NOTHING CHANGES IN THE MIDDLE EAST
By Martin B. Deutsch
June 14, 2007 -- In reviewing the spate of horrific events earlier this week in the Middle East, I am shocked, but really not surprised, that the passage of 25 years has not significantly altered the dynamic of the region. In 1982, I wrote a column in Frequent Flyer magazine about the hotel business, terrorism and the growing instability in Lebanon, Iran and Afghanistan. The column refers to the bad times "in recent years." Sadly, not only has nothing changed in the subsequent quarter of a century, but things have gotten much, much worse throughout most of the Middle East.
January, 1982 -- Beirut. Tehran. Kabul. What do these rather exotic cities have in common…other than the bad times that have befallen them in recent years?
Just ask Hans Sternik and he'll tell you that they are prime examples of the hazards of running an international hotel chain in the late twentieth century. And that the hotel world is not all about room capacities bursting at the seams, crowded lobbies or desperate travelers pleading for a room at besieged front desks.
No way, Sternik will tell you. It's a cruel scene out there, as he and his company have discovered in recent years. Sternik is the president of Inter-Continental Hotels, until recently a subsidiary of Pan American World Airways and now a powerful arm of Grand Metropolitan Ltd., a huge company based in London.
Not very long ago, Inter-Continental ran four thriving hotels in the capital cities of Lebanon, Iran and Afghanistan, before harsh events induced by the flow of history overtook them.
Sitting comfortably over lunch at Manhattan's Four Seasons Restaurant, Sternik's recollections seemed particularly unreal, difficult to position in a world where fast-moving peripatetic businesspeople travel with comparative safety and ease. Yet, wasn't I in Manila late in 1980 when a bomb went off at an opening convention session? And don't we all, especially those of us on the go, flirt daily with global terrorism, revolution, upheaval?
But to rejoin Sternik…
Until it was engulfed by civil strife in the middle of the last decade, Beirut was a sophisticated, urbane city, the Paris of the Middle East, preoccupied with wealth and beauty. As a regional vice president, Sternik ran Inter-Continental's growing operations in that part of the world from 1969 to 1972.
"I would never have believed while I was there that the people in Beirut were capable of the kind of savagery and hatred that would follow. They were the kindest, friendliest, most hospitable people I've ever met," he said.
Inter-Continental ran two hotels in Beirut, the 600-room Phoenicia and the 1,120-room Vendome. When hostilities broke out, the two properties found themselves right on the edge of the war sector, the so-called Green Zone. In time, the Phoenicia would be reduced to near-rubble; the nearby Vendome would sustain minor damage, such as a window shattered by a bullet.
But the damage would go beyond brick and mortar. Inter-Continental's general manager in Beirut, a sixty-six-year-old Austrian named Hanns Teufl ("he never wanted to retire") died on the job in 1976.
"We were good friends, we worked together in Beirut before I was transferred. Teufl was among twenty-three volunteers who held the hotel [Phoenicia] against invaders from both sides," Sternik explained. "We leave decisions like that up to the local manager; he has absolute power and discretion in an emergency. He can order the evacuation of families, ask others to stay. Human nature being what it is, we realize that no two decisions will be alike."
The details of Teufl's death are sketchy. The hotel was under heavy fire; the remaining staff was to be transferred out. The men had to jump one floor out of a kitchen window to reach a rescue convoy of armored personnel vehicles. By choice, Teufl would have been the last to jump; he never did. He was found dead several days later in the burned-out kitchen.
"We don't know if he died of a heart attack, or if it was an explosion," Sternik said.
The general manager at the 400-room Tehran Inter-Continental, some years later, was a German named Frank Mielert. "He held out under Khomeni until the bitter end; he ran the hotel for almost a year. A few days after the Islamic militants took over the U.S. Embassy, a band of armed intruders appeared at the hotel. Mielert told them that this was a hotel, not an embassy. They backed off."
Sternik said that not long after the Shah's departure, Khomeni's militia marched in--"That's the way it was related to me," Sternik said--and then poured out $350,000 worth of wine and liquor. "It was a fantastic wine list, one of our best. They poured it into the sewers."
Sternik described the 300-room hotel in Kabul as a jewel. "We'd like to go back and operate it one of these days."
Ironically, Sternik was in Moscow in December of 1979, winding up negotiations for Inter-Continental to run hotels in Moscow and Leningrad. "The Soviets said come back in January and we'll sign the contract," Sternik said. Later that month, the Soviets rolled into Afghanistan. Although there have been contracts since, the deal was never consummated.
Meanwhile, after the invasion, Inter-Continental executives met with Afghan delegates in Europe, a meeting that led the company to franchise its name and operating rights in Kabul. Sternik explained that the hotel is operating, although sometimes with as few as six guests
"The Afghans have great pride in the hotel. They said, 'Teach us and train us. We'll run it.' And they did. That's one reason we franchised [our name] to them. I believe they are still running it to Inter-Continental standards."
Sternik also said he's keen to revive those dormant Russian hotel arrangements. Inter-Continental operates properties throughout Eastern Europe, with the exception of the Soviet Union and East Germany and "we are opening soon in Bulgaria."
Actually, Inter-Continental's political sensitivities have been fine-honed around the world. Sternik specifically mentioned Nicaragua. "We continue to operate these as credibly as anyone could operate in Nicaragua these days," he said.
During our meeting, Sternik referred several times to force majeure. I looked up the term in the dictionary. It is defined as an "unexpected and disruptive event which may operate to excuse a party from contract."
That's a real civilized way to put it.
ABOUT MARTIN B. DEUTSCH Martin B. Deutsch created Frequent Flyer magazine in 1980 and was editor-in-chief and publisher for 15 years. He also wrote a column called "Up Front" for Frequent Flyer during those years. In a 50-year career, he created, published and edited dozens of other travel publications. Deutsch is based in New York.
THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Martin B. Deutsch in the spirit of free speech and to encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Mr. Deutsch. This column may not be reproduced in any form without the permission of Mr. Deutsch.
This column is Copyright © 2007 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2007 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.