Who Is Our Steve Jobs?

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Shortly after the news of his death broke last night around 8, Facebook, Twitter and the whole blogosphere exploded with remembrances, condolences and tributes to Steve Jobs, the Apple co-founder and technology and pop culture wizard who some have called a modern-day DaVinci. Hyperbole perhaps, but not probably. Unquestionably, Jobs was the most dominant figure in the worlds of computing, consumerism, design, entertainment and music in the last 25 years. There is a direct line of genius that runs from Walt Disney to Jobs.

While his direct impact on the hotel industry was minimal (Smartphone hotel reservations apps are just part of a larger revolution in the way travel is sold, and in-room iPads are just an affectation by hotels trying to out-do the Joneses), his passing raises a pertinent question for our business: Do we have a Steve Jobs in our midst, someone who can capture the consumer touchstone to a point that it changes the entire lodging industry equation? Someone whose genius, arrogance, flamboyance and link to the common man can galvanize consumers to think of hotels and the travel experience in a new way?

No.

We've had a few in the past, most of whom I've had the good fortune to know, interview and even in a few cases, call them my friend. Holiday Inns founder Kemmons Wilson, it can be argued, is the closest we've ever had to Jobsian-type genius. He, above all others, brought the hotel experience to all classes of Americans. But there were others: Bob Woolley, the inventor of all-suite lodging; Bob Hazard, the father of hotel segmentation; John Q. Hammons, developer extraordinaire and the shrewdest real estate man I've ever known; Jack DeBoer, the serial brand builder; and Barry Sternlicht, the non-hotelier who made the industry realize its most important mission is providing guests with a good night's sleep.

It's probably the highly corporate nature of today's hotel industry that prevents a CEO of any company from stepping out on a limb to champion the next radical big thing in the hotel industry. Those kinds of leaders often find the limbs sawed off from under them. It's better to be safe, put in your 10 years as CEO and bail out with the golden parachute. The industry will continue to grow and improve under this model, but it probably won't take the leaps of innovation Jobs brought to his spheres of influence.

Our best bet lies with youth. I'm hoping somewhere in a dorm room or off-campus apartment at Michigan State or Penn State or Cornell a budding hotel genius/entrepreneur is on his or way to cracking the code on a gamechanger for this industry.

Meanwhile, we mourn the passing of Jobs, an American original whose presence will be felt on all of us for decades to come.

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