Front Desk

When Dollars Fall

In preparing our publication's Hospitality People in the News section, I came across an obituary for Roger Sonnabend, Executive Chairman of the Board of Sonesta Hotels. I never met Mr. Sonnabend, but the brief summary of his life makes me wish I had.

Sonnabend earned his undergraduate degree from MIT in 1946 and joined the family hotel business, established by his father, A.M. ("Sonny") Sonnabend. At the age of 21, Sonnabend was the youngest hotel GM in the country, serving in that capacity at 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.

In the early 1950s, along with his father, he created Sonnabend-Operated Hotels, which became Hotel Corporation of America, in 1956. Since his father's death in 1964, Mr. Sonnabend directed the company, together with his brothers Paul and Stephen. He first followed his father's footsteps by rapidly acquiring new properties. In the early 1970s, however, after renaming the company Sonesta International, he reduced the company's size by half and refocused on hotel operations rather than simply acquiring new properties (The slogan "Quality versus Quantity" springs to mind.)

Roger Sonnabend steered Sonesta through the challenging economic times of the early 1970s and 1990s. While other hotel companies were acquired by larger companies, Roger maintained his family's control over Sonesta, even increasing the family's ownership. 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 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." As a leader of businessmen opposed to the war, he landed on President Nixon's "enemies list." His government service included the Office of Economic Opportunity, the Job Corps, and th Presidential Task Force n Urban Unemployment Opportunities. He served in the Naval Reserves from 1943 to 1946.

If dollars did fall on the Class of 1949, perhaps it was because it was deserving, as was Roger Sonnabend.

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