The Interview: Hotel Developer Robin Brown
After making a name for himself at the Four Seasons, one of Boston’s most recognizable hotel developers has opened a hip spot in…Allston? If anyone can convince high rollers to stay in a once-grungy college neighborhood, it’s this guy.
It took about seven minutes from the time we sat down at Pammy’s restaurant in Cambridge for Robin Brown to get our waitress’s phone number. “If you want to call me next week,” he said in a charming British purr, “we’ll meet at a hotel nearby.” Lower those eyebrows—this isn’t what it seems. The longtime bon vivant was just networking (our server has a flower business), which, from what I can tell, he never stops doing. It’s a quality that has served Brown well in his time as the man behind some of the city’s hottest hospitality projects—including Studio Allston, a new art-themed hotel near Western Avenue’s hopping strip. Over dinner and drinks, he dished on the art of discretion, Warren Buffett, and what he just can’t stand in a hotel.
What are we toasting to?
Jon Davis and I just closed on the financing for the new Omni hotel in the Seaport. Elkus Manfredi are the architects, and it’s going to be directly in front of the Convention Center—that entire block, almost 1 million square feet. It will be the most extraordinary convention-center hotel in the country, with restaurants, the largest ballroom in the city, a pool bar, and four towers of rooms.
Exciting! What restaurants are going in?
That’s a secret. The people will be very well-known, but the concept will be shocking.
When is it slated to open?
February 2021. We started construction two weeks ago. For a hotel guy, I’m very fortunate to have all these projects, from the Mandarin to reinvented motels to convention centers, and all right in my own backyard. A lot of hotel people don’t ever get to go into so many different roles.
Let’s back up to the beginning. I read that your first job in hospitality was as a dishwasher when you were 15.
A pot washer. The dishes went in a little machine, but I had to wash the saucepans in a shallow sink. It was brutal—bent over for four hours a night, just drenched with sweat and scrubbing hot copper pans thrown at you by the chef. At the end of the night, my hands were burnt and blistered. My goal was to buy a motorbike. My mother said, No way, no way, no way, but my father said, If you want it, you can buy it yourself. So I worked for a bunch of hotels and then became a waiter, and then went to hotel school in Leicester, England. It was always about the cars. Still is.
What did you do after graduating?
I quickly went up the ladder at Westin International Hotels in Calgary. I became the director of rooms at 26, so I was in charge of everything non-restaurant: the front desk, concierge, security, housekeeping, switchboard, laundry, bellman, parking. I joined the Four Seasons in Vancouver. In ’86 I was transferred to DC as the hotel manager at a very high-end Four Seasons, a very special little hotel. I was probably 32 and single.
Were you a ladies’ man?
No, I met my wife, Marcia, after being there for six months.
And you and Marcia have been together for 30-plus years! What’s the secret?
Sense of humor.
How is Boston different from DC?
When I was the hotel manager at the Four Seasons in Georgetown from 1986 to 1988, everyone I was meeting was always looking over their shoulder, waiting for Barbara Bush or King Hussein to walk by them. But when Marcia and I got to Boston, I felt like I had either gone home to England or back to Vancouver. I played the Brit card a little—I dressed over the top with the pinstripes and the whole bit—but I found Boston to be the most genuine place.
Was it hard to leave the Four Seasons after being the GM for so many years?
Yeah, it was turmoil. It was a tough transition. I went from being the king of the castle to diddly-squat. At the Four Seasons I had amazing colleagues and a 600-person staff. I lost all of that overnight, gone, because I wanted to do real estate?
You come into contact with so many powerful people. Are there ones that you still get excited about?
Billy Connolly, the Scottish comedian and actor. I also spent a lot of time with Don Imus and the crew and regularly went on the show. They stayed at the Four Seasons, and we had dinners and nights out and pulled crazy pranks. I loved Phil Collins and Bono and Eric Clapton. There are some strange rock stars, but those people are both talented and remarkably kind.
Any memorable moments?
I have a great Bono story for you. Dick Egan, the founder of EMC data storage, would often come to the Bristol for a drink, and he came through the lobby one day and he pulled me aside and he said, “Guess where I’m going tomorrow? I’m going to the White House to be announced as the ambassador to Ireland.” And I went, “Oh my God, Dick, stay right here, this might take 10 minutes, but don’t move.” In 10 minutes, the elevator opens up and out comes Bono. I grabbed him by the arm—he’s a very personable guy—and I brought him over and I said, “Bono, I would like you to meet the next ambassador to Ireland.” Bono had Dick Egan to his house in Ireland, his first day as ambassador.
What’s the craziest request you’ve ever gotten?
We had foreign heads of state come for medical visits. The hotel was almost sold out, and we had to accommodate 60 rooms and they would stay for six months. We had to relocate guests, buy out a group. We had to create kitchens up on floors, buy all-new furniture, add connecting doors, knock down walls, and I used to just say, Yes, yes, yes. They would have a 747 at Logan airport with a limo with a security guard on call 24 hours a day.
Any big celeb stories you can share?
I met Warren Buffett. He flew commercial in a frumpy suit, a button-down blue shirt, an ugly red tie, and cheap black shoes. He would have a steak medium-well and broccoli and a baked potato. The wealthiest man in the world eating his broccoli and his steak. I also had to put major international rock stars back to bed at 5 in the morning, 6 in the morning—they’d be stealing the breakfast off guests’ room-service trolleys. There were so many stories. My wife’s mother gave me cassettes and a recorder and said, “Record a cassette for 30 minutes every day about your day.”
Did you do it? Do you have those tapes?
No, I never did it.
Because you had to be discreet?
Yes. Bill Gates once wanted a private meeting with Robert Palmer, the CEO of Digital Equipment Corp. Bill Gates came from Seattle to the hotel, and I was told that he would be in a sweater, unshaven, in the back of a yellow taxi. I met him in the driveway at 6 o’clock on a Thursday night, and I took him to a bedroom where we took out the bed and replaced it with a dining room table and chairs. There was one waiter and a preset menu. We signed a release. Robert Palmer came in through the loading dock, Bill Gates through the lobby, and the two of them had a business meeting. About two of the biggest companies in the world—and the waiter and I were the only two people who ever knew.
How did you keep those secrets?
You didn’t think twice about it; you just had to. All of the bank mergers happened at the Four Seasons—Fleet Bank, Bank of Boston, Bank of America—they all happened in guest rooms. Mostly the wives of the bank chairmen would call me and say, “Put a room under my name, but here is what’s really going on.”
Where do you shop for clothes?
I used to have a Swedish woman who worked at Filene’s Basement. She used to take all of the Brioni and Zegna, the best of the best, and she would put them all in a side room for me. Once a month at lunchtime, I would walk from the Four Seasons and try on, like, 12 suits. I literally wore the best clothes, but I never went to Louis or anything.
You must have received quite a few letters from guests. Do you have a favorite?
From John Harrington after Jean Yawkey died. Jean Yawkey owned the Red Sox, and John Harrington was the president of the foundation. I found Jean in her condo.
She and I were close. She lived at the Four Seasons for four years. I met her on day one, and we had lunch once a week. I noticed the newspaper had been outside her door for two days. So I called John Harrington’s cellphone. He was on David G. Mugar Way coming back from Logan into the city, and I was putting Jean in an ambulance. He got into the front seat, and we took Jean to Mass General—she never made it, she had a stroke. He knew how important she was to me as well, and he wrote me a beautiful, beautiful handwritten letter about his relationship with the Red Sox and her and then my relationship with her.
Do you have pet peeves about staying in hotels?
I just go apeshit with grout. [Pulls out his phone and starts scrolling through photos of hotel bathrooms.] This is a four-star hotel. Do you think I’m gonna stand in this tub and shampoo my hair? I didn’t shave for two days. This is black grime behind the soap dish in the corner of the tub. That gook can be removed with a couple sprays of bleach—poof!
Is the grout in your home pristine?
When you were the GM of the Four Seasons, did you check up on the rooms?
I paid people to find trouble. I used to say to friends, family, and hotel people, “You can stay at the hotel for $1,000 a night. For every glitch you can find on a weekend, I’ll give you a $100 discount. I want you to cut off a button on your shirt and send it to the dry cleaners, leave your toothpaste strewn on the side and your toothbrush over here, leave your shoes in different places, leave tissue paper from the dry cleaning on the floor in the closet.” I told people hundreds of things to do. I forced them to spend the entire weekend looking for shit that was wrong. No one ever paid for their stay.
What’s a favorite Boston memory?
When the Ryder Cup was held at The Country Club in 1999. We had both teams staying at the hotel, which was unheard of, and on Thursday night they had a big gala dinner at Symphony Hall to honor Arnold Palmer. The entire hall was full—President Bush was there, all of the golfers. It was big, big doings with a concert by the Boston Pops. Marcia and I sat with the Bushes, and we left with them to go back to the hotel. So we get back and we’re going to the Bristol, and Arnold Palmer is sitting there with his manager, and we sat with Arnold Palmer from, like, 11 p.m. until 2 a.m.
Did you end up playing a round with him?
We also had Prince Andrew in the hotel, and Arnold Palmer says to me, “I want to play golf tomorrow, and I want you to come and play golf with me. Will you do it?” And I said, “No, I can’t, I can’t leave the hotel. I have presidents, heads of state, and the two teams. Look around—it’s the biggest PR event in Boston’s history. I can’t leave for six hours.” I now have a letter in my basement, a stinking letter from Arnold Palmer written the following week, telling me that I’m the only person in his entire life to turn him down for golf. And that he was disgusted with me.