Burt Cabañas arrived in the U.S. just shy of his 10th birthday with his mother.
She took the family to Miami from their native Cuba so she could recover from his father’s death. But instead of returning, the family decided to stay when Fidel Castro aligned his government with communism.
A few years later, Cabañas began working after school as a lifeguard at a hotel. That launched him on a career in the hospitality industry. Along the way, he held various jobs in hotel management and received a degree in hotel and restaurant management at Florida International University. In 1986, he bought the company formerly known as the Benchmark Management Co. from The Woodlands Corp.
Today, Cabañas serves as the chairman and chief executive officer of The Woodlands-based Benchmark Hospitality International, which employs about 6,000 people who manage hotels and resorts.
He was recently selected as one of the “100 Most Influential Hispanic Leaders for 2007” by Hispanic Business magazine. Cabañas spoke with Chronicle reporter Jenalia Moreno recently. Excerpts of that conversation follow.
Q: You are working on a project with Gloria and Emilio Estefan. How did that come about?
A: We had a mutual friend who introduced us. They had purchased an old hotel in Vero Beach, Fla., that they had designs on renovating. We signed the contract with them about a year ago. We will be their operating partner on that project. It will open in the latter part of this year.
They have a second home in Vero Beach. I don’t think this will be an extension of their entertainment life, but it will definitely be an extension of their personal life.
Q: How is the hospitality industry doing at a time when many are forecasting a recession?
A: If you speak to me tomorrow, the picture could be different. Right now, as far as our company is considered, we are not experiencing the normal blips on the screen that you would experience if you were about to feel a recession.
We have not experienced any changes in our business model for 2008. We have not experienced any changes that would indicate there is a dark cloud ahead.
Q: With the dollar so weak, are you getting more foreign guests at your hotels?
A: Absolutely. Especially those hotels that are close to the East Coast and the West Coast. Tourists to the U.S. are just busting at the seams, especially in New York City. They don’t have any hotel rooms. They are having the best times ever. It’s filled up so quickly by the international traveler.
Q: Do you plan to continue to expand internationally?
A: Fifty percent of our growth in the next 10 years will be internationally, with the majority of that growth being in Central America and South America. We have an office in Santiago, Chile, and Tokyo. We are breaking ground in Panama. We are planning another facility on the west end of Panama and another in Patagonia.
Q: People often talk about the success of Cuban entrepreneurs. Why do you think that’s
A: I think you don’t have an option. I think there’s a difference between an exile and an immigrant. With an immigrant, the door to go back is always open to you.
We didn’t have a door to go back. That creates a different psyche. You immediately adopt a new country and move forward. The people who initially came were the doctors and the bankers, and they were able to get a foothold. They came for political reasons. They just transferred their success.