Calling Eric Danziger a John F. Kennedy fan is a little like calling King Kong just another monkey. It doesn’t tell the whole story. The former CEO of Wyndham Hotel Group, now CEO of Hampshire Hotels Management, owns a pair of the former president’s sunglasses and cufflinks and a large, multi-chromatic portrait of JFK hangs in his office, a watchful eye turned on Danziger, who officially assumed his new role in April, a month after leaving Wyndham.
Like many kids in 1963, Danziger was in school when news broke of JFK’s assassination. The president’s death had a profound effect on him and still does to this day. His heartfelt reverence of Kennedy is not just emotional; how Danizger comports himself professionally comes from mimicking Kennedy in some of his most trying presidential episodes.
Consider the Cuban missile crisis. With generals in his ear imploring him to use force, Kennedy resisted, famously employed a quarantine and in doing so possibly staved off nuclear disaster.
“Despite five-star generals, the guy says, ‘I am not going to kill my children. There has to be another way.’ And he came up with the blockade and stopped war from happening. That’s leadership: listening to advice, but making a decision that you think is right. He did that.”
Danziger carries that same mentality and brings it now to Hampshire Hotels Management, which is probably best known for its Dream brand and for its ownership, the Chatwal family. Patriarch Sant Singh Chatwal remains chairman of Hampshire, and Vikram Chatwal, his son, makes more headlines for his bacchanalian lifestyle than for hotels.
But make no mistake: Danziger has complete operational control of the company—from its direction and growth mode to hiring.
How he got there is as much about his acumen for building up hotel companies as it is for his connection with the elder Chatwal, a relationship that spans more than two decades. “He saw what I’ve done in my whole career,” Danziger said of Chatwal. The two have done business together in the past, when Wyndham did a deal with Chatwal to franchise some of its brands. (That arrangement has since ended.)
Chatwal’s strengths, however, don’t necessarily lie in hotels. “He’s not a hotel guy, he’s a real estate guy,” Danziger said. “He told me, ‘You are the guy for this thing.’ No interviews, nothing.”
First and foremost is cleaning up the company’s brands, defining their message and launching new brands for segments that, up until now, Hampshire did not play in.
It’s a far cry from leading hotel growth at Wyndham, where he was responsible for the addition of 3,800 properties under 15 brands. “What you had there,” said Danziger, “was sort of good and bad. Enormous resources. It’s just that big, which contrasts to here, with limited resources in a small company. But on the other hand, what you can do in a small company, you can’t do in a big company. It’s the proverbial battleship that takes six miles to turn, but a speedboat can turn quickly. I like to build, create culture, create growth and harvest value. This is just the perfect opportunity to create a collection of cool hotels.”
Danziger comes to Hampshire fully intent to grow and define the company. There’s evidence that, albeit in on a smaller scale, he will up the visibility of Hampshire, the same way he did with Wyndham Hotel Group, which before he came along, was more or less a loosely knit collection of brands rather than a defined unit. Of Hampshire he said: “This is a 12-hotel start-up company.”
The aim is to be segmented among five different brands. Hampshire currently operates the Chatwal brand in the luxury space. And while it will remain in that space, new hotels going forward will not carry the Chatwal moniker. Danziger said a new name for the brand is imminent.
Hampshire’s most visible brand, Dream, with two locations in New York, and one each in Miami; Bangkok, Thailand; and Cochin, India, competes in the upscale lifestyle space and is a concept that Danziger said they “won’t mess with.”
Expansion of the brand is already underway, Danizger said. Future locations will be another outpost in New York, on 40th Street and 7th Avenue, Chicago and Hollywood.
A step below Dream is where it gets interesting. Danziger said Hampshire is developing a new brand for the three-star lifestyle space, still unnamed. The reason? “Brands in this segment are homogenous,” Danziger said. “People are always saying, ‘Wasn’t that a Hilton and now it’s a Doubletree; or now it’s a Wyndham or a Radisson.’ I look at that as an immense opportunity for some owner who has had a hotel for 25 years—that’s their asset, an important investment. What should be their plans for the next 20 years that they own it? Should it continue to be a Crowne Plaza that’s 25 years old or should they say, ‘Maybe it could be more relevant to compete against all those homogenous brands in a better way.’”
Hampshire’s other two brands—Night and Time, with properties in the Times Square area of New York—will also receive drastic overhauls so they can be better grown globally. The former will play in the lifestyle limited-service segment, while the upper-upscale Time brand will appeal to an older psychograph. “When we roll out Night, which will be soon, you will see very different messaging,” Danziger said.
Hampshire will also continue to be third-party managers to other branded hotels. It currently manages four hotels in Manhattan under the Hilton Garden Inn, Hampton Inn, Best Western and Days Inn flags.
It’s the limited-service space where Hampshire can really shake things up, Danziger said, referring to brands such as Hampton, Comfort and Holiday Inn Express. “Most hotel companies talk about creating a hotel that makes you feel like you are home? I think the opposite,” he said. “Why shouldn’t they have a neat travel opportunity?”
Danziger said development will come via a mix of new-builds and conversions. “There could be independent hotels or five-stars that need to associate with us,” he said. “Currently, there are lots of Dreams in the pipeline. They are all new builds, which is encouraging—all that’s picking up again.”
Time and Night, he said, will be conversion brands.
Danziger is only 60 years old, and a youthful one at that, and like any seasoned exec diplomatically says this will be his last stop. He’s on a five-year deal at Hampshire, owns 25 percent of it and talks about a 10-year plan for the company, with the aggressive ambition to have between 400 and 2,000 hotels before he’s done.
So is this his last hurrah in the hospitality industry? “Well, I better not say definitely. It is my intention and hope that this is it, because at 70, I am going to be ready then to say, maybe I should learn golf,” he admitted. “But I can’t imagine myself ... I am a type-A personality, a driven person. Am I going to sit at home and watch Oprah?”
Danziger’s distinguished career started low on the rung, as a bellman at The Fairmont San Francisco, and took off from there: along with heading Wyndham Hotel Group, he had leadership stints at other hotel juggernauts including Carlson and Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide.
And though his career is by no means winding down, he said it’s never too early to start thinking about what his legacy will be. To hear it from him, the most gratifying part of his career is not the surfeit of awards and accolades, nor the millions he’s made doing what he does, but the impact he’s had on those he’s come in contact with: the employees. For him, it wasn’t always about what they could do for him, for the company, but what he and the company could do for them to make their lives better both professionally and personally.
Not long ago, Danziger’s wife declared that when he died, a stadium would need to be rented to accommodate those coming to pay their respects. “That’s what matters to me,” Danziger said, though laughing off the stadium reference as farcical. “But metaphorically, that I will be missed by people because I added a little bit to their lives and they added immensely to mine. That’s all I care about.”
AT A GLANCE
HAMPSHIRE HOTELS MANAGEMENT
Headquarters: New York
Portfolio: 12 hotels under the Chatwal, Dream, Time, Night and non-affiliated brands.