NEW YORK — Frits van Paasschen is standing with his bike on the edge of Central Park. It’s a brisk autumn morning. The city has yet to fully wake, but he’s eager to ride.
The CEO of Starwood Hotels & Resorts — best known for brands like Sheraton, Westin, St. Regis and W — exercises six days a week no matter where he is in the world. These are not light workouts.
Van Paasschen, 52, just completed his first Ironman triathlon — 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of cycling, and a 26.2-mile run. It took 12 hours and 44 minutes.
Since taking over as CEO in September 2007, van Paasschen, a vegan, has injected parts of his lifestyle into Starwood’s hotels. He’s changed menus to make them more healthful, for instance, and made it easier for road warriors to work out.
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Which brings us to a chilly October morning. Dressed in black spandex biking shorts and cycling jerseys, we head out for laps through the park. I am not a triathlete, so van Paasschen promises to take it easy.
“So have you done this before?” he asks. No. Most of my reporting is stationary. “Yeah, I can’t say I’ve been interviewed on a bike either.”
His love of fitness started at age 7 while watching the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics on TV.
“I thought, OK, I’m going to go out and be in the Olympics and I started running,” van Paasschen says. “I realized after a few years there was no way I was going to go to the Olympics, let alone even compete at a high level. But I also just kind of, I just fell in love with doing it.”
Biking came later, when a junior-high-school gym teacher on Mercer Island would take van Paasschen’s class out for long rides at the end of the day.
Starwood guests can see those influences today.
Westin hotels loan guests running shoes and clothing. New menus have been crafted around foods thought to improve well-being such as green tea, honey and blueberries. And the company’s newest brand, Element, offers bicycles.
“The whole idea is that you’ll feel better after your stay,” van Paasschen says as we speed past some joggers. It doesn’t matter that nearly three times as many guests use Sheraton’s free lobby computers than use the hotel gym. It’s important that the gym is available.
“It strikes me that more people have the intention of working out than not,” the CEO says.
The number of Starwood hotels has grown 28 percent during van Paasschen’s tenure to 1,150 today and is expected to hit 1,500 by the end of 2018. His company isn’t the largest; Holiday Inn owner InterContinental Hotels Group holds that title with 4,600 properties worldwide.
But Starwood is trying to position itself as the biggest luxury hotel group. One out of every seven hotels Starwood has planned is a luxury property.
Most of that growth is overseas.
The focus for van Paasschen has been on China, the United Arab Emirates, India and Latin America.
“Wherever there’s the kind of massive growth and urbanization we’re seeing in so many markets around the world, that’s where the majority of new hotels are being built,” he says.
Van Paasschen moved the company’s entire leadership team to Shanghai for a month in 2011 and to Dubai for a month this year. He wants his staff to better understand the cultures where they do business.
We near Central Park’s Great Hill, and I ask if he minds peddling up the steep incline or wants to take a flat shortcut. Van Paasschen says that “climbing is really my great weak spot in cycling.” But then he flies up the hill, answering questions the whole time.
That shouldn’t have been a surprise. Last year, he did a four-day charity bike ride that covered 350 miles from Chamonix, France, through the Alps, to Monaco.
“What I’ve learned is on those climbs, I’m going my own speed and it’s a lot slower than most everybody else’s,” he says.
So, I wonder, is van Paasschen one of the most fit CEOs in America?
“I’m not competing against other CEOs,” he says. “It’s really a kind of a personal goal-setting thing.”
Starwood has made a concerted push to win over road warriors who spend 50, 100 nights a year at hotels. Last year, it introduced a personal ambassador service for its most frequent guests.
“About 2 percent of our travelers account for about 30 percent of our profitability,” van Paasschen says.
Just as we start to break a sweat, it’s time to end the ride. I get the sense van Paasschen wouldn’t mind being out in the park all morning — but he has a scheduled meeting about future hotel development.
We finish our last lap and an aide thanks me for returning her CEO in one piece. I think: He’s the triathlete; I sit in a cubicle all day long. It’s me who’s thankful for being back in one piece.