Industry Icons: Juan Trippe

Juan Trippe
Juan Trippe. Public Domain,

In the 1930s, Pan American World Airways (Pan Am) operated its famous Clipper Ships, a fleet of 25 flying boats that crisscrossed both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. In 1946, Pan Am decided to diversify into the hotel business, anticipating a post-war demand for ‘clean, modern accommodations for travellers of modest means’.

Naming the company ‘InterContinental’, they began by opening hotels in Latin America. InterContinental grew along Pan Am’s routes, becoming the first international hotel company to operate in the Asia-Pacific, Africa and the Middle East.

InterContinental was the first internationally famous hotel brand. It was the brainchild of Pan Am’s chairman and founder, Juan Trippe. Born in New Jersey and educated at Yale, Trippe first found work as a stock broker. Bored, he turned his attention to aviation and founded the Aviation Corporation of the Americas (the future Pan Am) in 1927, initially to ferry mail and passengers between Florida and Cuba. He believed – before anyone else – that airline travel should be for everybody, not just the globetrotting elite.

Trippe decided to introduce a ‘tourist class’ fare from New York to London. He cut the return fare by more than half, an unpopular move in an industry where airfares were fixed by a cartel, the International Air Transport Association, who were not impressed with the idea of the tourist class. In fact, Britain closed its airports to Pan Am flights that had tourist seats, forcing Pan Am to switch to a remote airport in Ireland. The industry’s aversion to competition and to making travel affordable was to have a long life. Finally, in 1952, all airlines accepted the inevitability of tourist class. However, flying the oceans was still mostly for the rich and famous. But Trippe saw that new long-range jets being introduced by Boeing and Douglas could mark the end of that. In October 1958, a Pan Am Boeing 707 left New York for its first scheduled flight to Paris.

Trippe launched the InterContinental brand in 1946 with the opening of its first property in Brazil. The company would stay in the hands of PanAm until 1981, at which point it was sold to Grand Metropolitan who in turn sold the company in 1988. Trippe himself died mere months before the sale in April 1981.

While Pan Am would sadly declare bankruptcy and shut down in 1991, IHG now boasts over 4,800 hotels across nearly 100 countries. To this day, no matter where they are in the world, travellers know that their stay at an InterContinental hotel will offer not only the sophistication that they’ve come to expect from this superb hotel chain, but also a unique insight into the local history and culture in which the specific hotel is found.

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