Simon Cooper’s distinguished career as a hotelier has spanned more than 50 years, three continents and five hotel brands. Through it all, it’s his passion for people and product that has propelled him forward and created a legacy of excellence wherever he’s worked.
Born in the County of Essex, England, the MBA graduate arrived in Canada in 1972, eager to work in hospitality. He had already been working on an 84-foot Caribbean schooner when he arrived in Montreal as a 20-something to become a management trainee at the Château Champlain. Here he made his entrée into Canadian hotels, learning the intricacies of the business from Victor Gheriani, GM of the Château Champlain, a hotelier Cooper credits as being his most influential mentor. “The role of a mentor is so important to young people as they see in you something you don’t even see in yourself.”
Cooper spent four years in Montreal before leaving in 1976 to helm the Jerusalem Plaza in Israel, one of two properties owned by Canadian Pacific Hotels at that time. He returned in 1982 to work with Delta Hotels, a homegrown brand started by the legendary entrepreneur, William Pattison. He remained there for a few years before moving to the U.S. in 1988 to become executive vice-president of Omni Hotels.
But Delta Hotels beckoned him back to Canada in 1990 when he became president of the company, a brand he helped position into one the country’s fastest-growing chains until Canadian Pacific Hotels acquired it in 1998. On the very day of that acquisition, Cooper left CP Hotels to join Marriott Lodging Canada as the company’s first president of Canada, opening a development office in Mississauga, Ont.
Cooper made it his mission to scour Canada for new deals, carefully cultivating a strategy to build the Marriott moniker into a recognizable Canadian entity. At the time, Cooper’s goal of 60 hotels in Canada appeared ambitious – but looking back, it was Cooper’s acumen in those early days of brand building that laid the framework for success and set the pace for today’s dominance by Marriott of the Canadian market.
When Marriott Hotels purchased the Ritz-Carlton brand in 1999, along with the Renaissance brand, it became yet another opportunity for Cooper to weave his magic. After opening the Canadian office and growing Marriott’s flags in Canada, in 2000 he was promoted to president and COO of Ritz-Carlton globally. Under his leadership, the brand realized significant growth and initiated new products, such as the Ritz-Carlton Residences and the Ritz-Carlton Reserve. Under his tutelage, the brand also earned the highest accolades from organizations such as the Luxury Institute, and J.D. Power and Associates. The company also won the World Saver Award from Conde Nast for its Community Footprints program.
Looking back on his storied career, Cooper says his 10 years with Ritz-Carlton — from 2000 to 2010, and the next five years as president of Marriott Asia Pacific — were among the highlights of his stellar career. Like a parent who’s asked to name their favourite child, Cooper says “It’s hard to say, but it was interesting to not only be the custodian of a company but also a brand. Those 10 years proved to be number-1 followed by my time in Asia Pacific; it was a fascinating exercise.”
To this day, Cooper still has a soft spot for Delta Hotels, an iconic Canadian brand, which ironically is now part of the Marriott umbrella. “Delta was a place where so many people have worked,” says Cooper, pointing also to Pattison’s influence on his career. He says he’s fortunate to have had great influencers along the way, such as Pattison and Bill Marriott, who he considers “a great teacher. He never stops talking about what’s important to the business and to him. The role of a mentor is so important to young people.”
Among the varied lessons he’s learned along the way, “The most important by far is the role that people play in the success of our industry,” he states. “You can build cars, create software but the role individuals play at every single level — from the key players on your team to the responsibilities that a housekeeper has in leaving the room clean and spotless for the next guest that’s about to arrive — there’s nothing like it.”
Cooper’s love of people and his inquisitive nature meant he always wanted to understand what makes people tick. “That’s important, because if you’re going to motivate people to do extraordinary things and create extraordinary experiences, you should understand how to reach them, and what makes people tick and trying to create environments where they do tick.”
But he also emphasizes, “The product has to be right. The physical asset has to be right, otherwise the team will have a very, very difficult time creating the experiences guests want. You have to identify the right people to staff it and the then give them the ability and freedom to create those experiences.”
According to Michael Beckley, retired hotelier, and the man who succeeded Cooper as president of Marriott Lodging Canada when Cooper was promoted to lead Ritz-Carlton globally, “Simon’s strengths as an innovative leader of people and the industry were demonstrated with an unrivalled work ethic, and as a role model to the industry as a whole, borne out by the many awards and recognitions he received over his career span including Hotel magazine’s “Corporate Hotelier of the World” — a consummate professional with distinguished career earning the respect of his colleagues and peers on three continents.”
Other hoteliers, such as Josef Ebner, RVP Canada & Managing Director, Chelsea Hotel Toronto (once part of the Delta brand), also sing the praises of Cooper. “Simon is a well-respected leader, but for me, he was an amazing mentor. I learned so much from him. While he always challenged me to be my best, his management style was demanding but always fair and respectful.”
Though the pandemic has wreaked havoc on the industry and Cooper says he’s happy he doesn’t have to deal with the repercussions of it, he hasn’t fully left the hotel world behind. As president of Simon Cooper & Associates, a consultancy based in Maryland, he has his fingers in various deals around the world, and on the pulse of the industry. He also serves on the Board of Directors at Benchmark Hotels; is lead consultant of the Ownership Entity of Peninsula Papagayo; senior consultant at Gencom and consultant with Cabot Links, a Canadian company developing a destination resort in Saint Lucia. When asked why after more than 50 years of working in hotels, he’s still plugging away, he simply states, “I like the business too much. If you can work for very nice people in very nice locations, it’s extremely hard not to enjoy it. I have no doubt at some stage I will retire, but I don’t know when that is.”
Apart from the success he’s attained by leading such brands as Canadian Pacific Hotels, Omni Hotels & Resorts, Dan Hotels, Delta Hotels & Resorts, Marriott and the Ritz-Carlton, Cooper was also instrumental in the formation of the Canadian Tourism Commission (CTC, now Destination Canada) back in 1994, as a vehicle to fuel marketing dollars to promote Canada as a destination.
Fuelled by the recession of 1993/’94, the triumvirate of Cooper, Beckley, then president of Commonwealth Hospitality and Robert DeMone, at the time, president of Canadian Pacific Hotels, brought together the combined effort of 22 companies, including Canadian Pacific Air, and Air Canada, VIA Rail, four rental car companies, VISA and American Express to create “Experience Canada,” an advertising program to get domestic business and leisure tourism moving again, and it further led to the Federal Government’s creation of the Canadian Tourism Commission in October of 1994, an accomplishment that earned the trio Hotelier magazine’s first Hoteliers of the Year Pinnacle Award in 1994. As Beckley explains, “It also led to a substantial increase in government funding and the consolidation and strengthening of the Hotel Association of Canada, a milestone bringing the hospitality and tourism industry into a new era.”
Cooper finds it particularly satisfying that the CTC professionalized the tourism industry in Canada. “We had an ally in Chretien and in Judd Buchanan (Chretien’s special advisor on Tourism) who was very supportive to get the industry to become more professional, as well as to forge the Open Skies Agreement.” He’s extremely proud that he and other leaders, such as Beckley and DeMone, were able to put aside their competitive interests to work collaboratively for the ultimate benefit of Canadian tourism.
BY ROSANNA CAIRA | PHOTOGRAPHY BY CECILE STORM