Hotelier: Ueberroth, CEO of Preferred Hotel Group

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 of California 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.

John Ueberroth

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.

Excelsior Palace Hotel in Rapallo, Italy, part of Preferred Hotel Group

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 Europe and Asia, which could complement the Preferred Boutique brand. He says the company is in the midst of bolstering membership.

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."


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