The travel industry has evolved thanks in large part to the ingenuity of the late Ralph Bahna, MBA 65By Laura Counts
When Ralph Bahna thought of adding an automated check-in machine to save travelers from waiting in line at his newly launched Club Quarters hotels, he and his business partner headed to the basement to build a prototype from an old printer and a card reader.
The basement workshop is a familiar story for new college grads bootstrapping their first startup. The difference is that Bahna, MBA 65, was already a successful executive, having revitalized Trans World Airlines (TWA) with a pioneering business class and having helped launch the cruise industry by re-imagining Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth 2 (QE2) as a luxury vacation.
“He was a big thinker. No detail was too small or too big,” says Allen Stevens, who co-founded Club Quarters with Bahna and serves as vice president of parent company Masterworks Development Corp. “The automated check-in machine was just one of his many innovations that took over—you see them now at every airport.”
In recognition of his career as a transformational figure in the travel industry, Bahna is the posthumous recipient of the Haas School’s 2014 Leading Through Innovation Award, given at the annual Haas Gala on Nov. 14. Bahna passed away in February at the age of 71. His wife, Dorothy, and family have accepted the honor on his behalf.
“If a person can add another half hour or an hour in a week [to thinking], their power increases immensely.”
The award was created to celebrate alumni who embody the Haas spirit of innovation and serve as exemplars to others. Bahna was also a member of the Haas School Board. He helped shape the Innovative Leader Curriculum and created the Bahna Initiative, which enables Berkeley-Haas to forecast and imagine the future of graduate business education, especially within the digital sphere.
Bahna’s former colleagues and family members say he had an exceptional ability to step back from the details, look at the big picture, and quickly boil it all down. Jeff Boyd, chairman and former CEO of Priceline.com, says Bahna advised company founder Jay Walker on how to operationalize the “name-your-own-price” travel concept. During Bahna’s 2004 to 2013 tenure as chairman, Priceline’s stock price rose 4,000 percent as it grew into the country’s biggest online travel agency.
“When he became chairman, senior leadership dialogues had been largely transactional, as in ‘what are we doing today?” Boyd says. “He led a deep dive into what was going to drive the business over the coming years and had us look at things more strategically.”
Bahna made that type of higher-level thinking an intentional part of his routine.
“If a person can add another half hour or an hour in a week [to thinking], their power increases immensely,” he told incoming Haas MBA students at a rare 2012 orientation-week appearance.
Bahna was scrupulous about maintaining company confidentiality and avoided the personal spotlight—his 2012 talk was only the second time he had spoken publicly in 20 years. Yet he was no wallflower: he had a personal magnetism and compassion that drew others to him.
His son, Adam Bahna, also a vice president at Masterworks, says one of the reasons people responded to his father was because he listened to them—and listened with purpose. No matter where he went or whom he met—a CEO across a negotiating table, a cabbie stuck in traffic, or a fellow passenger on his commuter train—he’d develop a rapport, diagnose their problems, and find reasonable solutions.
“He was switched on all the time and a tireless worker,” he says. “He was a builder: of relationships, of jobs, of family, of value, and even of buildings. He was a constant creator in everything he did.”
Ralph Bahna addressing new MBA students in 2012. The founder of the Club Quarters hotel chain and former chair of Priceline.com, Bahna also invented business class and automated check-in machines and helped launch the cruise industry.
A native of Grand Rapids, Michigan, Bahna was a Big Ten wrestling champion at the University of Michigan before earning his MBA at Berkeley and taking his first job as a commercial sales manager at TWA. It took him two years and more than two dozen documents to convince his superiors to try his plan for a new seating class to capture the business travel market. His highly successful Ambassador Class, with its added amenities and price point below first class, was the first of his innovations to be widely imitated.
In 1973, at age 30, Bahna became president of Cunard Lines and CEO three years later. He put Cunard on a strict financial austerity plan. (“They were doomed by the jet but operated as if they weren’t,” he told BerkeleyHaas magazine in a 2012 interview.) He set his sights on overhauling the aging steam liner QE2 into a luxury vacation at sea. Among his innovations: an on-board computer center allowing people to take classes along the way, and—in a stroke of marketing genius—a partnership with British Airways to fly passengers one way on the Concorde. Cunard became the biggest buyer of Concorde seats.
Stevens says Bahna drew on lessons from the cruise industry when they developed Club Quarters—a line of membership-based hotels in high-demand urban centers. Stevens, who had been with Sea-Land and U.S. Lines, had partnered with Bahna to design a more cost-efficient cruise ship. When the financing fell through, they turned their attention to real estate.
The idea behind Club Quarters was “to have the best locations, be full service, charge less, and still make a big profit,” Bahna told BerkeleyHaas. Club Quarters now operates 17 hotels in the U.S. and London.
“What he would do was look at every single thing that goes on in a hotel and look for win-win situations that cost us less and give the customer more,” says Stevens.
Adam Bahna says even with his repeated successes, his father remained humble and maintained his tireless work ethic.
“He was the guy coming up with the ideas. But he wouldn’t say he was a genius or focus the spotlight on himself,” Bahna says. “He would say almost anyone could do it. He would preach about reading a huge amount and thinking clearly. He asked questions until he understood a situation, then he could simply define the problem and come up with creative solutions, often challenging the status quo.”
In addition to his wife, Dorothy, and his son, Adam, Bahna is survived by his daughters, Laura Lovejoy and Deborah Chrabolowski; his sister, Joanne Deeb; and eight grandchildren.