This article is part of an in depth special report on the Lebanese in Brazil. Read more stories as they’re published here, or pick up July’s issue at newsstands in Lebanon.
Despite its size, the 416-room Maksoud Plaza has a cozy feel, like a comforting but well worn bar. While the interior is sharp and clean, it maintains a rustic charm that points toward its former glories.
This partly comes from a strong sense of its history — the 35 year old hotel is the oldest five-star venue in São Paulo. In 1981 Frank Sinatra played one of his last ever Latin American concerts there, while other Western stars to have frequented the place in its musical heyday include Mick Jagger and Ozzy Osbourne. These kind of extravagances were the work of the then-owner Henry Maksoud. A self-made businessman, the engineer and entrepreneur became one of Brazil’s most prominent and powerful businessmen in the second half of the 20th century. His Hidroservice company designed major engineering projects across the world, while he also established a powerful computing company. In the late 1970s he decided to put some of his profits into establishing the hotel. Despite his empire, he always maintained a “Lebanese attitude” to running his companies, according to his grandson Henry Maksoud-Neto. What he means by this is summed up in a Brazilian saying that the owners should have their ‘bellies on the table’ in all matters. “We try to to work like a shop, [to be] close and personal with the business. I interview all employees personally and I think this makes a difference in the service and the guests,” says Maksoud-Neto, who has been running the hotel for four years but working there for 14.
“Forty percent of all employees have been here more than ten years and we think this reflects [positively] on our business. We have conferences that have been coming here for 30 years — it is good for the client. This is one of the well known characteristics of the hotel.”
Maksoud senior came across hard times in the 1990s, with many of his interests failing — though the hotel survived by shifting into other areas. Nowadays it has a more serious reputation as among the city’s top venues for conferences and business events. Maksoud died earlier this year, yet his grandson plans to keep the hotel growing in a similar fashion.
Currently turnover is around 50 million Reals ($22 million) and there are plans afoot to open two new hotels in the coming years, one in Manaus and another elsewhere in the state of São Paulo. Yet the country’s economic woes — with interest rates of 12–14 percent on borrowing and high inflation — have put these projects on the back burner.
And the carnival atmosphere currently sweeping Brazil is notable for bypassing Maksoud-Neto, who points out that the World Cup has actually hurt business. In June last year, he says, occupancy rates were 70 percent, this year they are as low as 45. “It is terrible for us. We normally have in June a strong month for business — a lot of people come from abroad … but during the World Cup, people don’t do business, so the hotel is suffering a lot with low occupancy.”