October 27, 2013

Frits van Paasschen: Is he America's most-fit CEO?

The CEO of Starwood Hotels & Resorts – best known for brands like Sheraton, Westin, St. Regis and W – exercises six days a week no matter where he is in the world.

By Scott Mayerowitz
The Associated Press

NEW YORK – Frits van Paasschen is standing with his bike on the edge of Central Park. It’s a brisk autumn morning. The city has yet to fully wake but he’s eager to ride.

click image to enlarge

Starwood Hotels CEO Frits van Paasschen, a triathlete, prepares for a ride in New York’s Central Park this month. His passion for health and fitness is reflected in amenities offered at the hotels he runs.

The Associated Press

The CEO of Starwood Hotels & Resorts – best known for brands like Sheraton, Westin, St. Regis and W – exercises six days a week no matter where he is in the world. These are not light workouts. Van Paasschen, 52, just completed his first Ironman triathlon – 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of cycling, and a 26.2-mile run. It took 12 hours and 44 minutes.

Since taking over as CEO in September 2007, van Paasschen – who is vegan – has injected parts of his lifestyle into Starwood’s hotels. He’s changed menus to make them healthier, for instance, and made it easier for road warriors to work out.

Given his penchant for exercise, I suggested a bike ride as a way to learn more about him and the company.

Which brings us to a chilly October morning two weeks ago. Dressed in back spandex biking shorts and cycling jerseys, we head out for laps through the park. I am not a triathlete, so van Paasschen promises to take it easy.

“So have you done this before?” he asks. No. Most of my reporting is stationary. “Yeah, I can’t say I’ve been interviewed on a bike either.”

STARTING YOUNG, STAYING YOUNG

His love of fitness started at age 7 while watching the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics on TV.

“I thought, OK, I’m going to go out and be in the Olympics and I started running,” van Paasschen says. “I realized after a few years there was no way I was going to go to the Olympics, let alone even compete at a high level. But I also just kind of, I just fell in love with doing it.”

Biking came later, when a junior high school gym teacher on Mercer Island, Wash., would take van Paasschen’s class out for long rides at the end of the day.

Starwood guests can see those influences today.

Westin hotels loan guests running shoes and clothing. New menus have been crafted around foods thought to improve well-being and longevity such as green tea, honey, blueberries and kiwis. And the company’s newest brand, Element, offers bicycles.

“The whole idea is that you’ll feel better after your stay,” van Paasschen says as we speed past some joggers. It doesn’t matter that nearly three times as many guests use Sheraton’s free lobby computers than use the hotel gym. It’s important that the gym is available. “It strikes me that more people have the intention of working out than not.”

The number of Starwood hotels has grown 28 percent during van Paasschen’s tenure to 1,150 today and is expected to hit 1,500 by the end of 2018. His company isn’t the largest; Holiday Inn owner InterContinental Hotels Group holds that title with 4,600 properties worldwide. But Starwood is trying to position itself as the biggest luxury hotel group. One of every seven hotels that Starwood has planned is a luxury property.

“People are surprised to hear how fast the luxury segment is growing,” van Paasschen says. “Our three luxury brands – W, Luxury Collection and St. Regis – have essentially doubled their footprint in the last six years, even with the financial crisis.”

Most of that growth is overseas.

Starwood, based in Stamford, Conn., opened 67 new hotels in the past 12 months. Only a third of them were in the United States. The focus for van Paasschen has been on China, the United Arab Emirates, India and Latin America.

(Continued on page 2)

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