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Hotelier: Ueberroth, CEO of Preferred Hotel GroupDecember 4, 2006 By: David Eisen Travel Agent
The Ueberroth name will forever be linked to baseball
because of Peter Ueberroth, who served as commissioner of Major League Baseball
during the latter part of the 1980s. A run, albeit failed, at the governorship
and you would think that Peter is the star scion of the Ueberroth family.
Actually, there are two stars.
Peter's younger brother, John, made a name for himself, too,
in a different, less public arena: travel. John Ueberroth is chairman and CEO
of Preferred Hotel Group, a collection of four brands consisting of more than
300 hotels throughout the world. Preferred Hotel Group lends marketing, sales
and buying power to each individual hotel. "We do everything but manage
and own the hotels," Ueberroth sums it up.
Ueberroth has more than 30 years of executive travel
experience, and has led companies in each facet of the travel industry: as
president of Ask Mr. Foster travel agency, which at the time, from 1971 to
1980, was the largest travel agency behind American Express and Thomas Cook; as
president of Carlson Travel Group from 1980 to 1989; as chairman and CEO of
Hawaiian Airlines from 1990 to 1993; and as the leader of Preferred since 2004.
Now 63, Ueberroth often waxes nostalgic about the industry's
past, and applies what he's learned to the present. "When we first bought
Ask Mr. Foster Travel back in the 1970s, travel was fun," he recalls.
"We were coming up with dreams for people. Then there was a move toward
corporate travel, and that wasn't about fulfilling dreams, it was about
managing cost. Today, at the up end, it's again about selling dreams to people
who have the desire. My wife and I agreed to only put money into this if it was
going to be fun, and I think we are building something that is just that."
These days, Ueberroth is busy building up the Chicago-based
hotel group, which now has global sales offices in 23 cities worldwide. Preferred
Hotel Group consists of four brands: Preferred Hotels & Resorts, Preferred
Boutique, Summit Hotels & Resorts and Sterling Hotels. Each hotel
encompassed by one of the four brands looks to impress each traveler with a
sense of individuality, and beyond that, says Ueberroth, with top-notch service
and aesthetic quality.
Preferred Hotel Group is steadily gaining a prominent role
in the hotel industry as more and more hotels solicit for group membership.
"We are getting a lot more hotels seeking us out, but it goes both
ways," Ueberroth says. "We will look to pick up properties where we
have a hole." Ueberroth points to an explosion of boutique hotels in
Preferred Boutique brand. He says the company is in the midst of bolstering
As with any travel industry venture, travel agents are
imperative to the growth of the business, especially at the luxury end.
Ueberroth goes so far as to compare the influence they wield to that of movie
critics. "As you move toward the more expensive hotels, you're dealing
with people who have the money, are willing to spend the money, but want to
make sure they don't make a mistake," he explains. "You want to rely
on someone you have trust in. At the luxury end, agents will always play a
part, because they are about word of mouth. The Internet is one thing, but it's
a lot nicer to go through someone who has experienced it."
Likening travel agents to movie critics makes sense for
Ueberroth—an unabashed movie buff himself—whose taste in film is steeped in the
classics. He loves to riff on the good old days of travel and the function
travel agents played. "Twenty years ago, you had to use a travel
agent—half the cruise lines wouldn't even take a direct booking," he says.
Ueberroth says the role of travel agents has now flipped. Viewed before as mere
order-takers, they presently play an integral role in how trips are booked and,
more importantly, where. "Now the travel agents are very good and making
good money because they add value," Ueberroth concludes.
Ueberroth doubtlessly knows travel as well as a baseball
spike knows dirt, which, of course, begs the question: Which is the better job:
head of a hotel group or baseball commissioner? He is a bit irresolute on that
one. "That's tough," he responds. "At least when my brother was
baseball commissioner, I got to go to all the games with him."