Burt Cabañas arrived in Miami as an 8-year-old Cuban immigrant in 1957 with his just-widowed mother, who didn’t speak English, and the clothes on his back.
In January 2014, Cabañas stepped down as CEO of the company he founded, Benchmark Hospitality International, which operates about 40 hotels and conference centers across America, the Caribbean, and Japan, employing over 6,200 employees. Cabañas remains active as the company’s Chairman, while his son Alex Cabañas is now president and CEO.
During a media lunch in New York last week, the company unveiled Burt Cabañas’ self-published book Benchmarking A Life in Business: Todo se Puede a roadmap of leadership principles to help the brand’s leaders understand and embrace the privately-owned company’s DNA.
In today’s hospitality industry where publicly-traded, legacy corporate hotel companies are basically brand-building machines under intense pressure to expand globally, Cabañas focuses on the guest and guest experience above all else.
Speaking with Cabañas on the phone, he attributes Benchmark’s success to his mother. “My mother’s favorite expression, having arrived here without a country, without a husband, without a language, was ‘Nothing is Impossible,’ or Todo se Puede,” says Cabañas. “So my view of the hospitality industry from the beginning was to take whatever I found that had been repeated for long periods of time and try to redo it in a better way.”
In the beginning, some of Benchmark Resorts & Hotels’ earliest properties included conference centers, where Cabañas saw an opportunity to raise the level of hospitality and the overall user experience within the business facilities.
Over the years, Benchmark Hospitality expanded into the leisure market with a wide range of hotels and resorts at various price points. And in 2011, Benchmark acquired MTM Luxury Lodging, which formed the basis for Benchmark’s Personal Luxury Resorts & Hotels sister brand. Two of the properties include Bardessono in Napa—one of the world’s only 5-diamond, LEED Platinum resorts (with a $500+ average daily rate)—and Costa d’Este Resort in Vero Beach, owned by singer Gloria Estefan.
Cabañas says the Personal Luxury brand’s take on the lifestyle hotel segment prioritizes a guest experience defined, in part, as an extension of guests’ private homes where they feel comfortable in any kind of dress at any point of time.
“I personally visualized, in those days 15 years ago or so, a boutique hotel as one of two things,” explains Cabañas. “It was either a bed and breakfast in California that happened to have a restaurant attached, or a hotel in New York where you had to thank the general manager for allowing you to be there. Neither of those were really reflective of what we now refer to today as a Personal Luxury Hotel.
“If you look into the future of hospitality, one of the difficulties that we’re going through is people tend to standardize everything down to the #2 pencil. And you can’t do that. You have to give people the freedom to be themselves. If the managers and employees get that out of the book, it would be great for us and great for the industry.”
Greg Oates covers hospitality and tourism development. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.