Hotelier Martin Van Der Laan’s career now spans three decades and culminated this week as he was named manager of one of the top 20 Hiltons in the United States.
The Dutch native is the new boss of the Skervin Hilton, Oklahoma City, renowned for its quality. But he cut his teeth here in Grand Cayman, with a stint as general manager at the Marriott from 1997 to 2002.
“I absolutely loved it and could have lived in Cayman forever [but] my son was 12 and we wanted to get him into a middle school in the United States.
“I still have a lot of friends on the island – Rod McDowall, Neil Bryington, Arie at Cobalt Coast, the boys at Deckers – a whole bunch of people that I keep in touch with.” said Mr. Van Der Laan.
Seeing the world
Immediately following the Cayman Islands adventure, the Van Der Laans moved to Boca Raton, Florida, to live and work for the next seven years before a change of direction beckoned.
“I had worked, very early on in my career, for the cruise lines, and through some connections in Florida got an offer to work for the number one, luxury six- star cruise ship company in the world, so I went back to sea for a couple of years with Regent Seven Seas Cruises.
“It was a very drastic change in my career and obviously not something you can do for many years with a family as it’s four months on, two months vacation. I wanted to do it one more time in my career and to have the opportunity to work for the best in the business and travel the world, with my family able to join me on several occasions, was really fantastic.”
That included South America, Alaska, a thousand miles up the Amazon, the top of the world – Iceland, Greenland, the Norwegian fjords – the Baltic, Canadian rivers, the Mediterranean and Caribbean.
“The only ones I didn’t do were Asia-Pacific. If you work on ships the standard joke is that you’ve been around the world but only seen the bar at the end of the pier, but there are a fair amount of opportunities to see things. My favourite city is Buenos Aires – such a vibrant city with a European feel, a lot of culture, the people are very, very nice, well-educated and it’s really a great place. But going to the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg [Russia] is really something you cannot miss either,” Mr. Van Der Laan recalled.
Some of his best experiences include dog-sledding with his kids in Alaska and the first time going under a bridge through the Panama Canal,
Earlier in his career, he was employed by Columbia Sussex, which used to own the Marriott, Westin and Holiday Inn here.
“When I was in Cayman, I was the longest-serving manager for Columbia Sussex and a founding member and first vice-president of the Cayman Islands Tourism Association. It’s a very small community and being involved very much with the community is always looked at in our industry.
“And although Oklahoma City is a very large city, in many ways we have the very same focus as you would have in Cayman – being part of the community. This is the hotel in the city – a partnership between our company, the city and private investors. It’s the pride and joy of Oklahoma City.”
There are many differences between his new base and old base, he explained.
“Oklahoma City people are absolutely crazy about the University football team. It’s a way of life. Oklahoma Thunder is a very high-ranking NBA team and it’s a lot of fun to go there. In fact, we had the LA Lakers and Kobe Bryant staying at the Hilton. We get a lot of NBA teams staying here. There’s hockey and Triple A baseball teams.
“Then there’s Bricktown, an old warehouse area that is being revamped with restaurants, galleries and so on. There’s a lot of banking and energy companies and the state is very vibrant, almost the capital of all the Native American nations, which makes it culturally very interesting.”
Of course, added the Dutch hotelier, there’s no beach and Oklahoma’s windy weather and occasional storms make for some interesting times.
“Some of my favourite Cayman memories are spending time on the beach with my family, my son becoming a certified diver when he was just over 10 years old and the camaraderie between the hoteliers and people I worked with.
“Then of course I loved working with the CITA and helping creating that. There’s a lot of great people, and from a business standpoint I will always remember how we stuck together after 9/11 with the different committees, the government and so on.
“I loved living in Cayman and it was a great, great time. Crime was low, living was great, weather was great and the people you worked with and met were great. I have fantastic memories of the time I spent in Cayman.”