The Dish on Tisch

Whether he's revamping the Loews Hotels chain or prodding politicians on tourism-related issues, Jonathan Tisch is nothing if not persistent

Jonathan Tisch is a man on a mission. Mere seconds after the chairman and chief executive of Loews Hotels greets someone at the Grill Room of New York's Four Seasons restaurant, he turns to find another friendly -- and powerful -- face. He waves.

In fact, go through the diners at this powerbroker den and the chances are good that Tisch knows them all. Why not? The former TV producer knows the value of creating some buzz. He donned a dress and pretended to be his mother to win a lucrative hotel deal in Miami's ultra-cool South Beach. He has been a good pal and major fund-raiser for former Vice-President Al Gore, despite hailing from a family of Republicans.

Meanwhile, Tisch's persistence in promoting tourism is so legendary on Capitol Hill that the mere sight of him sends some politicians throwing up their hands to ward off another pitch.


  All that glad-handing has a higher purpose. Tisch, 47, is currently expanding and overhauling his hotel chain to make it more hip. The economic downturn is no obstacle, he says. Having kicked himself for missing out on investment opportunities during the last recession, Tisch is determined not to do so again.

Since passing the role of president to Jack Adler earlier this year, Tisch is becoming more involved with parent company Loews, which also owns insurer CNA Financial, watch giant Bulova, Diamond Offshore Drilling, and Lorillard -- the country's oldest tobacco company, with brands like Newport, Maverick, and Kent. Don't confuse it with Loews Cineplex Entertainment, the motion picture theater company: The two are unrelated, as the company continually takes pains to point out.

Loews is a family business, co-chaired by dad Preston Robert Tisch and uncle Laurence Tisch. Cousins James and Andrew join Tisch to form a triumvirate in the office of the president. The company's stock (LTR ) closed slightly higher on July 26, at $53.66. That's up from a $30 low last fall, but off its peak of $72.50 in May.

Some blame skittishness concerning Big Tobacco, as well as concerns over a softening economy. Investment gains propelled its first-quarter income to $472 million, a huge boost over the $184 million of a year earlier, and analysts expect even better second-quarter results to be announced on Aug. 2.


  In case he doesn't have enough to do, Tisch has a roster stuffed full of extra-curricular activities. He is vice-chairman of the Welfare to Work Partnership and a loud advocate for community involvement. He serves on several boards, and is even treasurer of the New York Giants.

But his current passion comes back to travel. Gore ties aside, Tisch wants President Bush to create a Presidential advisory council on Travel & Tourism. No doubt it could be headed by Tisch himself, who founded and chairs the Travel Business Roundtable that lobbies policymakers on tourism-related issues.

His beef? As a country, the U.S. spends nothing -- "not one dollar!" -- on promoting itself abroad as a destination. States might spend money. Cities like Orlando, Las Vegas, and New York certainly spend money. "But we don't have a unified marketing plan," says Tisch, who estimates he has already met with 120 politicians on the subject.

"We're not telling new travelers in Brazil or Korea to visit the United States," he says. Yet tourism is one industry that creates 18 million jobs and a positive balance of trade, he points out, as foreigners buy up everything from hotel suites to tacky T-shirts. If any industry needs a coherent voice and a constant say in policy initiatives, he argues, it's tourism. Says Tisch: "Seems like a no-brainer to me."


  Of course, the absence of such a council hasn't stopped Tisch and his buddies at the Roundtable from weighing in on issues that matter to their industry. They want more liberal visa policies to allow in foreign workers, tax credits for educating and hiring disadvantaged workers, restoration of the business-meal deductions, no rapid increase in the minimum wage, elimination of taxes on frequent-flyer miles, and other changes that encourage people to travel and spend as much as possible.

Coming from Tisch, this is not just an abstract wish list. He expects results, having played a large role several years ago in getting New York City to cut its high tax on hotel guests.

His immediate day job, though, is to reinvigorate Loews Hotels. With 17 properties, it's hardly the behemoth of lodging. That's O.K., says Tisch, because he's aiming to build a family of unique boutique hotels.


  In the past two years, he has added such unusual holdings as a Hard Rock Hotel in Orlando, a House of Blues Hotel in Chicago, and a historic office-building-turned-hotel in Philadelphia. The company's flagship Manhattan hotel is being refurbished to give it more of an Art Deco South Beach feel, and Tisch is revamping the Loews Vanderbilt Plaza in Nashville to reflect the city's country music roots.

The goal, he says, "is to give people something different in terms of architecture and design." Each one, he adds, has to have a story behind it or features that make it unique. Whether that's a recipe for explosive growth is another matter.

For the moment, Tisch has other things on his mind. First, his dry tomato and baby mozzarella cheese salad arrived without the cheese. "I want to be good, but not that good," says the hotel chief, noting that he works out six days a week. And there are people to see. "If you'll excuse me," he says, motioning towards Senator John Glenn (D-Ohio), who's celebrating his birthday at a nearby table. "I have to go greet a Senator right now."

By Diane Brady in New York

Edited by Beth Belton

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