With a view of the Washington Monument from the Marriott Marquis’ presidential suite, former news anchor Kathleen Matthews takes on a new persona—and satisfies that travel bug.
The woman in the multizippered black Escada suit posing for photographs inside the JW Marriott Hotel presidential suite in downtown Washington used to be Kathleen Matthews. Actually, she still is—but for years many Washingtonians knew her as Kathleen Matthews, the ABC 7 local news anchor, a fixture in their daily lives. Now, she’s Kathleen Matthews, “global nomad, which I’ve always wanted to be,” she says.
As the executive vice president and chief global communications and public affairs officer for the Bethesda-based Marriott International, Inc., and head of the hotel’s extensive global media relations operation, she is involved in the launch in May of the $520 million Washington Marriott Marquis—the largest hotel in the capital, with 1,175 rooms and 46 suites, next door to the Washington Convention Center. In this role, Matthews averages one foreign trip every month, visiting some of the nearly 4,000 properties in more than 70 countries (not to mention travel within the United States). That’s a whole lot of frequent flyer miles, and the fulfillment of a young dream. Her first trip overseas was to England and Ireland, a high school graduation present from her parents when she was 18, and the travel bug had claimed another victim.
But she was interested in more than travel: Twice during this interview she calls herself “a child of Watergate,” the 1974 political scandal that forced President Richard Nixon to resign in the middle of his second term. So, after Stanford, journalism became her first priority. “I felt I had a real purpose in informing the public,” she recalls. At 22, San Francisco–born Kathleen Cunningham (as she was then) came to Washington and went to work for WJLA-TV, the ABC affiliate, initially as a researcher, then as a reporter, and eventually for 15 years as the award-winning coanchor of the Channel 7 evening news.
In typical Washington fashion, Matthews heard about the Marriott job while at a French Embassy reception. J .W. ( Bill) MarriottJr., the founder and chairman of the chain, knew Matthews mainly as a television personality, but she had emceed some Marriott events. In 2006, he raised the possibility of her moving to Marriott International. At their meeting, she recalls, “I told him, ‘Look, I read the news section of the paper, and the arts section, and I throw away the sports section and the business section, so I know nothing about business.’”
Working as a news anchor in September 2000, Kathleen Matthews joined The Beach Boys at Montgomery County Fairgrounds.
But Bill Marriott hired her anyway, seeing in her a strong, high-profile personality with proven news sense. And he piled other responsibilities onto her job description: government affairs, social responsibility, the Marriott Foundation—dedicated to creating employment opportunities for young people with disabilities—and the company’s sustainability program.
She is also a leading spokesperson for the travel and tourism sector. For example, she is Marriott’s point person in the travel industry’s campaign to accelerate and widen the government’s visa waiver program, easing some of the post-9/11 restrictions on foreigners wishing to visit the United States.
As a TV producer in 1980, she had married Chris Matthews, now the host of political talk show Hardball, who was then a speechwriter in the Jimmy Carter White House. It was Chris who—as she says—encouraged her to “jump off the cliff” when, eight years ago, she was considering Marriott’s offer.
In reality, it doesn’t sound like she needed much encouraging. After 25 years in television, she says, “my wanderlust was growing, and I was looking for a real stretch.” Besides, with daughter, Caroline, and two sons, Michael and Thomas, in college (one son has since become an actor and the other, a filmmaker) the nest was empty.
So Kathleen made the move—a surprisingly smooth transition, she recalls. Today, a large portrait of Barack Obama in her office proclaims her a Democrat infiltrator into the upper echelons of a Republican stronghold. (The Marriott family has long been a major GOP contributor.) She says the hotel likes to have a Democrat among its senior staff because it shows the company to be politically evenhanded. “For 25 years nobody knew what my politics were because journalists are not supposed to be publicly partisan,” says Matthews. “At Marriott, I wear my politics on my sleeve.”