Since the hotel opened in 1965, it has endured three wars, and has hosted a parade of political and celebrity powerhouses.
By LEAH GRANOF
'All of life takes place in a hotel," declared David Michels, the British CEO of Hilton International. Although Michels was referring both to ordinary events and the more dramatic political and natural disasters that have affected the over 400 hotels operated by the Hilton Group, he could have easily been summarizing the history of the Hilton Tel Aviv, which is currently celebrating its 40th anniversary.
Since the hotel opened in 1965, it has endured three wars, and has hosted a parade of political and celebrity powerhouses - including every major Israeli politician, US presidents, European royalty, and top Hollywood stars. More than a few key historical events have been initiated within its walls. Menachem Begin first invited Egyptian president Anwar Sadat to Israel from a Hilton Tel Aviv executive office, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs selected the hotel to house the foreign press during the first Gulf War - months before the rest of the world expected the war to start. Given the fame of the facility throughout Israel, Michels ranks the Hilton Tel Aviv among the top 10 most financially successful Hiltons over a 20-year span, and swears it is the most profitable hotel in Israel.
Michels is quick to point out, however, that all the hotels Hilton International operates in 80 countries outside the US believe they are unique. Many have faced regional emergencies not unlike the ongoing terror in Israel, and have made special adjustments to the peculiarities of their local cultures.
"In the past year, our hotels have faced bombs in Taba, tsunamis in Asia and a suicide in Ethiopia [Israeli Ambassador Doron Grossman, suffering from a terminal disease, ended his life in the Addis Ababa Hilton]," Michels said.
Because hotels are so dependent on regional tourism and events, Michels explained that a facility's profitability is never measured on a yearly basis, but rather over a longer period of time.
Noting the cyclical nature of the industry, Michels theorized that the peak in each cycle is always higher than the previous one, because of a continuous increase in worldwide wealth, tourism and new markets. Japan and Singapore are currently creating the new outbound markets, while India and China are becoming the next developmental hot spots.
"Growing economies create big tourist economies," he said.
Even with the international mix of travelers, Michels says the basic needs of all hotel guests are similar. In relative order, people care first about location, then cleanliness, a comfortable bed, a quiet room and good service. The two most common complaints involve the morning wake-up call and bad service. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that hotels have to provide more technological services today than they did in the past.
"Hotels have become vastly more sophisticated over the past 30 years, because people's homes have become vastly more sophisticated," he said.
The cost of staying at a Hilton five-star lodging reflects this. An online booking for a standard room at Hilton Tel Aviv in November runs at $388 a night. That price, however, is cheap compared to Hilton's most expensive hotel - in Maldives - where the average nightly rate runs close to $700.
"I have no embarrassment in charging for what I supply," Michels said. "But I have enormous embarrassment if it doesn't work, or the service isn't good."
The management at each hotel has a fair amount of autonomy to ascertain its individual needs and provide good service. Tel Aviv Hilton, now under the direction of its second Israeli general manager, Ronnie Fortis, fills half its rooms with Israelis and half with international travelers. It is experiencing a resurgence in business, with a yearly 75% occupancy rate. Its worst downturn was during the intifada, when the hotel managed to maintain only 35% occupancy. Guests can finally enjoy the fruits of the $70 million, seven-year renovation project which was finished a year before the intifada started.
The Tel Aviv Hilton's resilience and accomplishments stem in part from the way it views itself - as an icon of Israeli culture. The hotel certainly made headlines in its first year, when one of its restaurants refused to admit transport minister Moshe Carmel because he wasn't wearing a jacket and tie. The incident of "The Tie and the Transport Minister" did not amuse Israel's ultra informal public. Through the years, however, the hotel gained fame for its more benevolent actions, such as general manager Eddy Florijin's decision to allow all soldiers who married during the Yom Kippur War period a free honeymoon stay (in all, 160 couples took advantage of the offer).
In addition, the hotel's close relationship with the Israeli Philharmonic's longtime director Zubin Mehta has ensured a steady supply of concerts and galas in its ballrooms, including a performance by the IPO at this year's 40th anniversary tribute. A more impromptu ensemble took place during the Yom Kippur War, when guests Mehta, Yitzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zuckerman, Isaac Stern and Daniel Barenboim gave free concerts in the hotel lobby.
Since its inception, the Hilton Tel Aviv has had nine managers, with the first Israeli, Oded Lifschitz, taking charge in 1992 after running the Hilton in Sydney, Australia. Another prot g , Alon Ben-Gurion (grandson of David Ben-Gurion) worked as a banquet executive before going on to become general manager of the Waldorf Astoria in New York. The list of names goes on, but Michels summed it up thus: "This hotel has been part of the culture of this city. Everyone who can afford to come here comes here."