For the week of February 24, 1999  thru March 2, 1999  

Helmut Horn: A hotelier takes a chance on Elkhorn

Coastal Hotel Group president brings new attitude to resort

Express Staff Writer

Helmut Horn, born in Germany during World War II, is a "lifer" in the hotel industry. That means he’s a gypsy of sorts, always on the move, collecting experiences and contacts and gaining education on the fly.

"The hospitality business is really mobile. It’s so fast and varied. You move all the time and lead this gypsy life," he said. "You need to have the heart of a servant, and what you get is a great sense of achievement in making someone else happy."

Horn, president and founder of Coastal Hotel Group—Elkhorn Resort’s new managing company—is a third-generation hotel man who climbed the ladder from room service waiter and dishwasher, to manager, administrator and "boss."

At 58, he has "lived everywhere," he said, from London to Sydney to Paris. He speaks three languages fluently. His passion is underwater photography, and his philosophy is concern for the environment.

Because he’s a hotel man, he knows a couple of things. He knows that if you handle a customer correctly, he or she will return. Some call it "retention marketing." Horn calls it "moments of truth."

"Every contact between an employee and guest is a moment of truth. And you must make your employees aware of that," he said.

"My father ran a 68-room hotel near the Dutch border in Germany. I always liked the warmth of the business. The people stuff. And I always admired my father in the way he treated people."

When you travel, and Horn has traveled far and wide, things don’t always go according to schedule.

So Horn wasn’t exactly surprised when he had a true "Sun Valley" experience of plane delays and lost luggage en route to Elkhorn for the official Grand Re-opening of Elkhorn Resort Thursday, Feb. 4.

Deboarding late in Boise, realizing he was expected at Elkhorn for the 4:30 p.m. ceremony, Horn got his rental car and put the pedal to the metal. He treated the road to Sun Valley like an autobahn and pulled into Elkhorn only a few minutes late.

He was ready for questions.

A questioner at the press conference asked Horn how he felt about Elkhorn Resort’s $5 million renovation undertaken by the new owner of the 23-year-old property—Blackacre Capital Group, a New York real estate investment firm?

"I’m pleased with the design. It’s simple, yet casual and elegant," Horn said.

He might have been describing himself. Because Helmet Horn was a person who didn’t start out with much except for the simple things left behind by war’s devastation.

Born in 1940 in Dessau, an east German city located between Leipzig and Berlin, Horn was the youngest of three boys. His father Rudolf was a Nazi soldier and member of Rommel’s Afrika Corps. Captured by Allied Forces in Tunisia in 1942, Rudolf Horn spent four years as a prisoner-of-war in the United States.

Helmut’s earliest memory of his father was postcards sent from distant places like Mississippi, Colorado and Texas. "They moved him around," he said. "When I finally visited the Broadmoor, in Colorado, I remember my father being there in the war.

"I’ve always been fascinated with America."

There was so much destruction, he can remember things people now take for granted. He distinctly remembers seeing his first piano. He remembers an American GI giving him his first piece of chocolate.

Of 50 children in his grade school class, only three had their families intact. Most had lost their fathers, and many their mothers, too.

After the war, Rudolf Horn, now 88 and still living, returned to Germany and started running a hotel in Nordhorn, in west Germany near the Dutch border. Unlike his two older brothers, Helmut liked the entire feel of the hotel business.

He studied at Heidelberg University’s highly-regarded hotel school. As a member of Germany’s national swimming team, he visited Monte Carlo in 1959 and stumbled upon what became his lifetime passion for underwater photography.

"The Costeau Society was there, and took a bunch of us into the Mediterranean with primitive scuba gear. At that time the sea was packed with fish life. It was mesmerizing. That was my first exposure to scuba.

"Now I travel with 800 pounds of equipment when I dive, and all the top National Geographic photographers are friends of mine," said Horn, who has a gallery in Carmel that sells only his photography.

But, in 1964, he wasn’t a world traveler and underwater diver at Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the Red Sea. He was just an impressionable young man of 24 working as a waiter at the Paris Ritz.

"I was curious about America," he said. "It was the land of opportunity. What I found was if you experience the U.S., you find Europe is suddenly very small and limiting. The beauty of America is if you want to do a job, you either do it or you don’t."

He took a propeller craft via Iceland to New York City, where he worked in room service at the Waldorf Towers. His sponsor was the chairman of Johnson & Johnson Co., who had a big home in Trenton. Horn enrolled at New York’s Hunter College and worked nearly two years at the Waldorf.

The fast life. He started moving.

Catering director in Hartford. The number-two man at the Conrad Hilton in Chicago. Two years in Denver, where he was resident manager though just 31. "I was always the youngest guy," he said.

Horn lived in Vail, Colo. from 1974-77, during what he calls the early stages of Vail being promoted as a destination ski resort.

He was involved with the building of Vail’s largest hotel, the Mark Resort, now the Marriott Mark Resort and Conference Center. They foreclosed on the hotel and he went skiing for six months. "Those were bad times," he said.

That’s when he moved into the corporate hotel world, with Omni International and Hyatt. Horn learned how to market chain hotels and create the likelihood that a guest would move from one hotel in a chain to another hotel in the chain.

It set the groundwork for the rest of his life. "I asked myself, why am I doing this for other people for a salary and a bonus? Why shouldn’t I being doing it for myself?," he said.

Horn added, "I am a product of the corporate world. I saw the obsession with making money, and how sometimes it does huge damage to the community and environment."

Underwater photography moved his sensibilities to another level.

He said, "I got into the scientific part of the underwater world, therefore, my obsession with nature. For instance, the Red Sea. Nowadays I have to go very much south, because it is starting to show serious signs of stress and pollution."

As he broke away from the corporate hotel world, Horn and his partners in the new venture "wanted to do things we emotionally liked—the Cheeca Lodge in the Florida Keys, and the Highlands Inn near Carmel," he said.

"We started acquiring properties in 1985 and founded a management company with myself as president in 1987. It is called Coastal Hotel Group. And the environment is very high on our mission statement."

He said, "We like to be in locations that can’t be duplicated. We like to be in sensitive natural settings, and we like to be the good guys when we’re there. We’re really hung up on the hideaway concept—relax, do nothing and do it well."

Specializing in the operation of upscale resorts, luxury inns and quality business hotels, Coastal Hotel Group is in the business of making money.

The ski business is tricky.

Nonetheless Horn said Sun Valley has a tremendous cross-marketing appeal to his clientele specifically because of its isolation. That’s a recent trend in travel, he said. Still, Horn—the veteran of a bumpy ride in Vail—makes sure Coastal doesn’t operate in more than two ski resorts simultaneously.

Horn said, "My business has also been a turnaround business. We get stressed properties, and get them back to where they were before they were stressed. Mountain resorts are sensitive to stress. There is a short window of opportunity where you have to make your money."

Business history in mountain resorts also indicates that you have to make a big effort to sell in the shoulder seasons, Horn said.

"Six weeks of shoulder business is when you have to attract meetings that will produce. You pamper them with good food and the environment and make them want to come back. Coastal Hotel has a large reach into the affluent, meeting markets that we want to bring here," said Horn.

Coastal Hotel has an equity interest in Elkhorn, along with principal owner Blackacre Capital. Horn said, "We have been very cautious with our investment in Elkhorn and think it will return in time."

Still, there are age-old problems with transportation, flight delays and access to Sun Valley that must be addressed in a concerted, community-wide effort, Horn said.

He said, "Six to eight months ago, before we decided on our national advertising campaign to kick off the 1998-99 winter season at Elkhorn, we sent a creative team out to Sun Valley to talk with shop owners and fishing guides and other workers.

"The findings were unanimous. That is, there is really no destination resort business plan that puts everyone here in the same camp. There are a lot of spinning wheels that don’t interconnect.

"I’d like to be a catalyst to change that.

"Something has to happen here—a concerted, joint effort. In my organization I listen to the troops and we come to a joint decision. Well, we’re all in this together. It is a community challenge.

"If Sun Valley is willing to play ball, I think we can bring a couple of major airlines to Sun Valley. We’d have to upgrade the ground equipment so jets can land. In cooperation with Sun Valley, we’d have to give an airline some guarantees we can provide the seat capacity. But I have connections to the top brass at United and Delta and I can bring them to the table."


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