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News for the Hospitality Executive

Profile - Cyril Isnard, the Europe-trained
 General Manager of the San Jose Fairmont
By Michele Chandler, San Jose Mercury News, Calif.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

May 8, 2005 - So you think running one of San Jose's most upscale hotels is all glamour, glitz and scrumptious food? That's a big part of it, but there's a lot more.

Just ask Cyril Isnard, the debonair, Europe-trained general manager of the San Jose Fairmont. As head of the landmark downtown hotel, he has experienced everything from the elegant to the mundane.

While making his early morning rounds every day, Isnard keeps his eyes open for the little things guests expect at a luxury hotel that hosts conventioneers, wedding parties, celebrities and dignitaries. Guests have ranged from both Presidents Bush and Clinton to members of the rock group U2.

Isnard, 62, is also every bit the hard-nosed businessman. Since taking the San Jose Fairmont's helm in 2001, he has steered it through the bust in Silicon Valley's tech economy, which has dramatically sliced occupancy rates for downtown San Jose hotels since the boom year of 2000. Isnard oversees price negotiations with customers and serves as a vocal civic booster intent on attracting conventions along with corporate and leisure guests to San Jose.

Still, he can't let up on the niceties mandatory in the hospitality business.

"You have to see if the plants have been watered, because if not, they'll be drooping," Isnard said of what he looks for when inspecting the busiest portions of the 805-room hotel. "You have to make sure no light bulbs are out. It's like taking care of your own house."

His daily inspections begin at 7 a.m. One recent morning, he stepped briskly through the vast main kitchen, where workers were already mixing a massive bowl of green salad, pressing meat loaf into baking pans and arranging Villeroy & Boch china and ornate silverware and fabric serviettes on wheeled room service trays.

He looked in on the laundry operations, then housekeeping -- the hotel's single-largest department, with 66 employees.

And he was quickly off to the parking garage to ensure it was properly staffed. If an unexpected rush of visitors overwhelms valets, Isnard has been known to jump in and park cars himself.

Along the way, he greeted employees by their first names. In the old-school hotel world, everyone from table servers to top sales managers addressed him as "Mr. Isnard" or "sir."

Then Isnard checked out a meeting room where Mark Hurd, the new chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, was to speak to several dozen of the company's employees.

As Isnard's morning rushed on, he headed to the hotel's Fountain Restaurant to sample new items being added to the lunch menu, including lobster and avocado gazpacho.

He reflected on it all while taking a brief pause to glance through an expansive window overlooking the city. "From here," Isnard said, "I can see my competitors, like the Hilton, and my good clients, like Adobe. It reminds me of my responsibilities."

Isnard's rise to hotel executive started in the kitchen of his family's upper-class home in Fez, Morocco, where he was born to expatriate French parents.

The son of a French Army lieutenant father and entrepreneur mother, he lived in the north African nation until he was 18. The household included two sisters and a brother and was frequented by the family's many international guests.

"My mother liked to cook. She didn't like to do dishes. So guess who did them? The children," Isnard said. "So we learned the hospitality side there."

His father died when Isnard was 10, and the family remained in Fez, a cosmopolitan city where Isnard's mother ran a store selling televisions, radios and batteries.

After completing high school there, Isnard moved to Paris to attend the Hotel School of Strasbourg. He was attracted by the profession's elegance, glamour and variety. "It was also an opportunity to learn a very wide array of crafts, because there are many trades in the hotel industry," he said. "You go from engineering, communications, lodging, restaurants, banqueting, custodial work, PR, sales and finance. There is a very glorious and glamorous and fun side of the business, also."

In 1963, a fresh hotel school graduate, Isnard moved to Germany to take his first hospitality job -- as a busboy in a hotel restaurant -- while learning German. He was already fluent in French and English. "As a hotel person, the more languages you spoke, the more desirable an employee you became," he said.

Isnard went on to run an 80-room hotel in Paris, where he did everything from keep the books to stoke the furnace with coal.

But he was convinced his chances for professional advancement were greater in the United States.

Opportunity came in the form of HemisFair '68, the world's fair held in San Antonio, where he got a job in a restaurant at the fair's French pavilion. After the fair ended, he landed a restaurant manager position with the then-brand-new Fairmont Hotel in Dallas.

While he's been with the Fairmont chain for much of his career, Isnard left the company to take on general manager jobs at a series of hotels, including the Hotel Meridien San Francisco, part of the expanding Europe-based chain.

He started that job in 1984 as a newlywed, after marrying Carole, a Texas native who had handled sales for the rival Holiday Inn chain. The couple lived in an apartment in the hotel, and had three sons during that time.

In 1996, Isnard was hired to the top post running the Fairmont Hotel in Dallas.

Isnard's track record in Dallas caught the eye of Mark Huntley, a former regional vice president for Fairmont at the time. He recruited Isnard to the top job at the San Jose Fairmont.

The San Jose hotel had spent $67 million to add 264 rooms in 2000. That addition, completed in 2002, makes it the Toronto-based chain's largest property. But the expansion came just before the tech bubble burst.

"We added 264 rooms at a stage when demand was drying out," said Huntley, now regional vice president and general manager of the company's Savoy hotel in London.

"So we needed somebody to be able to come in and reassess the market and be a calming leadership influence to get us through."

Isnard's efforts to bring more business have included involvement in industry and civic groups including the San Jose Convention & Visitors Bureau, where he was elected chairman last year.

"He is good at helping us strategize and analyze large groups and how to go after them," said Daniel Fenton, president and chief executive of the bureau.

Isnard also has a reputation for maintaining good relations with the labor unions representing about 90 percent of the Fairmont's 550 employees. Since Isnard came aboard, the hotel has renegotiated new wage and benefit agreements with unions representing engineers and Teamsters. Negotiations will begin later this year with Unite Here, which represents wait staff, housekeepers, cooks, desk clerks and maintenance workers.

Because Isnard has held several hotel jobs, he knows what it is like to work in the industry, said Enrique Fernandez, spokesman for Local 19 of Unite Here. "While we have differences in opinion on many issues, I think we both, at the end, want the best for the workers."

Although the Fairmont is one of San Jose's most notable hotels, it is struggling with the sluggish economy like other establishments in the region. At one recent morning briefing with his top sales staff, Isnard learned that no more than 44 percent of the hotel's 805 guest rooms had been occupied during the previous several days.

A slightly improving economy has led to modest increases in occupancy. Downtown San Jose hotels have experienced an occupancy rate of 62 percent so far this year, up from 49 percent last year, but down from 80 percent in 2000, according to hotel consulting firm PFK Consulting.

The Fairmont and other convention-oriented hotels in San Jose have been cushioned somewhat because many of their events are booked years in advance. However, some groups have moved their events to other cities, or pared back the number of big meetings.

The average occupancy rate at the Fairmont for the first quarter hit about 60 percent, Isnard said, adding that he expects to see rates and occupancy rise this year.

"We do see more travel, more meetings than before," Isnard said, adding, "I think business is coming back" both for the Fairmont and for San Jose's convention business.


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