Trump Hotels CEO Eric Danziger started in the hotel industry opening doors and carrying suitcases for San Francisco’s elite. He’s carried the lessons learned from that job throughout his career.
LOS ANGELES—The hotel industry has always been about family business for Eric Danziger. In his current role as CEO of Trump Hotels, he works with one of the world’s most recognizable families, and his very first hotel job also was borne out of family ties.
“I was 17 when I went to work at the Fairmont in San Francisco, where I was born and raised,” he said. “My parents were immigrants from Germany, and a lot of other immigrant families ended up in Shanghai, then in San Francisco. Many of these people my mom and dad knew worked at the Fairmont—in banquets and restaurants—and I would always hear their stories. It was the first place I went to for a job.”
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That first role at the Fairmont San Francisco, which was owned by the Swig family at the time, gave Danziger a glimpse into the opulent lives of the landmark hotel’s guests and connected him for life with the family of friends and connections he made there.
“It was 1971, and I made $412 a month,” he said. “To keep me out of the union, they called me a management trainee, but it was really more like, ‘You put on this bellman outfit and get to the front door.’
“There were no suitcases with wheels then, so bellmen really worked hard,” he said with a chuckle. “Guys I worked with at the bell stand really hustled, and they could make a lot of cash because customers at the Fairmont gave big tips.”
He recalled how the hotel at the time had an area where employees washed the money and ironed bills every day so the cash changing hands was always in tip-top shape.
The Fairmont San Francisco also served as the filming location for some shots of the 1980s television series “Hotel.”
“It was such a social hotel, and my experiences there were so interesting,” Danziger said. “Henri Lewin (who went on to run Hilton’s Las Vegas operations as EVP) was GM, and Peter Goldman (who served as GM of the Fairmont San Francisco before being appointed managing director of Fairmont) was there.
“To be GM at the Fairmont back then, you had to come up from catering,” Danziger said. He cited two particular catering managers and a front-office manager—Fred, Teddy and Elmer—who were particularly kind to him as he worked his way up at the hotel.
“Events were huge at that hotel, and working with guys like that was great. They were very kind to me,” he said. “They decided I’d be a trainee, and so I worked for catering. It was such a great experience. I could work with the chef. I could really learn this business from the back of the house and the front of the house, and I can’t forget those memories.”
The family ties at the Fairmont would prove strong throughout Danziger’s career. As he built his career away from the Fairmont, he went on to serve in roles including president and COO of Carlson Hotels, president and CEO of Starwood Hotels & Resorts, president and CEO of Wyndham Hotel Group and president and CEO of Hampshire Hotels Management, later renamed to Dream Hotel Group.*
At one point during his time with Starwood, Danziger recalls meeting with then Fairmont owners Melvin and Richard Swig, part of the original family ownership, who were talking with potential buyers.
The deal didn’t work out at the time between Fairmont and Danziger’s company, but he said his relationships with the Swig family over the years and the Fairmont brand are examples of what a family-oriented industry can do for people, not only at the beginning of their careers but throughout their lives.
“What I remember most about my time at that hotel was realizing who the people are who make the hotel work,” he said. “For example, the importance of the bellmen was clear to me: They’re the ones who open the door and set the entire experience for the customer. That made me grow to respect the real people who run the real hotel.”
Danziger’s lessons learned from his first hotel job are ones he often finds himself sharing with hospitality students.
“I tell them they should always take the hardest job,” he said. “When you take the easy job, you’re lost in with everyone else doing the same thing. Taking the hard job allows you to get confidence and learn how to do something not easily handed to you.”
For him, that means operations.
“When I last spoke at Cornell, I asked how many of (the students) wanted to be in real estate and 99% raised their hands. Then I asked how many wanted to be in operations and one raised a hand,” he said. “I said, ‘Every one of you should go work in a hotel. Your value will be improved by understanding the business. Go work in a hotel before you do underwriting.’”
* Correction, 11 April 2018: A previous version of this story included incorrect names for Hampshire Hotels Management and Dream Hotel Group.