In its heyday, Studio 54 in New York was the hottest nightclub in the world. Guests danced on a floor decorated with the man in the moon with a spoon. On the balconies they did more than just drink. Celebrities controlled dark corners. One night, a devout Mormon showed up. His name was J. W. Marriott Jr.

Dropping in on new clubs and hotels is one of Marriott's favorite chores in running the world's largest hotel company. He swore off alcohol as a young man and he dislikes noisy places, but if a visit to Studio 54 or any other bar will give him a little more insight into what customers want, save him a table. People who work for him say it is emblematic of his commitment to keep Bethesda-based Marriott International Inc. competitive.

That's precisely what he is doing now, with his company beginning a dramatic makeover of its bars in response to demands on hotel companies to find quick new ways to increase value and generate more revenue. The pressures are driven by intense competition for guests because of a strong return to business travel and by private equity firms, particularly the Blackstone Group, which have swarmed to the hotel business, buying properties and hoping to flip them for big returns.

"This is certainly the most competitive this business has ever been," Marriott said, sitting in the lounge of his company's Ritz-Carlton on M Street. "We are seeing some really big money come in."

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