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Resort legend, Lyft founder honored with Hotel School awards

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Joe Schwartz
John Zimmer

Diane Bondareff/Provided
John Zimmer ’06, co-founder and president of Lyft, speaks at the ninth annual Cornell Hospitality Icon & Innovator Awards.

The School of Hotel Administration honored a hotel industry legend and a pioneer in ride-sharing apps at its ninth annual Cornell Hospitality Icon & Innovator Awards June 6 at The Pierre in Manhattan.

Icon Steve Wynn, CEO of Wynn Resorts, reinvigorated Las Vegas tourism and launched casinos and resorts around the world. Innovator John Zimmer ’06 is changing the way we think about urban transportation, thanks to his ride-sharing company, Lyft.

More than 400 students, faculty and supporters attended the fundraiser.

“Every dollar raised here tonight goes to scholarships,” said Kate Walsh, dean of the Hotel School and the E.M. Statler Professor. She thanked the many sponsors of the event. “It helps us attract the best of the best.”

Among that set is Zimmer, the Hospitality Innovator Award winner and the co-founder and president of Lyft.

Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 introduced Zimmer, saying he always looked up to his friend during Zimmer’s years on campus.

“When I was a freshman at Cornell 12 years ago, I decided I wanted to be like John Zimmer, and I still do,” Myrick said.

Zimmer said that during a city-planning class at Cornell, he learned that cars remain parked 96 percent of the time, and he noticed how many students were riding solo in their automobiles. Zimmer applied his knowledge of hotel room occupancy to transportation efficiency by co-founding a rideshare platform named Zimride.

Zimmer’s current business venture, Lyft, has been giving Uber a run for its money. Lyft is currently valued at about $7.5 billion.

During his acceptance speech, Zimmer predicted that cities will move away from private car ownership in favor of ride-sharing, mass transit, and pedestrian and bike access within 10 years – transforming millions of wasteful parking lots into parks, affordable housing and new commercial real estate.

“Growing up, I didn’t think I’d be an entrepreneur. I thought I’d be a doughnut maker,” Zimmer said, recalling how he loved to go to Dunkin’ Donuts with his mother. He also wanted to be a magician. He loved making people happy, he said. “I knew I was very interested in hospitality.”

Walsh, Stone and Wynn

Diane Bondareff/Provided
Kate Walsh, dean of the Hotel School and the E.M. Statler Professor, Bradley Stone ’77, of Global Gaming Asset Management LLC, and Steve Wynn, CEO of Wynn Resorts, at the Cornell Hospitality Icon & Innovator Awards.

Zimmer said every time he went to class at Cornell, he walked past a quote by legendary hotelier and benefactor E.M. Statler that reads: “Life is service – the one who progresses is the one who gives his fellow man a little more, a little better service.”

As a new father, Zimmer said he is more motivated: “I’ve seen that life is service. We should and we must build a more hospitable, just and magical world.”

While, Zimmer’s career path started at Cornell, Wynn’s began earlier, in the family business.

Wynn took over his family’s Maryland bingo parlors when he was just 21 and built Atlantic City’s Golden Nugget Hotel & Casino when he was 31. He is best known for revitalizing the Las Vegas Strip and developing luxury hotels and casinos worldwide. He developed the Mirage, Bellagio, Wynn Las Vegas and Wynn Macau, among others.

Wynn recalled how he had once been invited to Ithaca to give a lecture and to share a case study.

He decided to read “The Three Little Pigs.”

The casino mogul said the children’s book sums up how to become a success in business: with patience, perseverance, ingenuity and determination. “Everything you need to know is in ‘Three Little Pigs,’” he said. “Spread some money around. Hang out with your friends and build houses of brick.”

Wynn was introduced at the ceremony by Bradley Stone ’77, partner of Global Gaming Asset Management LLC, who said: “When it comes to great service, Steve does not know the word compromise. It has to be the best.”

In the audience was more than half of the school’s faculty. There were also many of the students who had benefited from scholarships funded by events like the awards dinner.

The parents of Sharonee Vaea ’19 were among the attendees. Describing themselves as people of modest income, Cecelia Santos and Ramiro Vaea said they are so proud of their daughter, who spoke in a video that aired during the dinner. At just 19, Vaea was working as an aviation mechanic at New York’s JFK Airport when she received a full scholarship to attend the Hotel School. She’s now interning at Delta Airlines in Atlanta.

Jon Craig is a freelance writer.

Editor’s note, Feb. 9, 2018: Following allegations of sexual misconduct by Steve Wynn, the School of Hotel Administration rescinded the 2017 Hospitality Icon Award.


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