News for the Hospitality Executive
Roger Sonnabend, Executive Chairman of the Board -
Sonesta Hotels, Dies at 83
BOSTON (December 8, 2008) Roger Sonnabend, 83, who passed away Sunday morning, in Miami, made the hotel business his life’s work. After earning his undergraduate degree from MIT in 1946, he joined the family hotel business, established by his father, A.M. (“Sonny”) Sonnabend. At the age of 21, he became the youngest hotel general manger in the country when he served as General Manager of the Nautilus Hotel & Beach Club in Atlantic Beach, Long Island. He attended Harvard Business School and earned his MBA degree as part of the legendary Class of 1949 – “the class the dollars fell on”, as Forbes Magazine described it -- then served as manager of several Sonnabend-owned hotels, including the Whitehall Hotel, Palm Beach, FL; the Somerset Hotel, Boston, MA; and the Samoset Resort, Rockland, ME.
In the early 1950’s with his father, he created Sonnabend-Operated Hotels, which became Hotel Corporation of America, in 1956. That same year the Company acquired The Plaza Hotel, in New York, and other landmark hotels followed, including The Mayflower Hotel, in Washington, D.C. and The Carlton Tower, in London. Since his father’s death in 1964, Mr. Sonnabend directed the course of the Company, together with his brothers Paul and Stephen. He first followed his father’s belief in rapid acquisition and growth. In the early 1970’s, however, after renaming the Company Sonesta International Hotels Corporation in recognition of its international scope and to establish an international brand, he reduced the Company’s size by half and refocused Sonesta on hotel operations rather than simply acquiring new properties.
Roger Sonnabend successfully navigated Sonesta through the challenging economic times of the early 1970s and 1990s. While other hotel companies faltered and were acquired by larger companies, Roger maintained the Sonnabend family’s control over Sonesta, even increasing the family’s ownership stake.
Mr. Sonnabend’s managerial talents have allowed Sonesta to acquire new properties in unique locations, creating a special collection of hotels. His concern for employee satisfaction was the impetus for the development of team building and management development programs.
Another Roger Sonnabend innovation was the creation of the first corporate hotel program dedicated to original art by internationally-known artists. The collection was initiated and nurtured by Roger and his wife, Joan, an art collector and gallery owner. Contemporary works by both young and established artists complement the decor in guest rooms, suites and public spaces.
Under Roger Sonnabend’s leadership, HCA and Sonesta influenced generations of hoteliers and served as the springboard for a list of hotel industry luminaries, including Jon Canas, former President & CEO of Omni Hotels; Barry Conrad, former President of Trusthouse Forte Hotels; Michael Leven, former President of Days Inn, former President & COO of Holiday Inn Worldwide, and President & CEO of US Franchise Systems; and Wolf Hengst, former President, Four Seasons Hotels. Moreover, the innovations he instituted, such as emphasizing executive training and development programs, and creating organizational structures designed to deliver central office services to the hotels, fundamentally changed the way hotel companies operated.
Roger was a member of Young Presidents’ Organization, a dynamic and influential group of business leaders from 1957 -2006, and served as International President and Director beginning in 1961.
A profile in Playboy Magazine, in December 1969, noted that Roger has “become a vocal critic and an activist opponent of racial discrimination – a fact dramatically illustrated at H.C.A.’s 1968 stockholders’ meeting, when he committed the corporation to a new course: hiring and training the hard-core unemployed…” Roger was quoted in that article as stating: “Of course, H.C.A. cannot be a social cause. But we hope to develop a new concept of our responsibility – not merely to stockholders, employees and customers but a total responsibility.”
Outside his involvement with Sonesta, Mr. Sonnabend demonstrated a strong commitment to the betterment of the country and the community. At times this put him at odds with the political establishment and, as a leader of businessmen opposed to the Vietnam War, landed him on President Nixon’s “enemies list”. On a more local level, he was involved with Boston and Miami-area arts organizations such as the Institute of Contemporary Art and the Museum of Fine Arts; as well as the Miami Art Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Miami; and educational institutions, such as Harvard University and MIT. His government service included the Office of Economic Opportunity, the Job Corps, and the Presidential Task Force on Urban Unemployment Opportunities.
Roger Sonnabend was born on September 17, 1925, and was raised in Boston, Massachusetts. He attended Phillips Exeter Academy and served in the Naval Reserves from 1943 – 1946 while attending MIT. He then attended Harvard Business School. Roger is survived by his wife of 37 years, Joan Sonnabend, of Key Biscayne, FL, by his four children (by previous marriage): Andrea, of Watsonville, CA, Stephanie, of Brookline, MA, Jacqueline, of Sherborn, MA, and Alan, of Miami, FL.; and by six grandchildren.
Funeral services will be at Temple Israel, Boston, at 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday, December 10. Burial will follow at Temple Israel’s Cemetery in Wakefield, MA.