As a 30-year hotelier with six years on luxury cruise ships, Martin van der Laan has had some amazing experiences. His career has taken him from Buenos Aires to St. Petersburg, from Iceland to Venice, the Caribbean to Alaska and beyond. He lived and worked five years on Grand Cayman island and was based another five in sunny Boca Raton, Fla.
But when van der Laan and wife, as empty-nesters, had the opportunity to move to Oklahoma City from Florida in February 2011 for him to manage the Skirvin Hilton Hotel for Milwaukee, Wis.-based Marcus Hotels and Resorts, it “was a no-brainer,” van der Laan said.
The industry veteran said he embraces the history of the hotel, likes and respects the community that saved it — after being shuttered for 17 years — and considers it a privilege to serve as the hotel's “custodian,” along with a staff of 160.
Van der Laan, 50, recently sat down with The Oklahoman to talk about his professional and personal life. This is an edited transcript:
Q: Can you tell us about your roots?
A: My hometown is Hengelo, Holland, a city of about 80,000, 20 miles from the German border. Three of our five TV stations were German ones, so speaking German, along with Dutch, came second nature to me. I started learning English at age 6 at the privately-funded public school I attended and where I played soccer and other sports, with students from Austria, England and elsewhere. People don't know it, but Holland is a tremendous melting pot.
My brothers — three years older and five years younger — still live in Holland. Our parents are deceased. My father worked as an export manager for a German company that made scales and slicing machines for food stores. My mother worked for a foundation that helped integrate foreign workers into Dutch societies.
Q: How'd you decide on a career in the hotel and restaurant industry?
A: Originally, I planned to study geography and history, because they were subjects I loved. But at the last minute I decided to go to hotel school at Hanze College, some 100 kilometers from my hometown. From age 16, I'd worked as a disc jockey at clubs and restaurants, and my boss was the owner of multiple restaurants. So the industry is what I knew. I graduated third in my class.
Q: What was your first job after college?
A: I worked for a year for a small, family-owned hotel in Switzerland. The owner doubled as the executive chef and his wife, executive housekeeper and front-office manager. I was the maitre d' for two restaurants. It was great hands-on experience. I lived in the hotel and every morning woke to a view of three mountaintops: the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau.
Q: How'd you meet your wife?
A: Some 26 years ago on a weeklong cruise from Cozumel to the Grand Caymans to Ocho Rios, Jamaica. She was a passenger from outside New York City, where she worked as a former claims consultant for Prudential. And I was two years into a stint as maitre d' of the dining room on the ship, one of Carnival Cruise Lines' first three super liners. My college dean referred me for the job, which I loved. But after I met my darling, I worked only one more year before we married and I moved to the states. Over that year, Diane and I kept in touch. I'd send letters and flowers, and at the Grand Cayman post office, would drop $100 for a phone line to talk to her for an hour.
I'd spend an occasional long weekend with her in New York, or she'd join me in Florida when I had a week off.
Q: What's your favorite room in the 225-room Skirvin Hilton?
A: The 20 rotunda suites. They're very unique. Each is one-bedroom and features an adjoining oversized living area, which is situated in the hotel's rotundas.
Q: What are your proudest contributions to the Skirvin so far? What's on tap?
A: I was proud to be a part of planning the hotel's 100th anniversary celebration last year, and, versus one big gala, deciding on a series of public events — from a '20s flapper night in the original ballroom to a '70s disco night in the Red Piano Lounge. I think my proudest moment was when Dannie Bea Hightower — the daughter of the late Dan James, who ran the Skirvin in its glory days — said the celebration would've made her father very happy.
We've recently introduced an 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday brunch in the Park Avenue Grill, with guitarist Edgar Cruz as the entertainment. And in place of our former gift shop, we soon plan to open an art gallery. We've partnered with the Paseo Arts Association to introduce an artist-in-residence program, where we'll every year give free studio space to one emerging artist. We're constantly looking for better ways to not only serve our guests, but also our community.