Top 10 Legendary Hoteliers
Hotelier Middle East's list of top names to have graced the business
Putting this list together was one of the hardest and most interesting things Hotelier Middle East has had to do.
Aside from trawling the internet for information, we asked people’s opinions and delved deep into the history of the hotel industry.
We were greeted with stories of ambition, luck, humour as well as sadness and intrigue as we carried out the research.
The following list is our opinion and we have given the justifications for our choices, however, we know that you will have your own valid opinions so please feel free to comment.
Our biggest challenge was choosing just 10 as we started with around 30 viable candidates for out Top 10 Legendary Hoteliers.
You will notice some big names haven’t made it onto the list such as Las Vegas legend Steve Wynn and South African legend Sol Kerzner. Some wonderful stories won’t be told in this list such as Dusit Thani’s founder Thanpuying Chanut Piyaoui’s.
There is no ranking order, it's simply a group of 10 legends.
We hope you enjoy reading the list as much as we enjoyed putting it together.
1. Cesar Ritz
If there was ever a name that was synonymous with the very best of hotels it’s Ritz.
And the man responsible for this was hotelier Cesar Ritz.
Born in Niederwald, Switzerland, to a farming family, he began his career at Le Splendide, a hotel in Paris and was maître d'hôtel at Chez Voisin.
In 1878, he became the manager of the Grand Hôtel National in Lucerne and held the same position, in parallel, at the Grand Hôtel in Monaco until 1888.
Ritz’s strength was his ability to understand the needs and desires of wealthy customers and this led to him pioneering the foundations of what we would come to know as luxury hospitality.
In 1888, he opened a restaurant with Auguste Escoffier (thought of by many as the father of modern French cooking) in Baden-Baden, and the two were then invited to London by Richard D'Oyly Carte to become the first manager and chef of the Savoy Hotel.
Ritz is quoted as saying that he put together "a little army of hotel men for the conquest of London".
Under Ritz, The Savoy went from strength to strength and royalty, extremely rich clientele and the powerful could be seen frequenting the hotel and its supper rooms.
In 1898, he opened the celebrated Hôtel Ritz in the Place Vendôme, Paris, France. He went on to open The Ritz Hotel in London, United Kingdom in 1906, which became one of the most popular meeting places for the rich and famous.
The partnership lasted until Ritz had to retire in 1907 due to deteriorating health. Ritz died in Küssnacht, near Lucerne, Switzerland at the age of 68.
Many of the touches that Ritz introduced to his hotels are still standard practice in today’s modern luxury hotels. That is why he has secured his place in the Top 10 Legendary Hoteliers.
2. Conrad Hilton
Who hasn’t heard of Hilton? That’s right, nobody. And while some of today’s generation may first think of his blonde granddaughter, hoteliers conjure up the legend that was Conrad Hilton.
Hilton developed his entrepreneurial flair while working as a young boy in his father’s general store in New Mexico.
He purchased his very first hotel in 1919, a 40-room property called Mobley Hotel in Texas.
The purchase of the property was a matter of chance, as originally Hitlon planned to invest his money in a bank, but the plan fell through.
Luckily it paid off, as the hotel business boomed and he expanded his portfolio across the state.
His first high rise hotel was the Dallas Hilton which he opened in 1925 before expanding into New Mexico.
However, trouble loomed and when the Great Depression hit, Hilton was forced to sell some of his hotels to avoid bankruptcy.
Despite this he was retained as manager of the hotels and bought them back when the economic climate improved.
In 1946 he formed Hilton Hotels Corporation followed by Hilton International Company in 1948.
Fuelling American’s desire for travel and business on a global scale, Hilton became the first international hotel chain, a truly remarkable feat.
He passed away in January 1979 but his legacy is still thriving as the multitude of international lodging companies vie for opportunities in every corner of the world.
3. Bill Marriott Jr.
Now there was certainly an argument to be had as to whether to put his father in the Top 10 hotel Legends list.
However, despite J. Willard being the founder of Marriott and the hotel group’s mentor, it was his son ‘Bill’ who took the company and turned it into the hospitality giant it is today.
His leadership spans more than 50 years and he has taken Marriott from a family restaurant business to a global lodging company with more than 3,100 properties in 67 countries and territories.
Known throughout the industry for his tireless work ethic and his attention to detail, it was his decision to follow a franchise model that allowed the company to compete on the global stage.
His business innovations and ability to oversee a company that is consistently honoured as being a top company to work for firmly establishes his position on the list.
To keep up with Bill, check out his blog Marriott on the Move. He gives fantastic insights into the industry and is a must-read for any hotelier.
And for those who really want to get to know the legend you should read Marriott's book The Spirit To Serve, written with Kathi Ann Brown and with a foreword by James C. Collins, is a personal view of the rise of the Marriott company and outlines principles of business success.
4. Kemmons Wilson
Hotel, motel, Holiday Inn. The man responsible for creating the hotel chain famously mentioned in Rapper’s Delight by the Sugarhill Gang was a man by the name of Kemmons Wilson.
Following a thoroughly disappointing holiday to Washington DC in terms of the standard of roadside accommodation, Wilson decided to do something about it.
He opened his first hotel in Memphis in 1952. The story goes that Kemmons’ architect, Eddie Bluestein, joked that he should name it after a reference to a Bing Cosby Movie of the same name.
But the idea stuck and other properties were quickly adopting the Holiday Inn name.
In 1957, Wilson franchised the chain as Holiday Inn of America and it grew dramatically, following Wilson's brief that the properties should be standardised, clean, predictable, family-friendly and readily accessible to road travellers.
By 1958, there were 50 locations across the country and 100 by 1959.
In 1960 the chain went international. There were 500 hotels by 1964, and the 1000th Holiday Inn opened in San Antonio, Texas, in 1968.
By this time the chain was dominating the market, making use of its innovative Holidex reservation system.
In June 1972, Wilson was featured on the cover of Time magazine.
Clever innovations such as indoor pools had turned the image of the often run down motel into one of a roadside resort, all to do with Kemmons’ desire for quality accommodation while on the go.
A true pioneer in the world of modern hospitality and therefore deserving of his place in the Top 10 Legendary Hoteliers.
5. Barry Sternlicht
When you have been dubbed ‘The king of hotels’ you know you have caught the attention of a few hoteliers.
As the founder of Starwood Hotels and Resorts, Barry Sternlicht is a real estate developer with an eye for a property and the ability to realise a brand.
Many of his creations have been copied, the sincerest form of flattery.
Born in New York City in 1960, Sternlicht got his MBA from Harvard Business School in 1986. His first job after Harvard was with Chicago-based JMB Realty, where he became a sensation, but was fired before the savings and loan crisis.
He had a friend who handled money for the ultrawealthy Burden and Ziff families who offered to back him with $20 million if he started his own investment firm. Others joined in, and in 1992, Sternlicht launched Starwood Capital Group.
His goal was to buy up multi-family apartment buildings that were being auctioned off in the government’s bailout of the savings and loan crisis. In 1993, Sternlicht sold the portfolio to real estate magnate Sam Zell for more than 20 percent of Zell’s Equity Residential Properties Trust. When Zell took the company public that year, Starwood saw a 100 percent return.
Sternlicht later began to purchase hotel sites, focusing on combining his passions of architecture and real estate finance.
Starwood Capital also bought its first hotels, kicking off the series of moves that would realign the hospitality industry.
The first was the acquisition of Westin Hotels & Resorts Inc and one month later, Starwood Hotels completed the purchase of ITT Sheraton Corp. for $14.6 billion.
The hotel business, meanwhile, had proven to be tailor-made for Sternlicht’s wide-ranging interests in capital markets, operations, marketing and design. Having shaken up the hotel industry’s dynamics through mergers, he contributed a number of other influential innovations. In 1999 he started the popular Starwood Preferred Guest program, credited with being the first “no blackout” program in the industry.
In the same year he went on to develop the luxury ST Regis brand following the purchase of the century-old St. Regis Hotel in Midtown Manhattan.
6. Paul Dubrule/Gerard Pellisson
The influence of men such as Kemmons Wilson crossed the pond in the late 1960s when two Frenchman, who had been working in America, formed the SIEH (Société d'investissement et d'exploitation hôteliers) hotel group.
Paul Dubrule and Gérard Pélisson had witnessed firsthand the success of the hotel business along major highways and suburban areas and they were determined to bring the concept to France.
They opened their first American-syle Novotel hotel outside of Lille in northern France and in 1974 launched the Ibis brand with the opening of the Ibis Bordeaux.
In 1975 the company took on the Courtepaille and Mercure brands, followed by the Sofitel brand in 1980.
Two years later, in 1982, the SIEH bought out Jacques Borel International, the then world-leading brand offering restaurant vouchers. In 1983, the Group, which had restaurant tickets and hotels, changed its name to the Accor Group in 1984, Dubrule and Pélisson were elected "Managers of the Year" by France’s Le Nouvel Économiste magazine.
Both men have gone on to represent the hospitality and travel industry in many ways, but it was their determination to bring Europe in line with modern American lodging and the subsequent international brands they developed that secure their place in the list.
7. Jay Pritzker
When looking at the Pritzkers, the family who founded Hyatt, it is hard to pick out an individual who isn’t worth a mention.
Having dominated the Forbes’ rich list since its inception, the business success stories of the Pritzkers are numerous.
And while the day-to-day running of the hotel company was originally Donald Pritzker’s role, we are recognising Jay Pritzker for his simple, but brilliant realisation.
In 1957, Jay Pritzker, a trained lawyer and accountant, had been buying small companies, something he had done since he was 29.
He was sat in Fat Eddie’s coffee shop at Los Angeles International Airport and realised it was very busy.
Added to this was the fact the hotel it was located in, Hyatt Von Dehn (named after its owner) had no vacancies, writing his offer of US $2.2 million on a napkin.
Pritzker knew, not unlike Kemmons Wilson wanting quality roadside lodging, that business executives like himself would want to stay at a quality hotel near a large airport.
With his brother Donald the pair set about building hotels near airports in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, then around the country and internationally.
In 1967, Pritzker bought a half-finished hotel in Atlanta and turned it into the Hyatt Regency. The first of the giant atrium hotels, the Hyatt Regency Atlanta struck doubters as a white elephant.
There were people who even said rainstorms would form inside the lobby due to its size.
Pritzker died in 1999, but his legacy continues across the globe.
8. PRS Biki Oberoi
When the eyes of many hoteliers were firmly fixed on the West, Prithvi Raj Singh Oberoi, better known as Biki Oberoi, was looking East.
P.R.S. Oberoi, chairman and CEO, EIH Limited, the flagship company of The Oberoi Group, and chairman of Oberoi Hotels Private Limited, is the son of late Rai Bahadur M.S. Oberoi, the founder of The Oberoi Group.
Under his guidance, this legendary hotelier has pioneereed the development of the new Oberoi hotels and resorts.
But it didn’t always seem that he would make a name for himself. He admitted he did little work until he was 40 as his father had told him to go out and see the world.
He admitted in an interview that the first hotel he ran was Maidens, but he “didn’t do it very seriously”.
“There was a general manager there, so I used to meet him two hours in afternoon and party in the evening,” he added.
But that all changed when he opened Raj Villas, a concept that boasted sprawling gardens with luxury tents and villas.
An international audience took notice and it was one of the best hotels in the world, placing India’s flag in the luxury hotel map.
More hotels have followed and it is not unusual to see several Oberoi hotels gracing top hotels in the world lists.
He has won numerous international awards and titles for his tireless efforts in hospitality and in January 2008, was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian honour, in recognition of his exceptional service to the country.
In the same year he was conferred the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Awards for redefining design standards in luxury hotels.
9. Ian Schrager
Not many people can be attributed with starting a whole new genre of hotel lodging, but Ian Schrager is on our list for doing exactly that.
Known outside of hotel circles for being one half of the duo behind the infamous Studio 54 nightclub in New York – the haunt of the famous and beautiful in the late 70s – Schrager had to turn his attention to other revenue streams when he was convicted of income tax evasion on the club.
As he was unable to obtain a liquor license he bought the Executive Hotel.
Reopening it as the Morgans Hotel, in 1984, the property became a success and allowed for the opening of the Century Paramont Hotel, as well as the acquisition and renovation of the Royalton in 1988.
Schrager’s new company, the Morgans Hotel Group, went on to open the Delano Hotel, in Miami, and the Sanderson Hotel and the St. Martin's Lane Hotel, in London, the Clift, in San Francisco, and the Mondrian Hotel, in Los Angeles.
By 1998, Schrager was the largest private hotelier in New York and was known across the globe for his ‘boutique-style’ of hotel.
Sometimes known as ‘design hotels’ or ‘lifestyle hotels’, typically boutique hotels were furnished in a themed, stylish and/or aspirational manner. They usually are considerably smaller than mainstream hotels, often ranging from three to 50 guest rooms.
In 2005, Schrager left Morgans Hotel Group to create the Ian Schrager Company, and collaborated with artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel on the Gramercy Park Hotel. He then formed a partnership with Marriott International, with the EDITION hotel brand, which launched its first hotel in Hawaii on October 15, 2010—The Waikiki EDITION.
10. Your choice
We thought it was unfair of us to have all the fun, so we have left the final spot for you. We want to hear your suggestions and the best argued comment will get their choice in the final edition that will be featured in the hard copy of the magazine.
So, compare your choice with the others on the list and tell us why they need to join them as a legendary hotelier. Do you believe Isadore Sharp should be lauded for the Four Seasons? Did Horst Shulze do enough at the helm of Ritz-Carlton to warrant a spot? Have we been amiss in missing out Las Vegas mega-resort pioneer Kirk Kerkorian? You may also notice that there is nobody on the list from the Middle East. There were some contenders and we know that some will make legendary status in the future, but the relative maturity of the market meant they missed out on the inaugural edition. Were we right to do this in your opinion or could you argue a candidate from the region deserves to knock off one of our nine or be the 10th? Let us know what you think.