John Pritzker and I are about the same age, and we both spent part of our high school years in neighboring townships along Chicago's North Shore. Our high schools were arch-rivals, and when we recently met for breakfast, we spent five minutes trying to determine if we knew anyone in common.
When we failed to establish links through schools, Pritzker, the son of Hyatt Hotels and Resorts founder Jay Pritzker, asked, "How about camp? What summer camp did you go to?"
It's been a long time since I'd thought of any camp buddies, but summer camp, it turns out, is very much on John's mind these days. "Summer camp, for me, was probably the most formative part of my life," he said. He paused. "I certainly remember the smile on my parents' faces as they sent me off."
That was said lightly, a sentimental joke rather than an oblique clue into the dynamics of a family as famous for its feuds as for its accomplishments. During Hyatt's initial public offering last year, investors were warned that "disputes among Pritzker family members ... may result in significant distraction to our management, disrupt our business, have a negative effect on the trading price ... and/or generate negative publicity."
"You may have read that our family is going through a restructuring," John said, smiling.
John has spent more time working in Hyatts than any other Pritzker, and his elder brother, Tom, who was appointed by their father to take the lead in managing the Pritzker empire, reportedly said that John is "the only Pritzker who could actually check someone into a hotel."
"I had every shit job in the hotel industry," John told me. "I had an amazing education: steward, banquet waiter, divisional president, managing director. But I'm a busboy at heart and wanted to get back in the service business. And I've got a different take about how to do a resort."
Forbes reported last July that John had acquired, through his investment company, Geolo Capital, the 400-acre Carmel Valley Ranch in Northern California from the Blackstone Group for $20 million. The article noted that the property had been valued at $80 million to $100 million just two years earlier.
But Carmel Valley Ranch is clearly more than just an advantageous business deal to John. On one hand, he can dispassionately describe how it will attract the "active affluents" who work in nearby Silicon Valley. But he also discusses the resort in ways that make it clear it's more than just a financial investment. Developing this resort appears to be an intellectual and emotional retreat for John Pritzker.
The project had been described to me as "an anti-Hyatt" by his public relations team, and he warmed to the description when I asked him about it.
"I wanted to get back into hospitality. I wanted to do something entrepreneurial. The big box hotels are great for what they are, but I don't want to do another urban big box. And I don't want to do just another golf-and-tennis spa, either. I know what I want to do, and if it can't be done on a very fun basis, I don't want to do it."
What Pritzker wants to do is create an environment that is, emotionally, a return to summer camp: a combination of recreation, education and relaxation. And he wants to inject a significant dose of whimsy into the experience.
He wants to keep bees and let guests don beekeeping suits and harvest honey. He's building a tree house for stargazing. He's training his staff to do coin tricks and teaching them how to make origami cranes so they can entertain young guests.
But it's also a sleepover camp for adults. He's planting a two-acre organic garden where guests can pick food for their dinner and then meet in a demonstration kitchen to learn how to prepare it. He's planting a vineyard and is partnering with Kendall Jackson to bottle wine. There will be a yoga platform, an art studio and interpretive sessions around a sacred Native American site that's on the grounds. There are boccie courts, a golf course and a spa.
Pritzker toyed with making a campfire confection, the "s'more," the resort's logo, but instead settled on a swing hanging from a tree. "The swing is the thing," he said. "Without that swing, we take ourselves too seriously. The swing, that's the smile. We're hanging swings everywhere around the resort. To see people swinging on a swing, that'll be a big win for us."
It's tempting to look at John's latest business venture through the prism of his family's public disputes. That would make the description of Carmel Valley Ranch as "the anti-Hyatt" a personal statement.
But in speaking with him about the project, it does not feel like he's running away from anything. Rather, he's venturing toward something that appeals to him very much.
"We want to provide something that the active affluents don't have in their lives," he said. "We want to bring out people's inner child."
For John Pritzker, summer camp provided his best memories, and he's reconnecting to them through a business venture.
He told me that when he first saw the ranch, "by the end of the day, I thought, 'Relax. You can't be this much in love.' But this place is magical. This is summer camp. The best stuff of summer, all year around. Summer camp, without the discipline."
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.