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Taking care of business

When Frank Flautt began his career in hospitality and resort management in the early 1960s, he found tutelage under a man the London Times categorized as one of “The 1000 Makers of the 20th Century.” Flautt, a frequent supporter of both academics and athletics, now finds himself in a league of his own.

By Greg Russell

Kemmons Wilson had already experienced one lousy vacation, so he wasn’t about to have another one. The founder of the Holiday Inn hotel chain was on a trip to Cali, Colombia, in South America in 1963 when he checked into a hotel that was under construction only to have a bellman lose his bags. Enter Frank Flautt (BS ’63), who was traveling with Wilson.

“After we couldn’t find our bags, he turned to me and said, ‘I am going to bed, get our bags.’ He went up to sleep and I finally found the bags at 2 in the morning in one of the rooms that was under construction. I was supposed to meet him at 7 the next morning. I came down at 7 and he said, ‘I knew you would find them.’

“That was my relationship with Kemmons. I just carried his bags,” says the humble Flautt, looking back at the incident with a laugh.

Wilson had dreamed up the Holiday Inn concept after a terrible motel experience during a trip to Washington, D.C., with his family in 1951 — there was no such thing as hotel chains that offered consistent quality and value at the time.

Flautt, though, went on to do much more than just find Wilson’s bags: after mentoring under Wilson from 1963 to 1969, Flautt ventured out on his own, using the experience to begin his own empire and forge a reputation as one of the top hoteliers in the world. He was recently named Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association Hotelier of the Year.

Flautt is co-founder of Sandcastle Resorts and Hotels, which developed and operates the Hilton Sandestin Beach, considered one of the southeast’s top resorts, as well as another premier hotel, the Bay Point Marriott Resort and Spa in Panama City, Fla. And more importantly for the University of Memphis, Flautt has been a driving force behind the Wilson School of Hospitality and Resort Management and several projects in athletics.

Frank Flautt was honored as the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association Hotelier of the Year earlier this year.
Frank Flautt was honored as the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association Hotelier of the Year earlier this year.

In 2002, Flautt spearheaded a $3 million fundraising effort to help build the Wilson School, making a personal contribution of $500,000.

 “What is going to make Memphis a better city is education,” Flautt says, explaining his generosity toward the University.

The Wilson School educates students in the hotel and hospitality industry, and includes the on-campus Holiday Inn, made possible by a $15 million gift from Wilson.

What sets the University’s school apart, Flautt says, is that students get a business degree from the Fogelman College of Business & Economics.

“They can start out running. Most of the kids that graduate can get a sales job immediately. I think we still have to prove ourselves, but our initial graduates have done extremely well. We’re writing our own history right now.”

He also thinks it is important to instill in students the values that he learned from Wilson.

“The work ethic he had, it was over the top. His business and family were all he cared about. He’d be up at the crack of dawn and work. The stories that he would eat his dessert first while he was waiting on his meals so he wouldn’t waste any time are true.

“He was a very humble man and he could be very demanding. He would expect the best out of people.”

Flautt says one of the most important things students can learn is “meeting the needs of the customer.” At the Wilson School, he says they can do just that.

Frank and his wife, Brenda, on the Florida Gulf Coast near their home.
Frank and his wife, Brenda, on the Florida Gulf Coast near their home.

Flautt’s ties to the U of M stretch to the Campus School, where he attended before graduating from then-Memphis State University in 1963 with a history degree. But as history shows, he found his niche in another industry.

“I went to Holiday Inn when they were in a period of aggressive growth,” says Flautt, who resides in Santa Rosa Beach, Fla.

“It was akin to somebody asking, ‘Would you like to go to work for Fred Smith?’ when he started FedEx. I just sort of fell into it. The door opened and I was allowed to go to work with the people who started Holiday Inn during a period that was the beginning of the hotel industry as we know it. The interstate highway system was being built and every mom and pop hotel was being bypassed because of that. Kemmons built a room that was comfortable and could be kept clean. Holiday Inn became the icon of travel.”

As national franchise director of international sales, Flautt was responsible for building the Holiday Inn chain outside the United States. He sold licenses for hotels in Mexico, the Caribbean, Canada and Africa, among other places.

“When I went to work for them in ’63, Holiday Inn had opened its 300th hotel. When I left six years later, we had 1,000. It is something that gets into your blood.”

To the point that in 1969, he left Holiday Inn to begin his own hotel legacy.

In 1975, he formed Flautt Properties, which offered real estate services that included development and management. Shortly thereafter, executives at HI named eight of the hotels managed by Flautt Properties in its worldwide “Top 20 Inns.” He later sold the company to pursue expansion of Sandcastle Resorts and Hotels.

“Frank’s drive, insight, focus and pursuit of perfection has made Sandcastles the great hotel company that it is today,” says the company’s CEO, Robert Kamm. “It was his vision 29 years ago that grew into the Hilton Sandestin, one of the finest resort hotels in the country. I know that each and every one of us that have worked with Frank have learned and grown not only as hoteliers, but as individuals.”

His most recent mark on the U of M is in athletics: the Frank Flautt Golf Center on the Park Avenue Campus will be ready this fall.

“We are building the best practice facility in the country,” he says. “Facility design, we are on the leading edge.”

His thoughtfulness hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“Frank has been invaluable to the Tiger Athletic department for many years,” says athletic director R.C. Johnson. “He has been instrumental in helping us establish the Ambassador’s Club and in improving our facilities. Frank stepped forward in 1999 to assist us in building an addition to the Athletic Office Building, which provided offices for both the football and men’s basketball programs. Most recently, Frank took on the challenge of constructing a new state-of-the-art facility for our men’s and women’s golf programs.”

With Flautt’s success in the hotel industry and with his continued support of the U of M, it is safe to say that Flautt has traveled far since that early incident in Colombia.

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