Craig Greenberg, 21c Museum Hotels

For some, the hospitality industry is a lifelong goal, a way to follow in the footsteps of family members who came before. For others, it’s a completely unexpected path. Craig Greenberg, president and CEO of 21c Museum Hotels, falls into the latter group.

“I never thought I’d be in the hospitality business but, in hindsight, many helpful experiences along the way helped to prepare me for my current role,” he said. “I used to practice law and was introduced to 21c’s founders on a professional blind date in 2001. We hit it off personally and professionally and have been working closely together since.” Greenberg helped founders Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown arrange the financing and tax credits for the first 21c in Louisville and, over time, provided input on more and more topics, culminating in his appointment to president of 21c in 2012. “My legal experience has come in handy given our company’s focus on development, and my early interest in community and civic service is now expressed through our focus on hospitality and revitalizing communities,” he said.

21c Museum Hotels may just have been the perfect fit for an industry outsider. “It was founded in 2006 to revitalize our hometown of Louisville, KY, through contemporary art… None of us were from the hotel industry, so we broke rules we didn’t know existed,” Greenberg said.

A few months ago, Greenberg succeeded Wilson as CEO of the hospitality company. “I have a very special relationship with Steve, who continues to be as active as ever with the company,” Greenberg said. “We complement each other well. We’re also fortunate to have a senior leadership team that has been working together for a long time. Given the unique culture, focus and mission of 21c, our collective leadership team is really what’s driving 21c’s guest satisfaction and growth.”

During Greenberg’s tenure as president, the company has expanded from its flagship in Louisville to include properties in six additional markets, overseen real estate developments in excess of $380 million, and organized more than 100 exhibitions in over 75,000 sq. ft. of exhibition space. 

“Of everything we’ve done with 21c over the past 11 years, I’m most proud of the fact we’ve created more than 1,000 jobs for my colleagues,” Greenberg continued. “That is very rewarding. I also love seeing the results of our team’s effort and creativity; whether I’m walking into a 21c on opening day or long after it’s opened, seeing the positive, inquisitive reactions that our guests have in our galleries and restaurants makes all the hard work worth it. There’s nothing better than meeting someone and having them say, ‘You have to build 21c in my hometown!’”

In addition to the Louisville property, there are 21c hotels in Bentonville, AR; Cincinnati; Durham, NC; Lexington, KY; Nashville, TN; and Oklahoma City, with another property scheduled to open in Kansas City, MO, in mid-2018. “We’re restoring the historic Savoy Hotel and Grill, and creating more than 6,200 sq. ft. of exhibition space,” he said. “We are also actively working on the development of a 21c Museum Hotel as part of a mixed-use project in the Miami Design District. And, we hope to announce several other projects in 2018. We expect the coming years to be very active… I think you’ll soon see 21c in larger cities than we have historically focused on—cities like New Orleans, Chicago, Houston, L.A. and Seattle would all be great fits for us.”

Each 21c Museum Hotel is anchored by a multi-venue contemporary art museum with rotating, curated exhibitions, interactive site-specific art installations and cultural programming. This focus on art and local programming is something many hotel companies are investing in. “Saying this is easy. Doing it is more difficult. 21c does it,” Greenberg said. “Today, it seems every new hotel markets itself as an art hotel with a focus on local experiences. Our founders started 21c to revitalize a part of our downtown through accessible and innovative contemporary art experiences. We are not an art hotel, but a museum hotel; that is our DNA and who we will always be. I think other brands that share this commitment will survive and thrive, while those that simply see this as a marketing strategy for a niche demographic will soon be looking for a new conversion concept… In the future, I think the most interesting and successful hotels will be those conceived around a strong point of view—not just around art, but around many other concepts that have yet to be woven into innovative hospitality experiences.

“Lots may have changed around the edges over the past 11 years, but what hasn’t changed is our focus on creating energetic, comfortable and creative experiences through contemporary art and great hospitality,” Greenberg continued. “Today’s traveler wants to learn, and there are countless opportunities for 21c to educate and inspire our guests. We want to continue providing guests with unexpected encounters. 21c will always be a place to share new ideas, stimulate thought and encourage conversation—we believe that learning is the new luxury in travel.” HB

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