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Hosting Muhammad and Lonnie Ali

Hospitality career fosters unique friendship

Contact: Heather Smith

​​​​There are pros and cons to every profession, says Gary Gagnon, CMU faculty member in marketing and hospitality services administration. For hospitality, the list of pros includes the opportunity to travel and to work with and meet many interesting people. Throughout his hospitality career, Gagnon has had the opportunity to travel to more than 80 countries and lived for 10 years in Europe and the Middle East with colleagues of 37 different nationalities to welcome guests from more than 100 different countries. Included in these experiences was the opportunity to meet, work with and get to know Muhammad and Lonnie Ali, a story which he shares in his words:​

Hospitality is defined as the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors or strangers. I was a hospitality professional, at a luxury hotel in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 1989 when a colleague came to my office and informed me that Muhammad Ali was in one of our restaurants. I thanked him and said I would come to the restaurant in few minutes. Working in Saudi Arabia, I had met two Mohamed Alis that week and a dozen or so over the previous months. It is a very popular name in the Middle East. My colleague sensed that I did not understand and said "No, THE Muhammad Ali." I immediately headed toward the restaurant, believing I was going to extend hospitality to a world famous guest and not knowing that I was about to be treated to a lesson in hospitality by The Greatest of All Time.

One day, a few years after we first met, as I worked at my hotel in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, I received a fax that read simply: "Gary, do you have three rooms for tonight? Muhammad." It was a delightful feeling, and I was both proud and honored to share with my colleagues that we were about to have a very special visitor to our hotel. 

Muhammad Ali stayed several times at my hotels in both Riyadh and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. On one occasion, he and his wife, Lonnie Ali, stayed for 25 days during the holy month of Ramadan when they were in Saudi Arabia to perform Umrah. During this stay, they came to our home one night and we had a wonderful evening hosting them. They also invited us to join them a few nights later at the home of the Alireza family in Jeddah as part of Eid al-Fitr celebration, the second of the two holiest days in Islam. To arrive with Muhammad Ali to the home of one of the most prominent families in Saudi Arabia and to be welcomed to join in a family celebration of one of the most meaningful meals of the year was truly an incredible hospitality experience.

Many years later, back in Michigan and experiencing hospitality at the Alis' home in Berrien Springs, we recalled that evening. I shared that it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. They smiled, and Lonnie replied, very graciously, "mine too."

Our paths crossed several more times in the summers of the following years as we both had adopted sons, both of whom were talented athletes and they met several times while competing at travel sporting events in Michigan. Muhammad's son Saad eventually played baseball at Louisville, and our son Connor, played for CMU's football team. On every occasion, the Alis extended a friendly and generous welcome to us.

Over my 22 years in the classroom I have drawn on these experiences and woven them into discussions on hospitality, trust, relationship building, guest service, public relations and tourism. The stories are never the main course, but when used as seasoning, with just a pinch here or a dash there, they have helped bring life to classroom discussions.

In the last few days I have received many emails, texts and posts from former students and colleagues recalling the hospitality lessons of Muhammad and Lonnie Ali. Hospitality is a unique career with the potential to take you to many places and opens a world of opportunity for meeting new faces. As the world mourns the loss of The Greatest, I am reminded of how my own life was affected by knowing him, and I am grateful for the ways our paths crossed.

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