January 21, 2012
In the luxury hotel business, a little adventure isn’t such a bad thing.
By Jeffrey Lott
Jason Friedman B.A.’95 says that when he was 10 he wanted to grow up to be a park ranger. He already knew he liked being outdoors more than being inside his family’s Upper West Side apartment. “Before the park ranger idea,” he recalls with a smile, “I wanted to be a garbage collector—riding the back of the truck and crunching up stuff with those big hydraulic jaws.”
His parents—a labor lawyer and a stay-at-home mom—probably weren’t thrilled with that particular career goal, but it was clear early on that, for Friedman, the best way to learn was to experience the natural world, to venture and explore. Now, as a successful hotelier in Bangkok, Thailand, he says he’s found his calling—to design and provide similar experiences for guests in luxury hotels.
The road to Bangkok wasn’t particularly direct. Friedman’s story is something of an odyssey, a circuitous—and often fortuitous—trek. With skill and luck, he often landed just where he wanted to be. He’s tramped across Nepal, mapped routes in Borneo, scuba dived in the Indonesian archipelago, rafted down the Mekong, and mastered elephant polo. In every venture, Friedman’s mantra seems to be, “Sign me up. Count me in.”
Attending Lewis & Clark was one of the pivotal events on his journey. As a high school student at the progressive Millbrook School in New York, Friedman had been active in the Camping Club, the Environment Club, and the school’s one-of-a-kind zoo. Bruce Rinker, his biology teacher there, says that even as a high school student, Friedman impressed him as “a big-picture thinker who also understood the practicalities needed to make things happen.” And his college counselor thought Lewis & Clark would be a good fit.
Once on campus, he quickly zeroed in on ecology—but not with the goal of becoming an ecologist. “Studying ecology gave me a chance to be outside, observing interrelationships in nature,” Friedman says. “I could do the lab stuff, but my passions really lay with being outside with people, taking people outside. That’s where my guiding and experiential passion—providing experiences for people—really took root.”
An early beneficiary of these guided outdoor experiences was Aaron Meyer B.A. ’95, a transfer to Lewis & Clark who met Friedman in a chemistry lab shortly after arriving in Portland. “He became my best friend in five minutes,” Friedman says.
“We both had long hair, and we just started talking,” Meyer recalls. “It turned out Jason was really into the outdoors and was an experienced backpacker and camper. He could identify all the trees and plants of the Northwest. I was just getting into camping, and he had the equipment and the car, so bang, we just hit it off.”
Meyer, now a concert rock violinist based in Portland, could not have known then that the two of them would take off after graduation for a yearlong backpacking adventure across South Asia: Nepal, India, Bangladesh, Burma, south China, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. He describes Friedman as “innovative, very creative, incredibly intelligent, a great teacher—and someone who marches to his own beat.”
The two are still friends, and Meyer has performed at Friedman’s hotels, like the Four Seasons Golden Triangle, which Friedman opened for the luxury chain and managed from 2004 to 2008.
As his senior year began, Friedman—who majored in biology and calls himself “an observational biologist”—was contemplating a forestry career in the Pacific Northwest, not a far cry from his childhood ambition. Having already earned enough credits to graduate, he convinced Roger Paget, now professor emeritus of political economy and Asian studies, to let him join the spring 1995 overseas study program to Indonesia. The trip opened up possibilities that Friedman had not even dreamed about.
Paget notes that every graduate he meets “seems to mention, without any prompting from me, that there were faculty at Lewis & Clark who took them seriously and who somehow nudged them toward their own possibilities.” Friedman says that Paget was that faculty member: “Roger turned me on. Lewis & Clark turned me on to where I am today.”
“Jason almost didn’t get to go to Indonesia,” Paget says. “He had mediocre recommendations from a few other faculty members, but he came to me with a research proposal to study the country’s ecotourism possibilities. He talked his way into the program—and in the end, he wrote one of the two best papers among those 26 students.”
One of Paget’s many Indonesian connections was historian and diplomat Des Alwi, the so-called “king of the Banda Islands.” The islands just happen to be one of the top diving destinations in the world. Alwi, who owned a dive business there, took a shine to Friedman and offered him a job as a divemaster. So when the rest of Paget’s group returned to Portland, Friedman stayed. Except for short visits—including Lewis & Clark’s commencement (which he promised his parents he would attend)—he didn’t return to the States for three years.
Asked how Meyer might describe him, Friedman says his friend would see him as “a bit crazy—passionate, determined, driven, adventurous, eccentric, loyal, unconventional—did I say crazy?” He seems to be all of those things, but he has also carefully built a reputation in the hospitality industry that’s landed him management positions at some of the world’s top hotels.
At the Four Seasons Golden Triangle, Friedman was responsible for the development of the “guest experience”—everything guests did at the camp. Working with the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, he developed the hotel’s elephant program. “The entire three-night experience was planned and choreographed long before the hotel opened,” Friedman says. He toured the best safari camps in Africa to benchmark the experience and what made it work, then hired and trained the staff, living at and operating the camp for three years until it was rated by Condé Nast Travelers Readers Choice as the No. 1 hotel in the world.
“All along, I knew I could not compromise my ethics and morals toward people and environment for the sake of luxury development,” Friedman says. “I knew that for me to achieve my personal and professional goals, I needed to find that perfect mix of luxury experience that also benefited the natural environment and the local people.”
Friedman’s initial gigs in the hospitality industry were quite different from the Four Seasons Golden Triangle. During the three-year period after graduating from Lewis & Clark, Friedman spent most of his time setting up adventure tourism and ecotourism experiences in Indonesia. “I was an expedition leader on a luxury cruise ship. I set up Kayak Indonesia, which eventually became Adventure Indonesia,” Friedman says. “On the coast of Sulawesi, I started a little dive school that eventually evolved into Indo-Pacific Divers and Sulawesi Dive Expeditions.”
He says the best diving was in the middle of the Bunaken National Marine Park, but there were no good accommodations, so he started his first hotel. “It was 10 bucks a day for three square meals, a bed to sleep in, and some brackish water to throw down the toilet and maybe take a shower with,” Friedman says. But the work made sense to him.
“It was during this period I finally understood that this is what I do,” he says. “I house people in cool places so that they can have cool experiences like the ones I was having.”
Then, one day in the fall of 1997, a chartered fishing boat showed up at the dive camp—bringing another bit of good fortune. Friedman explains: “A gentleman in a fedora, looking kind of out of place, walks up on my beach and says, ‘Are you Jason Friedman?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, who wants to know?’ Turns out this guy’s from Jones Lang Lasalle, the global real estate company. He’s representing investors who want to do some business in the Bunaken area—and my name came up as the only foreigner out in these parts.”
As the two men talked, the fellow in the fedora happened to mention hotel school. Friedman said, “What? You mean there are schools for this?” The next time he visited family in New York for the holidays, he contacted Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration—considered the best in the country. The school expressed interest in his unusual background; he went for an interview and applied. Then he returned to Indonesia to survey a west-to-east trekking route across central Borneo. He was accompanied by Jeff Lemire B.A. ’95, his former roommate at Lewis & Clark.
Lemire, now a theatre technical director, says he “never would have done an excursion like that with anyone else. Jason was the consummate professional—doing the research, negotiating all the arrangements, hiring local guides. All I had to do was show up with my gear.”
“We were in the jungle for 32 days,” Friedman says, “out of communication for most of that time. As we came out of the jungle, the news got to us that Suharto, the dictator at the time, had been overthrown by students. Indonesia was in absolute chaos. The villages were in turmoil. Heads were being taken. It was pretty messy. Jeff and I ran the Mahakam River from its headwaters to the coast to get out—a long trip.
“When I got to a phone and called home, my parents asked when I was coming back to New York. They also told me I had gotten into Cornell, and the program would start in two weeks. It took me a while to get out of Indonesia, but I finally made it back to New York. From there, I went straight to Ithaca to start my master’s.”
Once again, Friedman, equipped by experiences no one else had, found a fortuitous circumstance. He knew what he wanted from Cornell—the management tools to provide his guests with a different sort of luxury, an unforgettable experience. Having stayed at many of the world’s top hotels in his youth, he had developed a different take on the meaning of luxury. “It’s not about gold-plated faucets,” he says. “My idea of luxury is something experiential in a far-flung corner of the world. It’s about the people you interact with and the places and situations you do it in.”
Two graduate internships at Raffles hotels took him straight back to Southeast Asia—to Singapore and later to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where the famous Hotel Royal was getting back on its feet after a devastating civil war. He later worked at hotels in Bali, New York, and Chiang Mai, Thailand, before legendary entrepreneur Bill Heinecke picked him to open the Four Seasons Tented Camp in the Golden Triangle.
Tucked away along the Mekong River, where the borders of Burma, Laos, and Thailand converge, this hotel has no rooms—just a set of 15 luxury tents that, in the words of the hotel’s website, “echo the romantic spirit of 19th-century explorers.” Activities at the camp are built around jungle pursuits for active adults—especially elephants, which guests have the opportunity to ride and to take on treks. The cost for a three-day stay: in excess of $7,500 per tent.
Friedman believes that for his well-heeled customers, a hotel like this can have “a greater positive net effect” on people and the environment than any other form of travel. “I’m going to give our customers an experience that’s so incredible they’re going to donate $10,000 a year to take an elephant—and the family that takes care of it—off the streets of Bangkok,” he says. “To people who can afford anything, a big fancy hotel room doesn’t mean much—it doesn’t have any value. What they do value is a great experience, something unique and special, that’s rewarding emotionally.”
While Friedman was at the Tented Camp, the hotel arranged to rescue 31 elephants, Friedman says. Four Seasons and the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation built a village for the Thai mahouts (elephant keepers) and their families, who receive health care and schooling for their children. In partnership with the nearby Anantara Golden Triangle hotel, Four Seasons set up a private foundation to take donations and assist with elephant rescues, which usually include bringing the mahout and his family to the village. And, Friedman says, “I wrote into the hotel’s operating manual that the resort’s elephants would receive the absolute best care available anywhere. Not just adequate care, but absolute best care.”
Professor Roger Paget, who has stayed in touch with Friedman over the years, observes that his former student has “carved out an extraordinarily individualistic career that exemplifies what can happen to a liberal arts graduate. He’s bigger than life in some ways, but his substance has been proven over and over again.”
Friedman’s friend Aaron Meyer, with whom he shared seven months on the roads and rivers of South Asia in 1995 and 1996, still marvels over their trek together: “Honestly, I was just along for the ride. Jason knew a lot more than I did about these places and what he wanted to do. I was just excited to be there. What made it so special was having a friend along that you trusted and were comfortable with.”
Meyer remembers idyllic weeks spent in Siem Reap, Cambodia, near Angkor Wat. In 1996, deposed dictator Pol Pot was still fighting a low-level civil war, so there were almost no other foreigners at the famous temple complex. “We could go out to Angkor at five in the morning and be the only people there to watch the sunrise,” Meyer remembers. “And at some of the smaller temples, there was no one around for miles. Just to climb up and look out over the forest canopy and see the hills in the distance was breathtaking—and very, very inspiring for both of us. I take that inspiration and use it to create music.”
And what does Jason Friedman do with it?
“Jason? He creates a lot of things. But right now, you know, he’s creating experiences,” says Meyer. “Unforgettable experiences.”
Jason Friedman is currently general manager of The Siam, a luxury boutique hotel scheduled to open in January 2012. He was interviewed on Skype.
Writer Jeffrey Lott rode an elephant in Thailand as recently as February. He lives in Yorklyn, Delaware.