Industry Icons: James Lavenson, The Plaza and strawberries

Lthe_plaza_shutterstock_380740561The world famous Plaza Hotel in New York was the dream of financier Bernhard Beinecke, hotelier Fred Sterry and Harry S Black, President of the Fuller Construction Company. In 1905, they purchased a 15-year-old hotel of the same name on the site at Central Park South and demolished it. Over the next two years the Plaza rose to become one of the most elegant Beaux-Arts hotels in the world.

The Plaza was sold in 1943 to Conrad Hilton, who did not build hotels but rather acquired them at reduced, post-Depression prices. The Plaza (which was not in the best state at the time) was bought for US$7.4 million. Hilton retained control of the hotel until 1953, when he sold it to Park Fifty-Ninth Street Corporation, headed by Boston industrialist AM Sonnabend, for US$15 million. Five years later, the hotel was sold to lawyer and realty investor Lawrence A Wein for US$21 million. In 1974, Western International Hotels (Westin) acquired the Plaza for US$25 million.

The Strawberry Speech

James Lavenson was the President and CEO of the Plaza Hotel from 1972 to 1975. Unprofitable in the year before his assumption of the hotel’s direction, the Plaza was profitable each year of Lavenson’s tenure.

Lavenson delivered a famous speech (the ‘Strawberry Speech’), which is still used by many hotel groups for their management training. Essentially, he explained that every hotel employee should be sales-focused. While this is a mindset broadly adopted today (and not unique to this industry) it was considered ahead of its time. The strawberries themselves were part of a very successful move to sell a ‘light’ dessert to a market that was less than interested in dessert.

In the speech he also told of a day early in his career when he got an insight into the world of professional hotel staff. He walked through the lobby and heard the phone ring on the bell captain’s desk. Seeing nobody at the desk, Lavenson picked up the phone, thinking to show his staff that no job was too demeaning for him, and said ‘Bell captain’s desk. May I help you?’ The voice came on the other end. ‘Pass it on, Lavenson’s in the lobby.’

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Mr Lavenson passed away in 1998 at the age of 79. While the Plaza has changed hands multiple times since Mr Lavenson was in the lobby – it is currently managed by Fairmont – it remains an icon of both the industry and New York City. And if you do happen to be in Manhattan and pass by the Plaza, maybe go in and check out the dessert cart.

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