Suite career: from bellman to hotel manager
Friends call him “Tycoon Tucker”.
Dennis Tucker got the nickname in the 1970s from the late Alma “Champ” Hunt. The cricketer, widely regarded as one of Bermuda’s greatest, was a frequent visitor to Sonesta Beach Hotel where Mr Tucker worked for almost 30 years.
The former hotelier thinks the name may have been a cheeky reference to his ambitious nature.
At 15 he had to drop out of school after his father, Edward, died suddenly of a stroke, leaving his mother, Annie, to run the home.
He was the seventh of eight children. With most of his older siblings already out of the house, a lot of responsibility fell on his shoulders.
“I was in survival mode,” he said. “Someone had to work and put food on the table and keep a roof over our heads.”
Conditions weren’t easy when he started as a bellman at Coral Beach & Tennis Club in 1961.
“The hotels were always very beautiful environments but the conditions were discriminatory, no question about it,” he said.
Black and white staff were often given separate locker-rooms, and made to eat in different places.
“We couldn’t dwell on it,” Mr Tucker said. “We had to do the best we could to improve our condition.”
It helped that he fell in love with the job.
“I liked the people and the interaction,” the 73-year-old said.
After a year he was moved into the dining room to work as a waiter. He wanted more.
“In the early 1960s, especially being a black Bermudian, the opportunities for advancement were very slim,” he said. “I could have been captain in the dining room, but in those days that would have been as far as I would have gone.”
So after three years he left the Paget hotel for The Reefs. He found a mentor in the Southampton hotel’s controller, John Wilkins, who helped to steer his career in a different direction. Seeing Mr Tucker had a flair for numbers, the Canadian taught him about the business side of hotels, particularly accounting.
“He said if I wanted to learn anything about hotel accounting, I really needed to understand how the night audit was done, and how it all transpired,” Mr Tucker said. “A night audit is where you make sure that all of the charges that are incurred by guests over the course of the day — in restaurants and bars and other areas — is charged to the individual’s room account.”
They would both work a full day and then, at 11pm, go into the office where Mr Tucker’s lessons would begin.
It opened his world. Eventually he began doing night audits — for Marley Beaches, The Reefs and Mermaid Beaches — all between 11pm and 8am.
“I didn’t sleep a lot,” he said. “I was pretty young and had a lot of energy, and I had a lot of ambition.”
In 1976, he was thrilled to be hired as chief accountant at Sonesta.
“I wanted to get into a bigger hotel, so this fit right in with my ambitious plans,” he said.
From there he hopscotched up the ranks — assistant controller in 1977, controller in 1978, director of finance in 1981, general manager in 1998.
“Tourism was incredibly wild in Bermuda at that time,” he said, “We had something like 12,000 beds. Occupancy was incredibly good. Generally, the majority of the hotels back then did incredibly well. It was an exciting time.”
Once general manager, he quickly learnt that the buck stopped with him.
“With 700 guests in the hotel at the height of the season things would go wrong,” he said. “We had a bridal party, and the bride was in one of the suites getting dressed to get married on the hotel grounds. There was a big crowd of her friends and family. She took her bridal gown and hung it from the sprinkler. The sprinkler went off and her dress was soaked. That was an absolute disaster. I had to organise things and deal with irritated guests.”
By then he’d already dealt with one of his biggest challenges: the general strike that hit Bermuda in 1981. More than 10,000 public and private sector workers walked off the job to protest poor wages and working conditions, particularly in the hotel industry. It brought the country to a standstill.
In addition to his duties at Sonesta, Mr Tucker was director of the Hotel Employers of Bermuda, the labour arm of the Bermuda Hotel Association. As such he was part of a team that negotiated with the Bermuda Industrial Union on behalf of the island’s hotels.
“That was probably one of the most stressful times that I spent in the industry,” he said. “I was up to my eyeballs in it.”
The island lost millions of dollars while negotiations dragged on “for about ten days to two weeks”.
A deal reached on May 7 resulted in union workers receiving wage increases averaging 20 per cent, but by that time the entire season was shot.
“If you close down an industry you have a whole island that is closed down,” Mr Tucker said. “You are worried about everything. We had workers who were not working. The most unfortunate part about it was most of the hotels were incredibly busy. We had challenges at the airport trying to get the guests out of the hotels. We couldn’t service the guests so we had to empty the hotel.
“It was a very difficult time. But people did come back.”
When Sonesta was sold in 2003, he decided “it was a good time to move on”.
Months later, it was badly damaged by Hurricane Fabian and closed in 2006.
Mr Tucker took a year off and then joined the Hotel Pension Trust Fund as its chief executive officer and secretary.
So far, he has no plans for retirement.
“I enjoy doing it,” he said. “I am still in good health.”
He’s also involved in a number of civic activities.
“I was appointed a senator by Sir John Swan in 1985,” he said. “It was incredibly interesting and I enjoyed it a lot. Unfortunately, I had a wife and a young family that I needed to worry about also. Back in those days, politics didn’t provide any financial security, so I only spent a year at it. I quite enjoyed it and learnt a lot.”
In 2009 he joined the Corporation of Hamilton as an alderman and councillor, a post he still holds.
He is also a director with the Bank of Bermuda Foundation. Rewarding young people with scholarships for their hard work is a big thrill. He follows the careers of many of them.
“I have been doing that since 1995,” he said. “Over the years I’ve probably done thousands of interviews with young people and seen hundreds get scholarships.”
For fun he loves playing golf with other former hoteliers, particularly at Riddell’s Bay and Port Royal golf courses.
“I am an awful golfer,” he laughed. “I have a 20-plus handicap, but I love the camaraderie, and I like the golf course itself. It is peaceful and incredibly beautiful.”
He and his wife, Joanne, a childhood friend, celebrated their 51st wedding anniversary in January.
They have one daughter, Wendy Tucker-Adams.
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