The World Travel & Tourism Council likes to bring a little Hollywood to its world summits. Past speakers have included Robert Redford, Daryl Hannah and former Disney chair and DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg. Redford and Hannah were connected to travel by their environmentalist credentials, Katzenberg via his friendship with Abercrombie & Kent chairman Geoffrey Kent.
But the celebrity guest speaker at the summit last month in Buenos Aires, "The Godfather" director Francis Ford Coppola, has a more direct connection: He owns the Family Coppola Hideaways, a collection of hotels, four in Central America and one each in New Orleans, Buenos Aires and Bernalda, Italy.
I had the opportunity to interview him backstage and, after some hesitation, he told me the next, very surprising destination where he wants to open a hotel: Rockford, Ill.
Why Rockford? There's a film connection. "Rockford was home of the Rockford Peaches. [A founding team of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, the Peaches were the inspiration for the film "A League of Their Own."] Rockford is a cradle of baseball."
As a native Illinoisan, I have to admit I never regarded the town as much more than a perfect example of a Rust Belt city in decline. In 2013, it was ranked third in Forbes' America's Most Miserable Cities.
Although the project initially sounded to me as if it were inspired by another baseball-centric movie, "Field of Dreams" ("If you build it, he will come"), it certainly is likely that if a Coppola hotel is there, the town's misery will be lessened some.
In fact, Coppola said, Rockford could soon be hosting two unique, celebrity-connected properties. Before telling me about the Peaches, Coppola had me guess what the town was famous for, and all I could think of was the band Cheap Trick.
Although it wasn't the answer he was looking for, he said the band's guitarist, Rick Nielsen, also wants to open a hotel in Rockford. "He owns a lot of guitars, and he wants to make a hotel where he could put all of them."
Coppola's project in Rockford, like his previous properties, gets a lift from his view that creating hotels is not so different from making movies.
"It's storytelling," he said. "They're equally rewarding in terms of the satisfaction you get from throwing an idea, a story, out there. But a hotel is living." He paused. "It's more like a play."
And there's one benefit to working in hospitality that he really likes: "In the movie business, you get lucky once in a while, and you make a big hunk of money. But to do that year after year is very hard. If you do the hotel business right, you make a big hunk of money every year, and every year you make 10% more. If you have a good model."
Coppola's model is very much in the auteur mode.
"Basically, all of my places were created totally illogically out of ... just my attraction to a particular place," he said. "So what I am really giving is me. Everything I love and everything my family loves, the guest gets to get that. They get to come with me in my hideaway."
Does he frequent them and mingle with guests?
"Yeah," he said. "This one in Argentina, I hadn't been there for seven years. I didn't realize it was so wonderful. Fits me like a glove because I made it. Does it fit them, the guests, like a glove? I think it does. I think they can feel that this is something that's handmade."
As for interacting with guests, he said, "I like people. I'm in this business because I like people."
Coppola's hotels are boutique size, and he's not interested in going larger.
"The Mandarin Oriental or Belmond, you go to one of these beautiful hotels, and you're rich, and you're going to be paying a lot of money," he said. "You leave your room and you see the next group. They're also rich, but they're doctors instead of billionaires. And you have to deal with these less-rich people who you don't want in your life. Why do you have to look at all their luggage?"
He drew an analogy with early iterations of first-class cabins on airplanes.
"First class was really something," he recalled. "They gave you caviar. What killed first class? Private planes. No rich person will go first class because they can own their own airplane. The same thing is going to happen in the hotel business. In my world, we have the buyout. The hotels are small enough that grandpa can just take all 27 rooms for his children and grandchildren and their nannies. Belmond can't do that. If I were an investor, I would specialize in 30-room hotels."
Leaving the interview, I still couldn't get over Rockford being his next destination. But looking over Coppola's body of work in film and hospitality, it's clear he has succeeded by following his personal vision. Who am I to doubt?
So, if you have clients who want bragging rights of having visited Rockford before it was cool, send them before the celebrity hotels open. But until then, I suggest they overnight in Chicago. It ranked only fourth in the same Forbes list.