Solomon (Sol) Kerzner, one of the world’s most innovative hoteliers, founder of the Southern Sun hotel group, Sun International and Kerzner International, has died of cancer at the Kerzner family home, Leeukoppie Estate, in Cape Town, South Africa. Kerzner was a titan of the hotel and resort industry who redefined the scale and scope of integrated destination resorts worldwide. He was 84.
Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, Kernzer founded the country’s two largest hotel groups – Southern Sun and Sun International – and would go on to achieve international prominence with groundbreaking resorts that helped transform the tourism industries not only of his home country but of Mauritius, The Maldives, The Bahamas, Dubai and other important international destinations.
Aged just 26, Kerzner became convinced that there was in South Africa an opportunity for a hospitality offering far ahead of anything that was available then in the country. At a time when no one thought it could be done, Kerzner’s breakthrough project was The Beverly Hills, Umhlanga Rocks, the first five-star hotel in all of South Africa. Built on a deserted stretch of coastline North of Durban, once again Kerzner defied the odds and the hotel became a great success and earned Sol a reputation as South Africa’s pre-eminent hotelier. Kerzner went on to build the 450-room Elangeni Hotel on the Durban beachfront and then partnered with South African Breweries to establish Southern Sun Hotels, which by 1983 operated 30 luxury hotels encompassing more than 7,000 keys.
Kerzner’s most monumental and controversial achievement was the creation of Sun City. Here, in an area north of Johannesburg where there were no roads and no infrastructure, Sol imagined and delivered the most ambitious resort project in all of Africa. Commencing work in 1975, over the next ten years, Kerzner built four hotels, a man-made lake, two Gary Player golf courses and an entertainment centre with an indoor 6,000-seat arena, which played host to a world-class roster of artists including Queen, Frank Sinatra, Liza Minelli, Shirley Bassey, as well as huge world-title fights and many other spectacular events.
In 1994, following the first democratic elections in South Africa, Kerzner was asked by the newly elected President Nelson Mandela to arrange the VIP function for the Presidential inauguration, which was attended by most of the world’s leaders and heads of state. It was a special occasion and one that cemented Kerzner’s close relationship with the iconic world statesman, who said of Sol: “He makes a difference everywhere he goes. Sol, thank you for changing our World!”
In 1994, Kerzner made his first major acquisition outside Africa — The Paradise Island Resort in The Bahamas. Here, he launched a major re-development and expansion project and transformed this bankrupt property into the extravagant Atlantis Resort, a revolutionary 2,300-room resort that included one of the world’s largest man-made marine habitats and the Caribbean’s biggest casino.
Atlantis, with its coherent theme, story and mythical legend, held massive appeal to visitors of all ages. Later expansions at Atlantis of The Cove and The Reef hotels added a further 1,100 rooms.
By this time, Sol was working closely with his son, Butch, whom he had persuaded to move from a promising career in corporate finance to join him at the company, which had then been rebranded as Kerzner International. Sol and Butch’s ascent as internationally acclaimed hoteliers continued and in 1996 the father and son duo built their first casino resort property in the United States — The Mohegan Sun — a property that is still today one of the largest gaming and entertainment complexes in North America.
Sol and Butch went on to launch One&Only Resorts, which established award-winning luxury properties in The Bahamas, Mexico, Mauritius, The Maldives, South Africa and Dubai. True to Kerzner’s nature as an innovator and perfectionist, each One&Only property was not only unique in its design and ambiance, the brand set a new standard in the casual luxury resort space by offering the finest guest experience across every possible touchpoint.
In 2006, Butch Kerzner, who had recently assumed the role of CEO of Kerzner International, was tragically killed in a helicopter accident while scouting for sites in the Dominican Republic. Sol, who was by then Executive Chairman of Kerzner International, decided to return to the role of CEO, to continue the work of the company and to complete what he and Butch had been working on.
Kerzner proceeded to extend the Atlantis brand globally with the development of Atlantis, The Palm in Dubai. This $1.5 billion, 1,500-room destination resort featured the largest aquarium and waterpark in the Middle East, luxury retail outlets, and restaurants featuring internationally renowned celebrity chefs. Opening in late 2008 with the world’s largest ever fireworks display, the astonishing opening party achieved international media acclaim and attracted celebrities and visitors from all over the planet.
In 2009, Kerzner returned to Africa to develop the 500-room Mazagan Beach Resort in Morocco and also opened the One&Only Cape Town, situated in the famous V&A Waterfront.
In 2012, the One&Only Group announced projects in China, Australia, and Montenegro, and the following year saw the unveiling of plans for the third Atlantis Resort on China’s Hainan Island. Proposals to expand Atlantis, Dubai with 800 additional rooms and over 230 luxury residential apartments in the Royal Atlantis development were also announced, with Sol leading the planning and design of these new projects for Kerzner International.
In 2014, Kerzner finally decided to exit Kerzner International and retired as Chairman of the company.
Sol is survived by his children Andrea, Beverley, Brandon and Chantal and ten grandchildren.