The magician behind the InterContinental
In 2024, the InterContinental will celebrate 60 years of history, 34 of which were overseen by Herbert Schott, who made the hotel legendary by welcoming some of the world’s biggest names. His magic wand? His extraordinary sense of service and awareness.
The clichés speak for themselves, a testament to the high-profile stays to some of the greatest celebrities and politicians at the Intercontinental. Today, high-stakes negotiations and meetings are still on the establishment’s agenda, which is ideally located near several international organizations and embassies in Geneva. Diplomats from the USA, the EU, and the WTO still regularly use the hotel, and in 2021, Joe Biden stayed at the InterContinental while he was in Geneva to meet Vladimir Putin. The international reputation of the hotel was built over several decades by one key man: Herbert Schott. He began working at the hotel in 1967, and was the Director from 1981-2002, making him the real man behind the magic of the hotel’s reputation. Read on to discover more about the story behind his career.
In 1967, young Herbert had a promising career ahead. Born in Cologne, Germany, the young man was barely 20 years old and had already worked in Paris, Rome, Madrid, and London. He was offered the Director position at a large hotel in Los Angeles, but, after carefully weighing his options — and in part to please his wife, who wanted to live in Europe — he chose the InterContinental Geneva and quickly become the Head of Reception.
Back then, the hotel was not particularly thriving, even though Martin Luther King Jr. had given a speech at the hotel during the 1968 “Pacem In Terris” conference. The Director at the time, Mr. Desbaillet, tasked Herbert with growing the hotel’s business across the diplomatic sector. “I was effectively given carte blanche to do it,” Herbert recalled in his memoir, entitled L’Hotelier. The young man drew up a list of all the personnel working at international organisations and invited them to visit the hotel, offering free entry to the newly built swimming pool if they took him up on his offer.
Fairy Godmother Sophia Loren
The InterContinental was propelled into international fame that same year when actress Sophia Lauren decided to stay at the hotel. The actress was newly pregnant, and the Genevan specialist who cared for her prescribed 7 months of bed rest and a strict diet, which required food at regular intervals, even at night. Carlo Ponti, the star’s husband, confided in Herbert Schott that he couldn’t find lodging with the level of service the couple required. Herbert (of course) suggested the actress stay in one of the hotel’s fully equipped suites with staff to help care for her. During her stay, Sophia was visited by celebrities from all over the globe. The hotel provided both discretion and security, despite a tidal wave of journalists hoping to capture photos of the new baby, and the InterContinental’s grand reputation was born.
A hot spot for diplomacy
Around the same time, Herbert Schott was continuing to develop the hotel’s diplomatic client base. Willing to do whatever it took, he once even transformed a baggage storage room into a conference room in just a few hours, to accommodate a OPEP (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) delegation. From then on (and for more than 15 years), the hotel was the venue of choice for OPEP meetings and became the organization’s conference headquarters in 1976. Herbert even had the brilliant idea of creating 14 exactly identical rooms for each of the member state’s representatives.
Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Indonesian President Suharto, Colonel Gaddafi, FIFA President Gianni Infantino, Lady Diana… under Herbert’s leadership, and that of his successors, the InterContinental played host to the world’s biggest names and many crucial meetings, including Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, the Dalai Lama and the Aga Khan in 1988, and even Bill Clinton and Hafez al-Assad in 1994. During such meetings, hotel security was meticulous, and the neighbourhood was usually closed off.
It was only in 2002 that Herbert Schott finally retired from the InterContinental, along with numerous regional Executive Boards and the Swiss hotel industry, saying he was “satisfied with my Genevan life and professional success, which all began as a baggage porter.”