Sol “the Sun King” Kerzner: the passing of a hospitality legend

by | 24 Mar 2020 | General News

Sol “the Sun King” Kerzner.

At age 84, South Africa’s hospitality impresario Solomon “Sol” Kerzner breathes his last, leaving behind an everlasting legacy in global luxury hospitality, including the One&Only and Atlantis brands.

The balcony of the King’s Suite at The Palace is the best vantage point to catch a glimpse of the vision that Sol Kerzner had when he flew over the Pilanesberg and saw the stretch of dormant volcanic land that would later become Sun City.

At the time of that fortuitous helicopter trip in 1978, Kerzner was slowly making moves in the hotel industry. Sun City would be instrumental in arming him with the “template” he needed to bring his fantasy resorts and pleasure parks to life…

A charismatic risk-taker

Prior to Sun City’s highly anticipated opening on 7 December 1979, Kerzner had already established a name through a suite of upmarket Durban hotels – including the launch of South Africa’s first five-star hotel, The Beverley Hills, and the 450-room Elangeni & Maharani, just down the coast. In 1969, just seven years after opening his first hotel and dinner club in downtown Durban, he formed a partnership with South African Breweries to create the Southern Sun group of hotels and casinos.

Kerzner’s determination to promote luxury travel was evident in the many five-star properties he developed during his tenure with Southern Sun. Due to the rigid apartheid gaming laws, he was forced to look to other African countries and in 1972, he built Botswana’s five-star Chobe Game Lodge – where Elizabeth Taylor and Sir Richard Burton spontaneously tied the knot on what was supposed to be a two-day visit to the luxury bush retreat.

In the mid-70s, when foreign investment in South Africa had reached an all-time high, Kerzner broke into the Mauritian market, opening the five-star Le Saint Géran Resort in 1975. Always one step ahead of the game, Kerzner’s move proved to be lucrative and gave Southern Sun the financial boost it needed for his “breakout development”.

Back in South Africa, negotiations with the tribal council of Bophuthatswana would turn in his favour and, once the gaming licence was in place, Sun City development began.

A rule-breaking pioneer

In 1979, there was a massive buzz around Kerzner’s “pleasure paradise in the Pilanesberg” and on its opening weekend, 15 000 people crammed through Sun City’s gates to sample South Africa’s richest resort. It was a massive undertaking for a hotelier in those days, but the gamble paid off, catapulting Kerzner into the limelight and reinforcing his aspirations to inject some glamour into the South African hotel industry.

Sun City was not only an architectural feat, but the resort also symbolised Kerzner’s obsession to push the boundaries and indulge his guests’ wildest fantasies. For a “numbers man”, he had an incredible imagination and Sun City showed him just how far he could push the limits.

Although long hours and a “jet-setting lifestyle” triggered a near-fatal heart attack in 1980, Kerzner was back at work two weeks later to begin plans on the three-star Aloe Ridge hotel, as well as on a new casino-resort on South Africa’s majestic Wild Coast.

Plans were also finalised to build a 6 000-seater entertainment arena with the vision of bringing the world’s biggest superstars to the Sun City stage. Despite boycotts by the international community, Sun City’s star power pulled the crowds with its line-up of headline-making acts – Dolly Parton, Eric Clapton, Sting, Queen, Elton John, Liberace, Michael Jackson, Shirley Bassey, The Beach Boys, Linda Ronstadt, and Liza Minnelli, to name a few. In those days, you could catch a bus from Joburg’s Park Station to marvel at the megastars who were all part of Kerzner’s masterplan to turn Sun City into the entertainment epicentre of South Africa.

To add to the experience, he bolstered Sun City’s resort appeal with the addition of an 18-hole golf course, designed by long-time friend and golfing legend Gary Player, two additional hotels (the Cascades and the Cabanas), a man-made lake for watersports, and Africa’s first mono-rail, the Skytrain, which still operates today.

The hotelier’s fastidious attention to detail spilled into every part of Sun City’s 10-year development and, at a time when gambling and topless revue shows were banned in South Africa, Sun City’s “glamorous sheen” captured the imagination of entertainment-hungry South Africans. This magnetism was reinforced when he launched Sun City’s first TV advert off the back of the Queen hit, We Will Rock You.

As recorded in the scintillating commercial, Sun City encapsulated the hedonistic spirit of the ’80s. If Sun City was all about decadence and escapism, Kerzner made sure he filled the resort with the best experiences and events that money could buy! From the Gary Player-designed golfing greens and the heavyweight boxing bouts to Sun City Casino’s Dream Machines, he wanted people to have a good time and created a playground where their wildest expectations were constantly exceeded.

A mogul in the making

Although Sun City was developed as part of the Southern Sun group in 1979, it was the biggest asset in the portfolio of casinos and hotels that Kerzner would retain before leaving the company to launch Sun International in 1983.

In 1984, after successfully listing Sun International on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, he raised the capital to fund Sun City’s first five-star hotel – the R50-million Cascades. That year, Sun International opened Lesotho Sun in the Basotho Kingdom (now Lesotho) and, as gaming licences became available in the surrounding homelands, the expansion continued with the opening of Morula Sun, Fish River Sun and Naledi Sun in 1989. Namibia’s Kalahari Sands Hotel and Casino followed in 1990, and Carousel Casino was added to the portfolio in 1991.

By the end of the decade Sun City had cemented itself as a world-class holiday destination and with things on course, Kerzner turned his attention to his next project: a 338-room luxury hotel built around 25ha of exotic jungle and designed to inspire the mystery of a lost civilisation. As one of Kerzner’s greatest architectural accomplishments, The Palace of the Lost City oozed African opulence, with its lavish interiors, locally crafted furniture and hand-painted lobby ceiling that was designed to resemble Rome’s Sistine Chapel.

Committed to his vision of creating a “lost paradise in the Pilanesberg”, Kerzner enlisted the help of landscape designer Patrick Watson who imported over 3 000 plant species to embellish the hotel’s palatial exterior. It took just 28 months to create The Lost City, and in December 1992, The Palace opened with a gala attended by South Africa’s most influential politicians, businessmen, and socialites.

Kerzner never took his eye off the ball operationally and on bigger properties like Sun City, he worked tirelessly to redefine service standards in the hotel industry. From the concierge to the croupier, he demanded excellence from the people he hired and made sure they supported his vision to keep the guests “guessing”.

“The challenge is to get people to commit to the idea of blowing the customer away by giving them an experience ahead of what they expect.”

Through his South African ventures, Kerzner was committed to boosting the country’s employment, and at a private meeting held in Johannesburg two weeks after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, the future statesman lauded the hotelier for his contribution, when he said: “It’s great that a young Jewish man is creating thousands of jobs out in the African countryside.” In 1995, Kerzner was given the honour of hosting Mandela’s presidential inauguration reception at Sun City.

The expansion begins…

Although Kerzner branched out of the South African market in the late ’80s, it was only after the opening of The Lost City that he seized his next opportunity: to salvage a bankrupt development in The Bahamas.

After the purchase of Paradise Island Resort for US$125 million in 1994, Kerzner launched a massive redevelopment programme, demolishing most of the property to make way for two hotels, a 60ha themed waterpark and a casino. Following the opening of The Royal Towers in 1998, Kerzner rebranded Paradise Island – and launched his new suite of luxury resorts – “Atlantis”.

Many acquisitions ensued and in 1996, following the launch of Atlantis in The Bahamas, Kerzner opened the hugely successful Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut, USA, through a joint partnership with the Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut. A 1 200-room hotel was added to the casino complex four years later.

By now, the hotel magnate had become renowned for redefining the scale of destination resorts and, following the success of his efforts overseas, in 2002, Kerzner launched his second luxury resort collection, One&Only Resorts, with plans to develop properties in the Middle East, Mexico, Morocco, Hayman Island (Australia), the Maldives and South Africa.

With success comes sacrifice

As he expanded the reach of the One&Only and Atlantis brands to major tourist destinations, Kerzner sought the advice of his eldest son, Howard (affectionately known as “Butch”), who took over as chief executive of the company in 2003.

Butch’s appetite for risk matched his father’s and developments in Singapore, London and Dubai were being finalised under his tenure as CE of Kerzner International Holdings. Tragically, in October 2006, Kerzner’s presumptive heir was killed in a helicopter accident in the Dominican Republic. This was a devastating blow for Kerzner – “the company would never become a family business”.

In 2008, as part of a massive US$1.5-billion joint-venture with the Dubai-based Istithmar World, Kerzner honoured his son’s legacy with the opening of Atlantis The Palm – a 1,539-room hotel comprising a seven-hectare waterpark on Dubai’s prestigious Palm Jumeirah Island.

To open his Dubai showstopper, Kerzner spent US$20 million – the largest amount ever spent on a hotel launch – for an evening that included impromptu performances by friends Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Natalie Cole, as well as a fireworks display by the company that lit up the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. In a visual ode to Butch, Kerzner didn’t skimp on the details!

In 2009, Kerzner made his South African comeback with the opening of the six-star One&Only hotel at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront. The hotel cost U$128 million to build and opened six months ahead of schedule to cater for the influx of tourists attending the 2010 Soccer World Cup. To cap it off, that year, Kerzner received news that he had been included on Queen Elizabeth’s honours List and was awarded the Insignia of Knight Commander of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George for his contribution to business and the community of The Bahamas.

During Kerzner’s 18-year tenure as the chairman of Kerzner International Holdings, the company enjoyed massive growth of the One&Only and Atlantis brands in exotic locations, from The Maldives and Mexico to Montenegro and Mauritius.

Although Kerzner stepped down for the second time as chairman of the company in 2012, he emerged from semi-retirement a year later, partnering with a privately owned Asian company to bring Atlantis to the South China Sea. The US$1.8 billion resort is considered Kerzner’s last contribution to the industry before he took the decision to retire in London.

Blazing trails and breaking boundaries

It’s hard to pinpoint the highs and lows of an incredible career that spanned six decades. Like many visionaries who’ve changed the game, Kerzner’s life was a carefully crafted tapestry of accomplishments and records.

Right from the start, Kerzner built a dynasty of hotels that were unapologetically modern for their time and reflected his love for opulence and glamour. He may have been in the business of building hotels and casinos, but he was an intuitive entrepreneur with a “go big or go home” attitude. Known for his brash outbursts, he made up for it with his astute knowledge and impeccable advice.

How do you define the legacy of a stalwart who has built a cross-continental empire of hotels, casinos and resorts? With the many triumphs, there were tragedies along the way, but these never deterred a man who was destined to make his mark.

Kerzner’s journey may sound like a rags-to-riches tale, but it really is the story of a man who built a legacy on humble beginnings. As the youngest of four children of Russian immigrants, Sol was born in the modest suburb of Doornfontein in 1935. His parents worked tirelessly selling fruit and vegetables in Johannesburg, and eventually saved enough money to open a small guesthouse in Durban.

The 15-room “Menorah” may have been basic, but it was enough to spark the young Kerzner’s interest in the hotel business and, having completed his studies in accounting, he knew how to work with numbers. He was also a keen boxer, and the ring helped sharpen his vision to become a formidable force early in his career. This innate desire to succeed coupled with a very clear vision prompted Kerzner to open his first hotel – The Astra – in 1962, followed by South Africa’s first five-star hotel, The Beverly Hills, just two years later.

He may have loved the extravagance and fanfare that came with the job, but Kerzner also adored his family and was a doting father and grandfather. Although Butch’s death left an irreplaceable void in his life, his four other children have leveraged their father’s legacy and succeeded in their respective professions and personal pursuits.

Sol – The “Sun King”

At the 2019 International Hotel Investment Forum in Berlin, Kerzner received a Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to the hotel and casino industry. As one of the greatest hoteliers of our time, he will go down in history as one of the most influential self-made entrepreneurs that South Africa has ever produced – one that Forbes Africa once nicknamed “The Five-Star Millionaire”.

When you think of the monumental mark that Kerzner made on the industry, you could call him a “trailblazer”, “rain-maker” and “game-changer”. He dined with dignitaries and shook hands with sheikhs. He entertained presidents and fluttered with Hollywood celebrities. But beyond the fancy titles and accolades, Kerzner was a heroic hotelier, who, in the pursuit of perfection, leaves a legacy that is inherent in the tapestry of hotels he created; a collection of dreamy developments that are synonymous with decadence, luxury, vision and success.

Perhaps the most befitting title is the one he inherited after founding Southern Sun in 1969. Right from the start, Kerzner aimed for the moon and reached the sun time and time again. What made the “Sun King” so iconic is that he did it with so much passion and soul.

“It’s not all about the titles, how much money you would have made or what you would have gotten from it. It’s about having some fun, being able to create things…”

At the 2019 Nedbank Golf Challenge, Kerzner returned to the Gary Player Country Club to celebrate the tournament’s success and toast the many lifelong friendships that were formed when he created Sun City 40 years ago.

Sol died on 21 March at his home in Leeukoppie Estate in Cape Town, surrounded by his family. He was 84. May his soul rest in peace.