By Tanya Smith-Cartwright
Sol Kerzner can be deemed one of the world’s most advanced and inventive hoteliers. He was the founder of the Southern Sun hotel group, Sun International and Kerzner International, all very successful in the establishment of mega resorts.
The youngest of four children and the only male child born to Russian immigrants, Kerzner worked from an early age in a rough neighbourhood. He grew up to become one of the most influential men and hoteliers in the world having owned properties in Mauritius, The Maldives, The Bahamas, Dubai among other countries.
In 1962, Kerzner entered the hospitality industry when he purchased The Astra, a small inn in Durban, South Africa. He soon renovated the once run down property into one of the more upscale and prevalent hotels in Durban. This kicked off his 60-year career in the hospitality industry where he moved from success to success.
Prior to the start of his career in hospitality, Kerzner, age 12, played with the Johannesburg Symphony Orchestra and was also an avid boxer becoming the Varsity Welterweight Champion. Educationally, he graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand with a degree in accountancy.
Kerzner was 26 years old when he developed The Beverly Hills, Umhlanga Rocks - the first five-star hotel in South Africa. This was done at a time when no one thought it was possible. He defied the odds and this property became a mega success and gave him the reputation of being South Africa’s most respected hotelier. He went on to develop the Elangeni Hotel also in Durban. This was a 450-room resort on the beachfront. Pushing a little further, Kerzner then partnered with South African Breweries to establish Southern Sun Hotels. By 1983 this partnership operated 30 luxury hotels encompassing more than 7000 keys.
According to Ian Douglas, a friend and employee at Kerzner’s various companies over a span of some 20 years: “Nothing he built was ever boring and he never chased the money. He only chased success.”
Like in any business, there comes the controversial, eye brow raisers, Kerzer was no exception in this. His biggest and most controversial successes was the development of Sun City which was situated just north of Johannesburg. There were no roads and no infrastructure, yet Kerzner imagined and delivered what is deemed the most ambitious development in all of Africa.
Work on Sun City started in in 1975 and over the next ten years, Kerzner built four hotels, a man-made lake, two Gary Player golf courses, and an entertainment centre with an indoor 6,000-seat arena. This arena played host to a world-class recording artists such as Queen, Frank Sinatra, Liza Minelli, Shirley Bassey, as well as huge world title fights, and many other spectacular events. The naysayers were once again defied and Kerzner trained the best workforce to operate Sun City on a non-racial basis.
From inception, Kerzner’s rule was always to “blow away the customer”. He was driven by this and when scouting for locations in Durban, Mauritius or The Bahamas, he was not “blown away” by the location he would continue his search for another stretch of beach.
After South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, Kerzner was asked by President Nelson Mandela to organise the reception for the Presidential Inauguration. Most of the world’s leaders attended this event and established the close relationship between Kerzner and President Mandela.
Mandela is quoted as saying: “He makes a difference everywhere he goes. Sol, thank you for changing our World!” Both men remained very close until the passing of President Mandela in 2013.
In 1994, making his mark outside of Africa for the first time, Kerzner acquired The Paradise Island Resort and Casino here in The Bahamas. He launched a major re-development and expansion project and changed this financially troubled property into the extravagant Atlantis Resort - a 2300-room resort that housed one of the world’s largest man-made marine habitats and then-Caribbean’s biggest casino.
Atlantis, which continues to be appealing to visitors of all ages because of its mythical themes, employs the largest amount of Bahamians in the hospitality industry. Kerzner later expanded this property with The Cove and The Reef hotels adding 1100rooms.
Kerzner’s son, Butch Kerzner, soon came on board with his father in the hospitality business, leaving behind a promising career in corporate finance. The company was then rebranded “Kerzner International”.
The Kerzners soon became the “Dynamic Duo” of the hotel business and built their first casino resort in 1996 in America calling it The Mohegan Sun. A property that is still, to date, one of the largest gaming and entertainment entities in North America.
Sol Kerzner’s daughter, Andrea Kerzner, said: “Dad taught us family values. No matter how busy he was, he always made time for us, his family.”
Continuing their work, Sol and Butch Kerzner launched the One&Only Resorts. These were award-winning high end luxury resorts situated in The Bahamas, Mexico, Mauritius, The Maldives, South Africa and Dubai. These properties were unique in design and ambiance and the brand set a new standard in the casual luxury resorts.
Sadly in 2006, Butch Kerzner, who had already taken over as CEO of Kerzner International, perished in a helicopter accident which he was exploring sites to develop a resort in the Dominical Republic.
The Atlantis brand was extended globally with the development of a property called The Palm, in Dubai. This $1.5 billion dollar property housed some 1500 rooms and featured the largest aquarium and waterpark in the Middle East, luxury retail outlets, and restaurants featuring internationally renowned celebrity chefs.
Kerzner proceeded to extend the Atlantis brand globally with the development of Atlantis, The Palm in Dubai. This $1.5bn, 1,500-room destination resort featured the largest aquarium and waterpark in the Middle East, luxury retail outlets, and restaurants featuring internationally renowned celebrity chefs. This property opened in late 2008.
From one success to the next in 2009, Kerzner went back to Africa where he started his career as a hotelier and developed the 500-room, Mazagan Beach Resort in Morocco, and also opened the One&Only Cape Town, situated in the famous V&A Waterfront.
He was recognised in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List with the insignia Knight Commander of the Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George (KCMG). Kerzner never used the title and was always surprised and amused when people addressed him as ‘Sir Sol’.
There is no way to describe the impact that Sol Kerzner and his group of companies had on the resort industry worldwide. From his common beginnings in life, to his establishing well over eighty hotel and casino properties, in more than a dozen countries, Kerzner’s tenacity has truly made a mark that can be seen and felt all over the world.