On his first day on the job, Hans Gerhardt met Sophia Loren. And it was pretty much uphill from then on.

“I was a huge fan. I was completely in awe,” says the former president and managing director of the Sutton Place Hotel. “This was pretty good for someone who used to be a cabin boy.”

Since his first meeting with celebrity on that April day in 1986, Gerhardt has met plenty of stars at the Bay Street hotel, encounters he recalls fondly in his recently published memoir, Hotelbiz.

The city has many more luxury hotels today. But in an era when there were few upscale brands in Canada, the now retired Gerhardt himself became the face of luxury in Toronto.

He was also an early pioneer in understanding the link between celebrity and destination marketing.

In the 1980s, the Sutton Place was celebrity central largely because of him. For one thing, he actively courted the Hollywood set, treating them like royalty before it was common for actors and musicians to have their names on perfume bottles and clothing lines. He also understood the halo effect that celebrities had on his establishment.

But perhaps Gerhardt’s finest talent was in understanding marketing and media, which, combined with his outsized personality, allowed the hotel to punch above its weight against the big luxury hotel chains of the day.

General managers are generally faceless today, content to rely on the large marketing machinery provided by their brands. Gerhardt had to work harder to get attention.

“We didn’t have a chain or have a large back office reservation system at the time, so we had to fight for business,” he said. “And the best way to get business was simply to be there for people and go the extra mile. Good service never goes out of style.”