traveled extensively thru the USVI and BVI. No ferry company uses a manifest in their regular sailings. These ferries use headcounts and during normal sailings, they offer standing room. Why would the Coast Guard tell US citizens to try this charter? I think Marriott is making this all up. They are covering up someone’s bad decision.

  11. I’m not sure why Marriott felt obligated to do a lengthy response before gathering a lot of the facts, but this scenario is so unusual that Marriott should be commended for assisting their customers who, by all rights, were on there own after this catastrophe.
    At this stage of the storm, it was not life or death, and once these passengers got to the destination, what would happen? Would Marriott be blamed for dumping them with no accommodations, food, etc.
    I have compassion for these 35 people, but do not accept the notion that they deserved passage moreso than any other tourist or resident on the island.
    Can we get a couple of brief, simple updates for resort and convention destinations in the Caribbean?

  12. US coast guard failed to evacuate them. The easiest thing to do is to put the blame on wealthy corporation for the (lack) of effort. Corporation being corporation there’s a procedure to follow. Example maybe who is responsible for those 35 once they arrived at a safe point? Who must provide shelter, accomodation and transport for each to go home? Sure, blame it all on the wealthy corporation.

    Shame on US coast guard. Shame on US. You can afford billion of aircraft carrier but struggle to provide welfare for your own citizen in a forecasted disaster. Lol

  13. Sorry but this constantly blaming marriott trend is getting annoying. The local authorities denied these people access. Why the hell should marriott in a limited time situation have to run around trying to hunt down government officials for people who are NOT even marriott guests to begin with and just showed up trying to hop on their boat? It would have been one thing if these people showed up and marriott just said no you can’t come on our boat. That isn’t the case. They were willing to take them and tried but the local government said no. Marriott had a responsibility to THEIR guests not to screw around and waste time trying to get the local government on board and thereby putting THEIR customers at risk. If these people have an issue they should take it up with the local government instead of complaining about marriott who had no obligation to them to begin with.

  14. First, Gary, thank you for posting your opinion on this.

    I want to learn who the dock company is and whether they are a governmental agency or a private company. If what Marriott says is correct, it seems that they should receive more of the blame and that people should be upset at them and their security personnel.

    I would like to learn what the regulations are regarding this and whether for some reason (perhaps a customs regulation since the boat was going through international waters), the boat was prohibited from taking the passengers to Puerto Rico (perhaps the regulation is different for taking passengers to another one of the U.S. Virgin Islands). If the regulations prohibited the people from boarding, then they need to be amended and should be deemed problematic. It would not surprise me if Marriott needed the manifest data in advanced and there was not time to get the data for new guests added and approved in time for when the guests needed to leave. If this is the case, Marriott should have been more specific for exactly what happened.

    I am curious about whether this goes against maritime law, with the duties of helping the distressed. If so, I think that the port company should be punished, as well as the security officers. What happens if a regulation runs contrary to maritime law–does maritime law prevail?

    I also don’t understand why the Coast Guard did not do a better job of trying to help the tourists get onto the boat.

    I do not think that it is fair to completely blame the tourists. Resorts have excellent marketing teams (one can see this type of thing if one ever goes to a timeshare pitch). Many tourists are naive and do not think about the weather, especially if the travel marketers make it think that this is not likely to happen. Would one blame a tourist in Japan (or even in California) if he or she needs to be rescued because of an earthquake since the tourist should have known that there is an earthquake risk in the area? My understanding is also that Irma was a stronger hurricane than any in the past in the Caribbean, so its magnitude can be seen as unprecedented.

    I am very disappointed in Marriott. It seems that the least that they could do now is provide a better apology and explain attempts to prevent this type of thing from happening in the future. I am also disappointed that people are not pressing harder for the truth of what happened and whether Marriott should be blamed (on a moral level, not a legal level). I agree that they might not have a legal duty to help other passengers (I put “might” because maritime law actually may provide that duty), but I believe that they have a moral duty.

  15. There was NO excuse for leaving the elderly and children behind. All of you defending a ratdick corporation is frankly hilarious. Take a look at the crapstorm, let`s call it “hurricane Ebenezer” thats hitting them now, Ha Ha! So, you all voted for trump, correct? Well, since you`re all so worried about Marriot, buy their stock, as everyone else is SELLING.

  16. Funny everybody puts their blame on marriot. Do marriot have any obligation thereto in evacuating a person claim to be a victim? NO

    Marriot’s obligation to their guest. As simple as that. They can help, YES. They tried.

    IF 1 of 35 are convict/criminal, who are going to be responsible? IF 1 of 35 were kidnapping victim, who are going to be responsible?

    All these commenters either moron or naive. It times of disaster and chaos, criminality ensues. If US coast guard can’t handle it properly don’t blame on civilian civic duties. Open your eyes and minds, before commenting dude.

  17. Arne Sorenson should be ashamed of himself. He made the decision to leave these poor people stranded. Probably not surprising though, this is the kind of guy who knocks over women and children to get into the lifeboat first.

  18. And if Marriott had said they tried to charter a boat to get their guests, but due to the extreme situation they weren’t able to find one available, no one would have batted an eyelash. In fact, their good intentions probably would have been commended.

    Yet the lesson now being learned here is that next time an unprecedented force majeure event occurs, any hospitality operator is going to throw up their hands and say “due to events beyond our control” rather than try to intervene.

    No good deed goes unpunished.

  19. Wow. A lot of horrible pieces of crap in the comments! The Titanic reference is apt. The people blaming those for trying to evacuate are the same people who would have not allowed passengers on the Titanic into lifeboats because their name was spelled wrong or something. What how are there so many horrible people reading this blog? Maybe a lot of these comments are troll bots?

  20. Agree with JimC. If anything Marriott should be commended for going above and beyond to ensure that its customers were safe. As for the other freeloaders, maybe next time they should book with a company that will look after them. Or maybe not book a vacation during peak hurricane season. Or maybe evacuate when they had the chance. Or maybe complain to US government for delays. It’s not Marriott’s fault.

  21. Get what you pay for… I would be willing to bet each of the 35 folks that were stranded booked a stay with a much cheaper hotel.

  22. I can see both sides of it.

    35 people’s side. – US Coast Guard told me to come to this dock and get on that boat to go to Puerto Rico. While the trip was through “International waters”, it was also from one US territory to another US territory. Why would a dock worker in USVI prevent a person who might not be on a manifest from getting on the boat, presumably 35 people should be able to write their names, DOB, citizenship and address on a manifest with a pen.

    Marriott’s side. – If the boat sinks we will probably be covered from lawsuits by existing insurance as it will be our guests. Also, who are these 35 people? What if it is a street gang from the slums of St. Thomas looking to rob everyone.

    I’m not impressed by Marriott’s ‘sorry-not-sorry’ answer though. When companies have to make follow up statements to previously released statements, like United did with Dr. Dao, it makes them look like they are covering up.

  23. True but at least Marriott took care of its customers, united on the other hand … treated its customer like he was not on their manifest.. no matter what Marriott did its obligations, while the other hotels did not.. if Marriott did nothing none of this was a story, so they took care of their customers, and everyone are blaming them. To me it’s ironic because all other hotels, resorts, and air bnb did not do right to its customers’ and i have yet to read any bad post about those company.. Marriott too thumbs up. And all those that complain about marriott are the ones that did go on the trip, or would have and expect people to save their rear when they made the wrong decisions. You people are adults please live by your own decisions and try not to blame others for your own.

  24. There is a good argument that both Marriott and the boat owner have liability under U.S. admiralty law for failing to attempt to rescue these people if it could be reasonably done without imperiling the vessel or its passengers and crew. The International Convention on Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) requires the master of a vessel to attempt a rescue of imperiled persons if he or she can reasonably do so without endangering his/her own vessel. The U.S. Is a party to that treaty, which makes it binding U.S. law.

  25. @Retired Lawyer – just curious, to raise you one / kick the hornet’s nest…by extension of the general frame of logic being applied here, basically the obligation of one to act as a Good Samaritan in these situations, would you argue that Marriott was compelled by law to charter the boat? If not, then, would you posit that they chartered the boat out of their own good will? And, then, as follows, would that good will release them from any possible liability or ramifications resulting from those actions? Just wondering.

  26. Marriott is truly the hero in this story. They were the first to rescue anyone from the islands. I feel really bad for the 35 left on the dock, but it wasn’t Marriott’s fault. Unfortunately, there are rules that needed to be followed, and this time, it was getting dark quickly and it all had to happen in a timely matter or no one would have been rescued. I didn’t hear anything about any other resorts doing anything to help their guest get out. I believe guest from the Westin on St. John didn’t arrive at San Juan until Saturday night or Sunday morning. Marriott went out of their way on this one. Not only did they get them off St. Thomas in 2 days, they put them up in hotels for free, fed them, and gave them cash. They even let their guest know of a United flight to Newark that had a lot of seats to come home on Sunday, when all the other airlines couldn’t get them out until Wednesday or Thursday. Do you really think a company like Marriott would be that mean??? Come on.

  27. I was among the 650 guests evacuated from St Thomas by Marriott. We were informed around 11:00 am that they were working on a plan to try and get us on a ferry, largely because of the threat of Jose. We were warned that unless clearance was for the ferry to dock in both St. Thomas and Puerto Rico, it would be no go. We were told to pack our rags and be ready to move fast. Around 1:00 pm we received word that a ferry was on the way, but it was near 6:00 before we started loading in cars, volunteered and driven by Marriott’s local employees. These drivers made multiple trips, getting the 650 evacuees to the dock. It was around 8;30 or 9:00 when port authorities allowed us to board after checking their manifests. We arrived in San Juan around 2;30 a.m. and were whisked by bust to several Marriott properties. We were given 2 free nights, $200 per person for our needs, or to pay additional nights, and a $50 food allowance. The entire experience ran very smoothly and Marriott and its employees went way beyond the call of duty to make us feel secure and comfortable. AS for the 35 people left behind…I find it incredulous that after committing its resources to evacuating 650 people, they would randomly refuse to do so for another 35, especially when there was plenty of space on the ship. It simply makes no sense. If evacuating their own guests is good PR, then helping the other 35 would just shine their rep even more. In this age of terrorism and increased security, I absolutely believe the problem lie in them not having previous identity clearance. I would have been terribly upset if I had been one of the 35, but I sincerely believe Marriott actions were genuine.

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