Bjorn Hanson, Ph.D., has enjoyed a legendary career in hospitality consulting and education, and it all started with a trashy book: Hotel, by Arthur Hailey, which Hanson read when he was in high school in the 1960s. The world that Hailey described in his bestselling novel about a fictitious New Orleans hotel “sounded interesting,” Hanson recently told HSMAI, and prompted him to spend what today would be called a shadow day with a family friend who worked as the director of sales and marketing for Loews’ Americana Hotel — now the Sheraton Times Square — in New York City.
“After he spent a little time in the office telling me about his job, he took me into the front office and said, ‘I’ll come back in an hour or so,’” Hanson remembered. “It was a great first front-office experience, because this was before computers, so there was no computer reservation system. They had a 300-person convention not entered into the reservation book, so the hotel was overbooked by 300 rooms. My first day on the job was learning how to say to people, ‘We have no available rooms, but I’m authorized to give you $3.50 for cab fare for you to go to another hotel.’ So, I learned to not stand too close to the front desk.”
In the afternoon, the sales and marketing director took Hanson to another hotel — for a conference luncheon for the Hotel Sales Managers Association (HSMA, which today is HSMAI), where he met a group of hospitality students from Cornell University. “My first day working in a hotel,” Hanson said, “I had the worst front-desk experience one could have and the best HSMAI experience one could have.”
Eventually, Hanson himself attended Cornell, where he served as HSMA’s student chapter president, helping organize the school’s first-ever HSMA student conference. After graduation, he served as general manager of a hotel in northern New Jersey, but his true interests were finance and consulting, and he soon took a job as a hospitality consultant with Laventhol & Horwath, the major accounting firm that specialized in hotels. He stayed there for 17 years, moved to Wall Street to work in hospitality banking, then joined PricewaterhouseCoopers, where he founded the hospitality and leisure practice. After retiring in 2008, he promptly joined the full-time faculty at the New York University School of Continuing and Professional Studies, and two years later became dean of NYU’s Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism, and Sports Management.
He retired from NYU in 2018, but nonetheless finds himself with two full-time jobs: executive director of the 795 Fifth Avenue Corporation, which owns The Pierre hotel in New York City, and member of the board of directors for Summit Hotel Properties, which owns 80 hotels. And he’s still not done. At the Adrian Awards Dinner Reception and Gala on Jan. 21, HSMAI will honor Hanson with the Winthrop W. Grice Award for Lifetime Achievement in Hospitality Public Relations — recognizing his status as an industry expert who has been quoted in countless newspaper, radio, and TV interviews. For Hanson, the award brings things full circle. “One of the people I had speak at that [HSMA student] conference was Bud Grice, and I’m getting the Bud Grice Lifetime Achievement award,” Hanson said. “To receive an award with his name means more than it probably could to almost anyone else. My career started with HSMAI, and here I am.”
Here are five other things we learned during an interview with Hanson:
1. He loves hospitality because it matters to people. “When I was trying to decide what to do when I was in high school, the thing about hotels for me was the theater of it —when you walk into a hotel, there should be an experience. But then, I’ve learned that hotels are so important in so many people’s lives. If it’s a business hotel and people are staying there for business, it might be someone’s first day on the job — they’re going to an orientation and training program, which maybe is being held at a hotel. If a group has been working for months on a new product announcement, it happens at a convention hotel. People’s retirement dinners and annual partner meetings — so much important business happens at hotels. And then in people’s personal lives, it’s wedding rehearsal dinners and wedding receptions and anniversary parties, and when people go on vacations and honeymoons and take their kids the first time to Disney World. This theater that I first associated with hotels became not so much theater but an opportunity to create some of the more important moments in people’s lives.”
2. He thinks the industry has changed for worse and for better. “The separation between ownership and management in some ways is sad. The person who wanted to own a hotel to be the host is rare. It still does happen, but it happens almost more at the economy level than it does at the luxury level. That person who wanted to be the host and run the business day-to-day, it’s become so much of a challenge, and I find that to be a bit of a loss. But the same thing that’s the bad also is the good. The business has become so much more sophisticated and able to deliver so much more because of the separation of ownership, management, and brand, because now we can have specialists whose career lives are based on knowing how to be the best owner and invest capital. And there’s a management company that knows how to do the day-to-day things, including book computer systems, revenue management systems, and property management systems, and how to recruit and train and retain people. And there’s the brand that knows how to create the image in the marketplace and gets involved in distribution. So, the same thing that I find disappointing also is one of the good things about the industry.”
3. He always wanted to teach. “My first day after graduation, it was a long-term objective. I graduated in 1973, in 1978 I started teaching at NYU, and in 1979 I became a visiting assistant professor at Cornell. It was something I wanted to do, and I have a couple of reasons. One is, my view of universities as an undergraduate was that the next level of education — master’s and Ph.D. — related to research, and we were an industry that I thought would benefit from the kinds of research that were being applied to other sectors of the economy. I also felt my experience at Cornell was truly lifechanging. It was such a positive experience for me to have those four years and feel like I learned new things that I could go out and apply, and the idea of trying to help others have that experience — to be part of that process, I felt it would be a positive life experience.”
4. He’s a hotel careerist. “This is an industry that has so many different channels. There are all kinds of jobs — ones where you’ll interact with people, ones where you won’t interact with people, ones where you can go home after work and not even think about what you do during the day, and others where you can apply your greatest creative talents and make things happen. You can be in a hotel, you can be in a corporate office, you can do what I did, which was consulting with one of the major accounting firms or working on Wall Street. If you find you really like food, there’s a place to go, or if you find you’re really interested in advertising, hotel advertising is a unique specialty. It’s one of those industries that creates more ways for someone to find his or her way to have an enjoyable career. I can’t imagine there are too many that are better or more flexible or offer more opportunities.”
5. He is a nontraditional PR person. “I’m not a CEO of a company who gets quoted in the company’s public relations. I’m more of an industry researcher and analyst who just had the opportunity to talk about the industry more than many people do. Even though I’m semi-retired in some ways, it’s rare that I don’t have between three and seven media interviews a week. I think it’s just the fact that my passion and interest and excitement for the industry make me quotable.”