Village Voices: Local spotlight Q&A with Curt Strand, 99
This is Village Voices, the community page anchored on locals and their stories. The fourth week of every month, the Page 2 section will
highlight a village resident through a question and answer piece as part of the “Local Spotlight” series.
The first week of every month, the Sun will find answers to questions about town government, events, business or other happenings you want answered — and explain our process behind finding them for the new “Town Talk” series. Have a question you want answered? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The flower logo you see in print was designed by Los Angeles graphic artist Ken Parkhurst for Snowmass in the late 1960’s, and a handful of his village designs will be featured as part of the community page.
For the debut of the “Local Spotlight” series, the Snowmass Sun sat down with Curt Strand, a longtime local who just celebrated his 99th birthday. Strand, who was one of the original employees and executives who spearheaded the international branch of Hilton Hotels and Resorts, allowed Sun staff to catch a glimpse of his near-daily routine, which includes cycling at the Snowmass Club for about 30 minutes and then eating lunch at the Sage restaurant with his assistant, Barbara Lynn Bloemsma. Strand skied until he was 94, speaks four languages and is Bloemsma’s hero.
(Strand sits down with the Sun and Bloemsma at a table in the Sage restaurant in the Snowmass Club. Minutes later, a waiter brings Strand an Arnold Palmer, his usual lunchtime beverage).
Snowmass Sun: So where are you from originally?
Curt Strand: I’m originally from Vienna, which is in Austria.
SS: Wow, and what brought you to the U.S.?
CS: My father had the idea that I should get some American experience and coincidentally at that time as I went out to go to the U.S., Adolf Hitler came into Austria. So we went across and that was also a good thing. But I really came here to do some work, which I did.
SS: Where did you move to first?
CS: I first moved to Minnesota because my father had connections there and I was sent to work at Hormel’s packinghouse, and they had a course for young people who were recent college graduates, which I was not a college graduate yet, but we worked various departments in the packing house which isn’t much fun. I was about 17.
SS: Was America everything you thought it would be?
CS: Well, I didn’t know enough about it enough to answer your question succinctly but it was a totally novel experience. You come from a major European city where you just go to school and all of a sudden you are in the middle of Minnesota which is very, very different, has a very different climate, and the people are just different, they’re open and friendly and really a pleasure to be with. And these young people are good company but the work was very hard.
SS: How long did you work in the packinghouse?
CS: I was there two years and I really didn’t want to make this my career. I talked to a friend who happened to be a teacher there and he said what do you want to do? I said well, ever since I was 12 I’ve wanted to be in the hotel business, I had good reasons for that. And he said well if you want to be in the hotel business you should go to Cornell (University). And I said well how do I get there? I didn’t have any money for a bus or a train. And he said write them a letter, so I wrote them a letter but I was conscious at the time of a very uncomfortable fact which was that they would only accept 1 out of 10 applicants. And I wrote them a letter, I didn’t even have an interview but to my enormous surprise they accepted me on the basis of that letter. That was my first very happy happening in my life.
So I went there and I loved it, I held onto jobs so I could afford to pay the tuition, which at the time was very low, and I stayed there until it was time to go into service in the middle of WWII… At Cornell it was kind of funny, we had ROTC and we had horse drawn artillery. So in WWII, they were getting us ready for WWI. When I got to Fort Bragg to the artillery they had barely heard of a horse let alone horse drawn artillery. But it was fine for me because I learned how to ride horses and jump, so for me it was ok but I thought it was very odd that they would teach us such an old trade for WWII.
SS: How long did you serve in WWII?
CS: Almost three years. I thought I would be in the artillery but they give you numbers and they gave me the wrong number and so I was chosen as an aerial machine gunman. Well, I finally found the lieutenant in London when I got transferred there and I said to you him, ‘You know I could really embarrass you because I don’t know how to shoot a machine gun. I’m an artillery person.’ So we got to talking and at that time the service really needed people who could deal in languages, not only English, and I was one of these people (he said he speaks English, German, French and Spanish). So they put me in the military intelligence service, which was great and it was elevating and I really enjoyed that. So that’s how I spent my time in the service, first in England and then France and then in Germany.
SS: So you said you had wanted to get into the hotel business since you were 12, what drew you to that profession? Why did you want to do that?
CS: Well if you analyze it, particularly in a country where I was a kid that heavily depended on foreign guests, it was a way to provide some service and not to be boastful about it, but it was an inspiration for me because you had to turn your mind to what other people, the way your guests, were thinking. So your primary devotion had to be to what you can call guests, who were other people. What I learned was that it was very important to think of your guests as the people who really make your career, so you have to really try to see the business and the world through their eyes. That’s what I enjoyed.
SS: How did you get into the hotel business as a career after you served in WWII?
CS: When I got out of the army I made an application for a job and only one, there was only one place I wanted to work and that was The Plaza in New York. I made no other applications. Finally, after a month they called me for an interview and they gave me a job in The Plaza.
SS: Why did you want to be there?
CS: The Plaza is an exceptional hotel. It was built, if you can believe it, in 1807 in 18 months. I don’t think anybody could build a hotel that size today in 18 months, it would not work and they did it at the beginning of the 19th century. I just think the style and the age and the location of the hotel made it the number one for me.
SS: So how did you get involved with Hilton International?
CS: Well that was again another fortuitous event…I got involved with Hilton International through I would say the foresight of Conrad Hilton, whom I did not know. He was a small banker in Texas but like many banks, they inherited hotels out of bankruptcies. So he inherited hotels as a banker, he was not a hotel man.
You have to remember that we’re talking about 1947. It’s two years after the war, no hotels had been built anywhere for years. And people who lived in developed countries like Europe or Japan perhaps had no foreign currency to spend, they could only spend what currency they lived under. And so Conrad Hilton had the foresight that this would change. The war brought around a great demand for travel and so he thought there would be a great demand for hotels to be built and he was not alone. Governments all around the world knew that if they wanted to earn foreign exchange they had to build hotels and that is what happened and that is the beginning of my career because Conrad Hilton, who had his office in Los Angeles, put a guy in charge of the international company and that guy had his office at The Plaza. So we met each other and he asked me if I would go to work for him and be his helper, and I said sure so I left The Plaza and I went to work for what was the beginning of Hilton International. And going to work for that company was quite a thrill because no matter how clever you might be or might think you are, you have to be at the right place at the right time.
We were the first American hotel company to work abroad other than InterContinental, who built hotels that the airlines would run to … To make a long story as short as I can, when we started out with Hilton International at The Plaza, there were two and a half employees. So there were the two of us and a part time secretary. When I retired 30 some years later, we had 36,000 employees and we had 100 hotels in 60 different countries. We were at the right place at the right time.
SS: How did being a part of Hilton International help you learn about the world more than if you were doing another profession?
CS: (Conrad) Hilton gave us carte blanche, he was running the company in the U.S. and said you guys figure out how to do it abroad and he said if you’re going to do it abroad you have to learn how the people live, you have to be apart of the world, not part of an operation in a U.S. state. And we also had to have a little intuition such as we learned that 80 percent of all reservations were made by local people and what that meant was that you had to accommodate local taste, you had to work yourself into the local psyche and not depend on someone in Chicago who had business in Cairo to make his own reservation. It was someone in Cairo who made that reservation for him on which we depended. So we had to be on good terms with people in all of these various countries to be accepted and hopefully admired for what we were doing because we were creating businesses in those countries that at that time did not exist.
SS: Was there anything surprising to you about the hotel business that you didn’t forsee when you were 12-years-old?
CS: Yes, everything. (laughs) If you operate as we did in 60 countries, you get a lot of surprises and it’s why people travel, they want to see these surprises, they don’t just travel for business, they travel for pleasure. I liked these surprises. It was very beneficial because it made my business career interesting. If you work, I hate to say this, but in a packinghouse, you’re not going to have a lot of surprises.
SS: So how did you come to Snowmass?
CS: I came to Snowmass because my wife, who was a neuroscientist, had a meeting in Aspen and so I came with her. We skied every mountain once during that week and we finally skied in Snowmass on a Saturday. After having skied and having to ski in Vermont and Quebec and New York, you come to Snowmass and you think you’ve gone to heaven.
Snowmass had just opened three weeks before, very small place, but we went down to a real estate guy, we bought a condo, which at that time was very cheap. It wasn’t even built yet, it was planned. It finally got built and we loved it here ever since.
SS: What has kept you here in Snowmass for so long?
CS: Initially the skiing, but then it was the friends you make, the wonderful climate, the intellectual stimulation you get from the institute and the music festival and others. It’s a rare combination of physical and intellectual development. And of course the beauty, to us it was always an ideal place and while because of my business I had to travel a lot of time, it was always wonderful to come back here.
SS: So you just had your 99th birthday, looking back on 99 years, is there anything that sticks out that you’ve learned and that you’re going to take with you moving forward?
CS: Well unfortunately at 99 you don’t have many goals moving forward, you have wonderful memories and you have the advantage of having seen so much beauty and so your life becomes one of memories, not a life of future accomplishments. Your accomplishments are behind you.
SS: If you could go back in time and give your younger self advice based on what you’ve learned over the years, what would you say?
CS: I would tell them my story, I would not presume to advise a young woman or a young man as to what they should do, it has to come out of their own brain and out of their own heart. I would just tell them what I did and what the positive aspects were but I would not say to her or to him that’s what you should do.
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