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Hundreds attend Hotel School's awards dinner in NYC

NEW YORK -- More than 800 alumni, hospitality industry leaders and friends filled the Waldorf=Astoria New York's grand ballroom in Manhattan June 7 to celebrate Drew Nieporent '77 as the 2011 Cornell Hospitality Innovator, and the Hilton family and Hilton Foundation as the 2011 Cornell Icons of the Industry. The Icon award, in its third year, is the School of Hotel Administration's highest award in recognizing business success within the hospitality industry and philanthropic contributions to society.

The event was hosted by the Hotel School and more than 70 corporate sponsors; its proceeds will support some 10 student scholarships and other Hotel School programs.

"In just a couple of years, this event has become one of the largest and happiest and most important events that we have throughout the Cornell universe," said Cornell President David Skorton.

Lee Pillsbury '69, CEO and chairman of Thayer Lodging Group, introduced the event, and Jim Galbraith, a board member of the Hilton Foundation and a former vice president at Hilton Hotels Corp., served as emcee. Entertainment was provided by Lisa Hilton, a jazz pianist (and wife of Hilton Foundation CEO Steven M. Hilton).

Hospitality Innovator

Nieporent, founder and owner of Myriad Restaurant Group and a Hotel School alumnus whom Skorton called "one of the most exciting restaurateurs of our age," opened 35 restaurants in 26 years and built the Myriad group (which operates Tribeca Grill, Crush Wine & Spirits, the Nobu restaurants and more) into an empire while also transforming Manhattan's Tribeca district into a dining destination.

Nieporent (whose business partners have included actors Robert De Niro, Sean Penn and Bill Murray) was briefly roasted by five "Sopranos" actors. "We truly love him -- he is the Tony Soprano of restaurants," the group proclaimed before leaving the stage. A video showcasing Nieporent's impact on the restaurant industry included appearances by Robin Williams and Francis Ford Coppola.

Hotel School Dean Michael Johnson lauded Nieporent's impact on the city and the restaurant industry, and said that while he has earned worldwide recognition, he is also well known for his involvement with local and nonprofit institutions and with the Hotel School itself.

Nieporent, in accepting the award, said he had included his friends "The Sopranos" in the evening because the HBO series was all about tests of loyalty. "Maybe that's what it's all about -- loyalty to your friends, loyalty to your family, loyalty to your business partners and, of course, loyalty to Cornell University," he said to resounding applause.

The innovator award is given annually by Cornell's Leland C. and Mary M. Pillsbury Institute for Hospitality Entrepreneurship.

Icon of the Industry

The Hilton family, the creators and former owners of Hilton Hotels and now stewards of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, was recognized for the impact the family has had on the global hospitality industry and for their philanthropic work.

"Conrad Hilton's mandate to improve the lives of disadvantaged and vulnerable people throughout the world is something that we should all aim to do and certainly something that we can all admire," Skorton said.

Johnson added, "Conrad Hilton believed that travel helped improve understanding among people of the world, and his motto, 'World peace through international trade and travel,' is still relevant today."

Johnson detailed the School of Hotel Administration's long ties to the Hiltons. "Much of our growth and development was made possible by Hilton's acquisition of the Statler Hotel company in the 1950s," he said, explaining that the revenues from that sale enabled the Statler Foundation to fund the Hotel School's buildings, scholarships and the E.M. Statler Professorship that he holds today.

"The growth of the company through subsequent generations of Hilton family leadership is one of the greatest success stories in our industry," Johnson said, adding that "an equally powerful legacy" is that of the Hilton Foundation.

The foundation, through the annual $1.5 million humanitarian prize it grants to a nonprofit organization that works to end human suffering (the largest such grant in the world), has supported efforts and programs to bring safe water to people in developing countries, ongoing research to prevent blindness and programs that help end chronic homelessness.

Hilton family members -- including Hawley Hilton McAuliffe, a member of the Hotel School dean's advisory board, her son Justin McAuliffe '10, and Hilton Foundation CEO Steven Hilton -- accepted the award.

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