As chief executive officer of Dream Hotel Group, Jay Stein is known as a leader within the hospitality industry. But don’t offer him a cup coffee. He won’t drink it; nor a glass a tea. He will say, “yes” to a full body red or an occasional shot of tequila, although the self-proclaimed night owl jokes it’s his morning shower that actually wakes him up.
[/inlinead] The boy from Queens is old enough to remember watching Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris battle it out. He’s a long-time Yankees fan, despite growing up in what is now Mets country—the team didn’t even exist when he first became a baseball fan.
With more than three decades in the hospitality business, Stein has shepherded luxury boutique properties around the world including Dream Hotels, Time Hotels, The Chatwal and Unscripted Hotels. Here’s his take on industry and what got him here.
How did you get into the hospitality business?
As a young kid, I started going camping with Boy Scouts. I really enjoyed being able to sleep out under the stars, in the dead of winter in tents with my friends. You’d pack everything in, hike for miles and then make a great dinner in the middle of the woods. That's when I started cooking.
I started dabbling at home. After I got my bachelor's degree in political science and lost interest in going to law school, I took a job as a cook in a restaurant in Queens making nice money and going to nightclubs. Everything was great, except for my parents, who were devastated that their son was now a short-order cook in a pub in Bayside Queens. To get them off my back, I went back to school and got a second degree in hospitality management.
What was your childhood like?
I grew up as lower-middle class kid in Queens. I ate pizza and hamburgers. Never ate vegetables, never drank wine. Once I got into the industry I had a lot of catching up to do. I was going against some of the kids coming out Switzerland who grew up in the great hotel families. I didn’t. My dad was a cab driver and my mom was a school teacher.
What’s your go-to restaurant and why?
Raymond's in Montclair, New Jersey. It's an upscale diner. It’s packed all the time. They do two specials at night and they are Manhattan-top-restaurant quality.
Geoff [Zakarian], who is a great celebrity chef at The Lambs Club at The Chatwal Hotel, invited me to meet him there one night. I showed up. He's already in the restaurant sitting with five other people and then I realize two of the other ones are famous chefs [Marcela Valladolid and Jeff Mauro] also on the Food Network and then to have their PR people. They brought a case of wine in and started ordering every item on the menu. All the waiters know me because I’ve eaten there two to three times per week for 10 years. They ask if I’m famous and I say, “No, they’re famous. I’m not.”
Do you like being a ringmaster?
I do. I was born as a natural leader and I can usually get people to at least work together. I often hire people that are opinionated that don't always all get along. I try to be the glue that holds it together and it doesn't always work. I'm not looking to surround myself with people that will be very passive and just do their job. We tend to have heated discussions, but we come up with really cool, inventive and passionate ideas. I think that's the only way to be great at what you do.
Switching gears, what’s the biggest up-and-coming region of the world for travel?
Africa is probably the hottest market. There’s a lot of beauty there to see. As the world gets smaller, things become more accessible. A lot of Africans now travel globally and they're now telling people where they go to see things in Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa or Botswana. There are so many places that people are hearing about. Safaris are super hot. Glamping is super hot. The whole north coast of Africa has always been an important area from Egypt to Morocco to Tunisia.
How is artificial intelligence going to transform the hotel business and hospitality industry?
It makes sense in a lot of areas. It's obviously very early, but for hotels it's great to walk in and say, “Alexa, make my room cooler,” without having to find the thermostat. That's already here and it's going to be even more prevalent in the next two to three years in every hotel, as well as a lot of other things like shutting the lights off when you're laying in bed or changing the channels with your voice.
As a traveler, it’s convenient to check into my hotel room from the plane and get my key right on to my phone. I walk in through the front door of the hotel with my roller suitcase. I walk right through the lobby and go to the elevator. I hit the floor. I get off and I put my phone to the door and I’m in my room. I love that.
Why did you decide to increase the corporate commission rates for meetings and groups from 10 to 12 percent?
Originally boutique hotels were never really thought of as having significant meeting space. We saw early on that our core guest is corporate, it’s not a hipster who is coming to write a song and stay at a cool hotel. We were talking to meeting planners and event planners and there was a tremendous concern about what was going on. So we felt this was a good opportunity for us to raise the commission and let them know that we have opportunities to handle a lot of their pieces of business that at a cool property that a little differently than a conventional big box.
What’s one of the most memorable challenges you’ve faced?
The blackout of 2003. It was one of the most unique days of my life. It was a Friday afternoon, very hot, in the nineties. It was around 4 p.m. when we heard about the blackout, but it was summertime so it was still light out. I had nine hotels in Midtown Manhattan. As I’m walking from our office to the hotels, at every hardware store I’m passing, I’m buying up as many flashlights as I can buy.
Then I get word that Marriott made 2,000 rooms evacuate and the guests are sitting outside of the lobby in middle of Times Square. So my chairman asked me what I thought for our hotels. I said we should let the guests stay and figure it out. In our Italian restaurants we started boiling pasta. So we served a lot of liquor and pasta that night.