Alessandro Zampedri is famous for the last reason a race car driver wants to be famous. In 1996, as he was about to finish fourth in the Indianapolis 500 when his red IndyCar collided with two other cars and flipped into the straightaway fence. Tires and debris covered the track and the smoking cockpit slid across the tarmac as ambulance sirens broke into the announcement of Buddy Lazier's victory. Thousands of people watched and wondered how anyone could possibly survive such a crash.
For Zampedri, the answer to that silent question is a bloody and painful memory. In a split second his life changed course.
Today, Zampedri is the co-owner of The Bowery House, Manhattan's much acclaimed hostel-cum-boutique hotel. Ever the competitor, just five months after opening an acclaimed spot for discerning budget travelers (and hipsters), Zampedri is now looking to expand that business and potentially open similar "houses" across America in an attempt to cater to an audience that wants to visit great cities, not hang out in hotel rooms. Zampedri says that the notion behind his business, that something need not be plush to be comfortable will inform the restaurant he hopes to open beneath The Bowery House.
HuffPost Travel's Andrew Burmon caught up with Zampedri to talk about how he went from airborne driver to prominent hotelier and what he's planning for his next trick. (*SEE PHOTOS BELOW*)
Andrew Burmon: Would it be fair to say that your career in the hotel business began with a horrible accident?
Alessandro Zampedri: Maybe. I became a driver when I was 18 and I would say that my real professional career ended in 1997, after my famous crash during the Indy 500. It took me about 12 surgeries and about a year to get back even though I wasn't at the best of my shape. I almost lost my left foot and part of my leg. It took the doctors a huge effort to put my legs back to better. Still, at that time, I just wanted to get back to racing.
AB: What happened when you tried to go back?
AZ: I entered the Indy 500 again in 1997, but it was a bit complicated. On Bump Day [the final day of the time trials drivers participate in to qualify for the race], we had ten minutes to go before the end of the session. I do my first few laps and I've got the time to qualify, but on the third lap it starts raining. I see drops in my helmet and on the windshield. I had to decide to keep it down and go to the end of it or lift it up and I was afraid we'd go full course yellow because you can't race in the rain. I was just scared and it was an amazing moment for me. I kept my foot down and though I lost a bit of speed, I managed to finish and qualify.
In the race, I didn't do well because the engine blew up early. Still, driving like that was really important for me mentally to recover and get out of the mess I was in even though that day really ended my racing career.
AB: What did you do after your career as a driver came to an end?
AZ: I came back to Brescia, where my family had car dealerships and a fleet management business. I took over as CEO of the company in 2004. I was sort of forced to do it, because my brother wanted to do something else and my father was getting old. We wanted to sell it, but it wasn't that big so the idea was to build it up and sell it.... We sold on September 15, 2008, the day that Lehman crashed.
After that I started a new life in Manhattan real estate. But I still wanted to do something in the hospitality industry. I love food and my family has vineyards where we make our own sparkling wine so I had enthusiasm for that.
AB: Had you always wanted to something with hotels?
AZ: Hotels have been my second home for years. If you can think of a place, whether it is in Mexico or Asia or wherever, I feel like I have probably stayed there. As a driver, I it felt like I was always in a hotel. And staying in hotels meant a lot to me. I didn't see it as a bad thing.
AB: How did the idea for The Bowery House come about?
AZ: Well, with this spectacular piece of property me and my partner Sanford Kunkel, who is the son of one of the doctors I got to know while recovering from my crash in Indianapolis, found at the crossroads of SoHo and Nolita, we could actually sell a bed for $60 a night. There are maybe five buildings like this in Manhattan that have the zoning that would allow for this type of thing. We're very lucky. But we didn't want to do something just cheap. We wanted to do something nice. So the concept became about giving guests very few things -- you could say some stuff that is very on the border, like shorter beds -- but have those few things be of a superior quality. Our beds are short, but the mattresses are top notch orthopedic. We have heated floors in the bathroom and imported fixtures from France. Are the bathrooms communal, yes, but people don't have bathrooms like this in there house.
The other thing is cleanliness. We're obsessed. The whole thing gets cleaned like every 45 minutes. We wanted to charge more than a regular hostel and we wanted to give a sort of different experience.
AB: Can you describe your clientele?
AZ: We have people from all over. These people want a place they can be comfortable. They don't want to spend their time in New York City in their room. We have return customers and even independent businessmen. They work in the record industry or in the arts and they like the vibe. There is someone in the common room on a Skype call to his family in Japan and maybe some Europeans just hanging out. The place is friendly.
AB: Now that business is booming, what's next?
AZ: We are definitely looking to have other locations. We're already looking to another two or three cities. The ideals cities have to have a certain flair and certain type of accommodation so we're looking at San Francisco, Los Angeles, D.C. and Boston. Chicago might work too. We'd definitely love to expand, though when I think we've just been open for five months, I think that this is crazy. I also think people appreciate what we've done.
Now that the economy is the way it is people will accept some compromise if they place is clean and nice and the staff is helpful and has a friendly approach. We're not a standard hotel. We don't have uniforms. We're not formal or very serious. We try to be helpful.
AB: And the big news for The Bowery House?
AZ: Well, we don't want to say too much about our next project because we want to do it right and it has already been a bit of a project. We now have 1,500 feet on street level where we're going to open a cafe, cafeteria restaurant type thing that will translate what we have upstair for people walking by. We're very enthusiastic about getting our ideas on street level.
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