Serge Denis knows he is a stereotype, and he relishes it.
He is a Frenchman who only drinks champagne — no beer, no wine, not even champagne-y sparkling wine. He eats cheeseburgers with a fork and knife. He is a gentleman’s gentleman — a jack of all trades who commands followers, but does so with a servant’s heart.
Denis, 69, was until recently the general manager of the Langham Boston, the Financial District luxury hotel. He is also the man credited with almost single-handedly transforming Boston’s high-end hospitality scene from one of isolated, competing properties to a vibrant, unified team of rivals.
On July 1, after 60 years in hotels — the past 20 in Boston — Denis retired.
His story, one filled with love stories, tropical adventures, celebrity encounters, and even pranks, spans the decades, but friends say the Denis (pronounced di-NEE) people see today was forged when he broke top hotelier tradition in 1995 and decided that instead of moving on after two years to his next perch in another city, state, or country, he would settle down with his wife, Jane, and start a family in Boston.
“I look back frequently,” Denis says. “And my conclusion is always the same: Next to meeting Jane, next to the birth of my children, coming here and staying here was the best thing that has ever happened to me.”
Hotels are his passion.
“I was just starting at the Omni Parker House when he got here. I’ve never seen anyone as consumed — and I mean that in a good way — with the hotel industry as Serge,” says Paul Sacco, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Lodging Association. “He is the hotel industry in Boston. And he has done for the hospitality industry here what Michael Jordan did for professional basketball in the late ’80s: revived it and gave it a boost.”
According to Sacco, once Denis decided to stay in Boston, he fully engaged the city.
“Serge helped us land cultural events that in turn highlighted the city’s hospitality offerings,” Sacco says. “He led the charge in the early ’90s to bring the tall ships here, and he prepared for their arrival with unprecedented parties and receptions for sailors and sportsmen and fans alike. He helped us land soccer World Cup qualifying matches, because of his love for soccer. That in turn led to more World Cup events over the years. And his charity work? Second to none.”
This theme — of Denis being down-to-earth and unpretentious — is a common one among the people who know him best.
“I’ve never met anyone who in spite of being so formal could also be easygoing and bring so-called rival hotels together for the betterment of a city,” says David Colella, vice president and managing director of the Colonnade in Back Bay.
When it comes to style, Denis knows his stuff. His suits are hand-tailored, his shirts wrinkle free, and his collars crisp. His pastel neckties are never askew, and his pocket squares always perfectly proportioned. He was always the first “day shift” employee at the Langham in the mornings. Sneak up on Denis at just the right moment, and you might hear him humming a decidedly un-French Johnny Cash tune, most likely “I Walk the Line,” “Hey Porter,” or “One Piece at a Time.”
And though employees describe him respectfully, a fly-on-the-wall view of those same employees shows them displaying equal parts surprise and amusement when Denis pops up suddenly behind a kitchen service counter to check on things and snag a latte, or when he shows up in a vacant guest room to help the room attendant make the beds or fold towels, or to scribble a hand-written note welcoming the next guest by name.
‘Providing comfort has always struck me as an honorable foundation of my occupation.’
Denis’s hotel career started in Normandy after World War II. The house he was born in, in 1944, just days before D-Day, was bombed into oblivion. So his family retreated to a small inn they’d owned for decades about 40 minutes from Omaha Beach.
“I would say I was age 9,” Denis says, of when he began helping out. “I did everything from cleaning to cooking to running errands for guests. Children say they want to be firefighters and astronauts and cowboys. I said, and knew then, that I wanted to work in hotels.”
His route to management did not pass through a college campus, but rather through the back halls and service entrances at a 4-star hotel near his family inn.
“I served apprenticeships,” Denis says, “learning in that place every aspect of the hotel’s function, from the work of the doormen to the concierge to the room attendants — we do not call them maids or housekeepers — to food service, to management.”
By 18, he felt ready to venture away from France, and Denis, recalling words his father shared when he was a child — “If I wanted to rise in this business, I’d have to embrace an international career” — accepted a position as an assistant manager in a house restaurant at the May Fair Hotel in London.
“It was a little like going to college for me,” Denis says. “The freedom I felt was indescribable, and I never looked back.”
By age 32, Denis had spent years hopping islands in the Pacific, working for Le Meridien. He had achieved his goal, or so he thought, when Le Meridien called him back to Paris and promoted him to general manger of the company’s flagship hotel.
He could have stayed there, but he’d been itching to get to the United States.
“It is ironic,” Denis says. “Reaching the top post at Le Meridien or a hotel like it is a dream for so many in my industry. But personally, I’ve always felt that reaching the United States is a very important dream as well.”
He worked in New York at the Parker Meridien and in New Orleans where he met Jane, his second wife.
“It’s a funny story, how we met,” Jane Denis says. “I was the manager of a group of small hotels in New Orleans, and he had just arrived in the city from New York. He was staying at one of my hotels while his was being built. Well, he’d sent one of his brand new suits for dry-cleaning, and it was ruined. And he was not happy about it.”
Jane could hear Denis at the front desk of her hotel demanding to know what the desk clerk was going to do about his suit. So she emerged from a back office to try to diffuse the situation.
“He smiled. I smiled back. He introduced himself and asked me on a date,” she says. “The rest is history.”
In the years that followed, the Denises lived in New Orleans, San Diego, New York, Paris, and Barcelona, before moving to Boston. And they have the stories to go with the travels. “We were in Barcelona so he could prepare a Meridien hotel for the 1992 Summer Olympics,” Jane says. “And I can’t lie. It was wonderful to spend time with celebrities like Bonnie Raitt and Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson was so taken with my mother, that he made us part of his entourage during the Olympics and made us his guests at his concert there.”
A couple years later, Jane recalls, when the couple lived in New York, Denis would be asked to provide special accommodations for Bubbles, Jackson’s chimpanzee, at the Parker Meridien. “He ended up in the suite next to our apartment in the hotel,” Denis says, cracking the faintest of smiles. “You could definitely tell there was a monkey in the suite next door. Quite noisy.”
Of Boston, Denis says his instinct told him when he and Jane arrived that it would be home.
“This city has a warmth — even when it is cold — that suggests pride, comfort, satisfaction, and contentment all at once,” he says. “It seemed to recognize its great history and aspire to greater and greater things while not being needy or jealous. That was very attractive to me.”
Though he’s retired from hotel management, Denis plans to continue consulting for hotels. The Langham has already contracted him to work on transforming a new property in New York.
“Providing comfort has always struck me as an honorable foundation of my occupation,” Denis says. “I hope to provide some to myself now, but I’ll never be far away from a hotel.”James Burnett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JamesBurnett.