Josh Spero catches John Ueberroth, who has brought together hotels from across the world under his Preferred Hotel Group, in between flights
THE ONLY WAY to run a hotel empire is never to be in the same country for more than one day at a time, and John Ueberroth, CEO of the Preferred Hotel Group, seems to have that cracked. Preferred is an umbrella group for over 700 grand and boutique hotels and golf resorts, from Anchorage to Jakarta, providing ‘total branded connectivity’ and even tools which help you work out the optimal rate to charge.
It is a global family, run by a globe-trotting family: when we meet in the lounge of the Royal Horseguards Hotel (Preferred’s other members in London include the Lanesborough), Ueberroth is accompanied by his daughter Lindsey. His son and daughter-in-law both work in Preferred as well, though – as he immediately points out – after successful careers in other industries.
Ueberroth started in his brother Peter’s travel agency in the late sixties when he was deciding whether to go into the Navy, which had paid for his university education. The travel bug bit, the Navy lost out, Ueberroth never looked back. He repeatedly says it is ‘addictive’ – the freedom to travel, the global stakes involved.
The group consists of five brands: Preferred Hotels & Resorts, Preferred Boutique (for smaller city hotels), Summit Hotels & Resorts, Sterling Hotels and Historic Hotels of America, each with a different price point or essential offering. Historic Hotels is of particular interest to America-bound HNWs: it offers a Gilded Age mansion in South Carolina, the legendary Rockefeller-built Williamsburg Inn in Virginia and the Fairmont in San Francisco, which opened just before the 1906 earthquake.
Despite being entitled to travel in whatever comfort his status affords him, Ueberroth is quite a fan of easyJet, praising its simplicity and direct access to city centres. He has learnt that not everyone is quite as amenable: he recalls one experiment years back, when he was running a travel company, where they offered passengers either a business-class flight from the US to Paris, or an economy flight with a thousand dollars spending money, a free night at the George V and free spa treatments. Half chose the business flight, half the benefits, which, Ueberroth says, illustrates that for some people the travelling is as important as the being there.
Preferred is starting to expand in South America, though Brazil is the eternal country of the future: ‘Brazil has the Olympics, it will emerge more. It’s got beautiful topography, but it’s never really taken off the way people think it’s going to – there’s usually some coup.’ There is a clustering effect in those locations, since once a Four Seasons or similar opens up, other hotels realise it is safe and flock there.
Asia is also a new horizon – Preferred recently allied with the Leela group of luxury hotels in India – and not just for Europeans but also for intra-Asian travel, which is becoming a much larger market as incomes rise among the three billion people of the continent.
When asked if Preferred has run into resistance in Asia because of repressive or autocratic governments, Ueberroth says Singapore isn’t a democracy but ‘It’s run like one, a Swiss watch, and you wouldn’t feel that there. Hong Kong, you wouldn’t feel that it is under Chinese [rule]. There’s nothing to the naked eye. China doesn’t feel like a military state, it feels like Hong Kong in Shanghai, in Beijing.’
More than this, dictatorships are ‘good for tourism’: ‘Take Singapore and China: they can do what they want to do. India is more democratic and it takes forever to build a new airport. If we have to move 800 families in China, we move them because the subway will work much better if it runs through your house. In a way it’s a nice product.’
In his low, soft, gravely voice, Ueberroth does not try and make himself heard over the morning-coffee-time din, almost as if he is slightly reticent. He gets louder as he gets more ironic: ‘The hotels that have been hit the hardest have been the resorts. I’ve read something where they’re taking the “resort” out of their names and calling them “lodges” or something to make them sound less expensive. I don’t know who they’re fooling!’
This rebranding is one of the consequences of the recession that Ueberroth found ridiculous; not so laughable is the effect that the collapse of large companies – and the slashing back of the budgets of the ones that survived – had on Preferred’s hotels. Instead of no-expense-spared corporate retreats at, say, Preferred Golf resorts, complete with spas and pools and lakes, pharmaceutical and automotive firms have had to cut back on their jollies and corporate entertainment.
But Ueberroth is confident they’ll come back, and in the meantime special prices are attracting the locals: ‘These are wonderful places, and we have made local people fairly good offers to these places, so they think, “Why am I gonna travel half way round the world when I have these wonderful places 80 miles from my house?”’
Ueberroth’s older brother Peter became a major figure on the US stage, organising the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and being names Time’s Man of the Year for his success with them; he went on to be commissioner of baseball from 1984-9, which is like being head of the Football Association (only affairs with secretaries are not mandatory).
It was through Peter that John ended up sharing beers with George W Bush, who owned a share in the Texas Rangers baseball team. Ueberroth says he was a good guy to share a beer with, but seems rather surprised that he became president.
Ueberroth is also keen to talk about the Ueberroth Family Foundation, which is a way of sharing the family’s success but also creating a tighter-knit family: those who give together, stay together, students of wealthy families have found. The family has regular discussion to determine which charities will benefit, and personal experience plays a large part: Ueberroth cites a granchild with a cleft palate as motivating one donation. Educational and cancer charities figure high in their agenda.
The success of Preferred has not just been to co-opt hotels in all continents but to breed the interactivity, flexibility and unity of the group, which means that it has members for all prices and desires who can respond to whatever the global economy throws at them.