The Montage, Beverly Hills
While luxury hotels open virtually every week, grand dames are a bit more rare. A prime location in a global capital, a unique pedigree and some magical star power all tend to be prerequisites. Beverly Hills, the young but already world-recognized Montage name and an innovative leader make the opening of Montage Beverly Hills a worthy candidate to be a hotel that starts with big expectations and fulfills them for many years to come. Recently Elite Traveler President and Editor-in-Chief, Douglas Gollan, caught up with Managing Director Ali Kasikci for a quick chat about his new baby which opened her doors on November 17th.
ET: I’m sure a lot of our readers already know you from the Peninsula [Beverly Hills] and maybe have met you personally, but tell us a little bit about your background and where you’re from, how you got into the hospitality business and a little bit about the career path that’s taken you here.
Ali Kasikci: I was born in Turkey, but left when I was 15-years-old. I went to a German hotel school, stayed there and did my apprenticeships near Munich. I was young, and adventurous; I wanted to travel and discover the world. I got an unbelievable opportunity and my first managerial position was in South Africa. I went to South Africa for seven months and ended up staying there for almost 11 years. Eventually I had to force myself to leave because I was eager to come to America.
I had an opportunity to join the Four Seasons in Newport Beach, where I was for five years. I was then recruited to come and take over the Peninsula Beverly Hills. My goal was to stay a year longer in the next position than the previous job. So I thought because I stayed five years at the Four Seasons, I would spend six years at the Peninsula. Six years at the Peninsula turned into 16 years, and in essence, I spent 50 percent of my career at the Peninsula Beverly Hills.
And when the time came, I didn’t want to leave Beverly Hills because this was now my home, and I wanted to stay around the area, near my friends and colleagues. Then the opportunity with Montage Beverly Hills presented itself. There were many other opportunities—lots of great jobs and outstanding packages and wonderful people—but the offer and the attraction of Montage was great therefore I chose to join and remain in Beverly Hills.
ET: The Montage is just a second hotel, so it’s a small group—small but growing. So what was the attraction of coming from an already small group to an even smaller group?
Ali Kasikci: Alan Fuerstman, the Founder and CEO of Montage Hotels & Resorts, and I have been friends for a long time. First of all, we see eye-to-eye in many ways and our growth views are the same. Joining forces with him and executing the vision he has, which is almost identical to the vision I have, was a big part of it. And I think small is good. Small is something that you can really get into and influence—but what attracted me to Montage Beverly Hills wasn’t really growing the Montage into a 20-30 hotel company. It was more being in Beverly Hills and growing it from there, and being in the community which I love and where I have so many friends and relationships. The attraction was Montage, but Montage with Beverly Hills attached to it.
ET: Since it’s a new hotel, why don’t you tell us a little bit about what the hotel’s going to be like—the rooms, the suites, the facilities and why you think it’s going to be special?
Ali Kasikci: First and foremost, what really makes Montage Beverly Hills attractive is that it is the first luxury hotel to be built in the Beverly Hills area in the last 16-17 years. It has also been built to meet the standards of the 21st century guest. We call it the hotel built in the 21st century for the needs, demands and desires of the 21st century clientele. It has an unbelievable location in the Golden Triangle. Everything that’s happening in the Golden Triangle is in and around Montage. In Beverly Hills people measure everything by how long it takes to walk. In L.A. people measure everything by how long it takes to drive. At Montage Beverly Hills, with our location, we actually measure how many steps away it is.
That says something about the location. The hotel is low-rise, 18th century Spanish Revival architecture. The famous hotelier, grandfather of all the hoteliers, Caesar Ritz, said, “Every hotel should have a view of a park.” And we had a special park built for us, designed by Nancy Goslee Power, a renowned landscape architecture. And the interiors reflect the glamour estates of Hollywood in the 1920’s, 1930’s. We are bringing the bygone era’s glamour and sophistication back. The hotel has something that every other hotel will envy, which is a spa that was purpose-built rather than converted. We have wonderful food and beverage facilities, but above all, we have 201 rooms with 55 suites. Most of our suites have one and a half bathrooms as well as fireplaces, large balconies and patios. It is something that people, when they come to Los Angeles, will actually appreciate. So we are just filling the void that currently exists in Beverly Hills’ hotels.
ET: There are also some residences right?
Ali Kasikci: There are 20 residences, which are very high-end, luxury residences. And what is appealing about the residences is that they can use all the services and facilities of this luxury hotel. It adds an enormous amount of value to residences.
ET: For a guest who is staying at the hotel, what type of facilities are there such as restaurants, you mentioned a spa, also maybe shopping, different boutiques, amenities or anything unique like that?
Ali Kasikci: Yes, yes, we have three restaurants, a hotel dining room open for breakfast, lunch and dinner called Parq. It’s very sophisticated but not intimidating. It has a beautiful outside patio area by the gardens with outside seating, and a beautiful display kitchen with marble floors, crown molding and custom-made Molteni ovens from France.
Then we have our fine dining room, Muse. Muse seats up to 44 guests and has two private dining rooms on either side of it. One is an indoor private dining room which seats up to 20 guests; the other one is an outdoor dining room, seating up to 24 guests. Muse is a very intimate and romantic dining room. It’s open five nights—Tuesday through Saturday—for dinner only. Then we have The Conservatory Grill, which is our casual poolside dining outlet. But even though I say casual poolside dining, it’s still very sophisticated. Light fare, mostly grilled items, very Japanese infused. Next to The Conservatory Grill, we have The Conservatory Dining Room, which is a 60-seat private dining room with beautiful views of the Hollywood Hills, the Hollywood sign and downtown L.A.
The spa is 20,000 square feet, including a 2,500 square-foot fitness center, and has 17 treatment rooms—five wet and 12 dry treatment rooms. The most important focal point of Spa Montage is our co-ed mineral pool. Outside of the gym we have the spa plaza, where after exercising and building up a good sweat, you can sit outside underneath the trees and enjoy a cold beverage such as lemonade, iced tea or water.
For social events we have a gorgeous ballroom, Marquesa, which holds 300 people during events. It has a hand-painted ceiling and six opera balconies coming out from the second floor where you can put trumpeters, opera singers, photographers, etc. It really is a gorgeous, gorgeous ballroom.
ET: So tell me a little bit about your day-to-day job responsibilities as managing director for the Montage Beverly Hills. What’s a typical day for Ali Kasikci?
Ali Kasikci: We’ve been focusing our efforts to create a level of service and guest experience that will differentiate Montage Beverly Hills from any other hotel. We spend more time looking at how we can do things differently as opposed to how to do things better. Better is a given. For example, if you take the check-in process, everybody has really mastered the check-in process and they’re upgrading it. What we are trying to do at Montage Beverly Hills is, when the time comes to check-out, you go to the desk, check out and the last person to see you in the lobby bids you farewell. At Montage Beverly Hills we are not only striving to make sure that the arrival process is executed well but we are also looking to reinvent the departure process.
At the moment, we are working on making the departure process less ceremonious and more flawless. Our goal is to make you feel as welcome when you are departing as you felt when you were arriving.
Secondly, we are looking at how to perfect airport arrivals. Most of the people these days, when they fly commercial, check in luggage and then spend 45 minutes at a very ineffective luggage carousel waiting for their luggage to arrive. We want to eliminate that. We don’t want you to wait for your luggage. We want a system that, when you land at the airport, you’ll be whisked immediately to a waiting car and be on your way to the hotel. Your luggage will be picked up a second greeter so that you don’t waste that 45 minutes waiting.
We spend a lot of time asking what are the needs of our clientele. What are the things that they would love to have but they never thought about? What are the things that they would love to have that they never actually asked for? And when Montage Beverly Hills opens, most of those things will be in place.
ET: Can you give us a short list of some of those things?
Ali Kasikci: Well, this arrival process, for example, is on the list. We are doing other simple things, but what sets us apart is that we are so quality focused—shoe shines for example. Every luxury hotel offers an overnight shoe shine. But we have shoe polishers who have been trained by John Lobb and only use John Lobb shoe polishes rather than using run-of-the-mill polish.
Another example is that, Leslie MacKillop, our Director of Marketing who was involved in the early stages, spent time choosing how the caps of our shampoos and conditioners and body lotions in the room should be designed. Originally manufacturers suggested pop-tops. But pop-tops, once they’ve been in storage and have been transported have a certain amount of air pressure, and when you pop them they have a tendency to sprinkle.
After discovering that, we thought instead of having pop-tops, we redesigned the process and used a new mold for screw tops. Screw tops won’t splash when you open them.
We also have a barbershop in the hotel, and this barbershop offers grooming treatments using the old-fashioned razors, with a French product, Hommage. Hommage has actually been instrumental in providing one of the most sophisticated and advanced man-grooming techniques and grooming products.
ET: What do you think makes a good general manager or head of a hotel?
Ali Kasikci: A good general manager should understand the environment that she or he is operating in, should understand what the needs and desires of his customer base are. However, he should never, ever believe that he’s one of those customers. He should understand that his role is to create a context in which the customers can really enjoy the luxury. A good general manager creates a context in which people enjoy staying in. He knows his place…his job is to create that context, not to be part of it.
ET: So when you’re running a hotel, like when you were at the Peninsula or when Montage Beverly Hills opens, give me a description of a typical day for Ali Kasikci.
Ali Kasikci: Well, every morning starts with our morning meeting at 8:30. In this meeting we go through A-Z for every guest that’s arriving that day. Each name has been noted with customized attention. Each one of them is talked about, arrival times are established, known needs are discussed. Everything is customized for that guest, one by one by one. A guest services or guest relations manager is assigned to that person to actually make sure that their stay is flawless. That takes about half an hour, 45 minutes. Afterwards, I spend one-on-one time with the key department heads to understand what their plans are for the day, what is going through their minds and where they need my assistance.
My role really is to become an advisor and a mentor, rather than a dictator who tells them what to do. So I let them basically decide what they are doing, and then they come to me with the issues they are tackling and they let me know where and how I can help. Other than that, I mingle and have lunches with some guests, walk around and see people in action, I walk through the hotel, try to see things the way they should be seen, take action in things that I feel are not going right, and mostly interact with the staff and guests. Most of the day is spent interacting with the staff and the guests.
ET: If you hadn’t gotten into the hotel business, what other career would we have found you in today?
Ali Kasikci: Looking back, I got into the hotel business because I was told to by my parents. They made the decision for me. And once I was in it, I wasn’t going to get out of it. The hotel business is one of those industries that once you get into it, you can’t get out of it. It’s easy to get in, very difficult to get out.
ET: So you’re not a frustrated singer or golfer or anything like that?
Ali Kasikci: I always wanted to be a radio personality. But people who know me tell me that nobody would be able understand me.
ET: Obviously, everyone knows that working in a hotel is long hours and weekends sometimes, but do you have any hobbies or special interests?
Ali Kasikci: I try to cycle over the weekends. We have a little cycling group, and we cycle about 60 miles or so. When I am free I don’t like to spend it in big crowded activities. I like to either be by myself or with someone I really like to spend time with. I’m a collector of good wines and I love to have a good bottle of wine with someone I really enjoy. And what goes best with a good bottle of wine I discovered is good company.
And my other hobby is teaching. I’m very actively involved in teaching executive education programs at Cornell. I teach through the hotel school in their general manager’s program, the professional development programs in Ithaca, Brussels and Singapore. They give me the opportunity to really give back to the industry what the industry has given to me—knowledge and experience to share with others. I do spend a lot of time preparing for that.
Another area I like to spend time on is charity. The way I see it, the hotel is an organ of the community. Therefore, it has to know its role and it has to be very functional. This is why I do spend time with the community, because after all is said and done, Montage Beverly Hills is a hotel of the community.
ET: So obviously we don’t know exactly what the market’s doing right now, but it hasn’t been good. The economy is in a bit of trouble. Any impact on what you’re doing in terms of opening the hotel? Any concerns? Any adjustments that you’re making in terms of your business plans?
Ali Kasikci: I have found myself at least seven times in a recessionary or economically depressed time. There is no doubt about it, in the last 16 to 17 years, except for a few occasions, like September 11th and like now, there have been few hiccups in the economy. We’ve been spoiled. But I’ve been here for 26 years, and one thing I have discovered is you do not change your strategy just because the weather changes. You change your tactics, but your strategy is still the same. One tactic is if the weather is bad, it doesn’t mean that you don’t leave home—you just take an umbrella with you. That is what we have taken into account in these economical times. We are very focused, we are very committed and we believe that Montage Beverly Hills, whether it’s just entering these uncertain economical times or whether it would have entered three years ago, it will be very successful. You don’t need a captain when the seas are calm and the weather is beautiful. You need a good experienced captain when the seas are choppy and the weather is not that great. That is why we have built this great team. We will be very successful. We will take full advantage of these economical conditions.
ET: Obviously the expectations for Montage Beverly Hills are very high. But as you travel around the world, tell me a couple of your favorite hotels and why.
Ali Kasikci: Well, there are so many great hotels and I have so many wonderful colleagues out there. When it comes to New York, I think James McBride at The Carlyle does a great job. When I go to San Francisco, I think the Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco is a true consummate host. I go to One&Only Palmilla where Ed Steiner is an innovator. There are some great hoteliers out there and all of them do wonderful, wonderful things. Throughout the world I have seen so many brilliant hotels. My favorite hotel is not necessarily the hotel which everybody loves, but the hotel that never lets me down. Therefore, when it comes to London, for example, Stuart Procter at Stafford has never let me down. I never stayed there myself, but whomever I send over comes and thanks me. And that’s a really important aspect of it.
ET: Obviously you operate at the pinnacle of luxury, and you’ve become known for doing innovative things. If you were to be named CEO of one of the domestic airlines, what would be the things you would do to try to change the experience of their customers? What would you do if you were CEO of one of these airlines?
Ali Kasikci: The way I see it, airlines have defined their business as getting you from point A to point B safely. That’s where they start and that’s where they finish. Going from point A to point B safely is a given. That cannot be your single and only focus. I think what they have to do is bring back the glamour of flying. Flying used to be a glamorous experience and it doesn’t cost money to be glamorous. The first time I flew, my parents bought me new clothing. We were told how to walk and how to behave and how to sit. I would never, until 20 years ago, consider flying from point A to point B without having to put a jacket and a tie on. The airlines didn’t actually enforce a dress code, but they lifted themselves up to a certain standard that we loved being seen in. The food matched it, the service matched it, the appearance of the flight attendants matched it, even their politeness matched it.
I am not saying that this is a dying breed, because if it were a dying breed why do Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific and airlines like Emirates and the Middle East and other places still practice it? And they are really successful. I think the first thing is that airlines have to define what business they are in. They have to see their business in a broader sense.
ET: When you’re looking to hire people at the Montage and previously in your career, what do you look for when you’re trying to hire somebody who’s going to have contact with the customers?
Ali Kasikci: We look for people who can align their behavior with the behavior customers expect. They can fit and understand you and deliver great service. You don’t have to, as a consumer, adjust yourself downwards in order for the individual to be able to deliver that service. I’m looking for a good attitude, first and foremost, confidence, and most importantly, a sense of humor.
ET: Tell us when the official opening is and, you know, is it a full opening or is it a partial opening?
Ali Kasikci: Montage Beverly Hills opened its doors this past Monday, November 17th. There’s been a great deal of excitement and eager guests looking to be the first ones to experience Montage Beverly Hills.
ET: Anything else that you want to add or mention?
Ali Kasikci: You know, the proof of the pudding is in eating it. It doesn’t matter what I say here, you really have to experience it. And Montage Beverly Hills needs to be experienced. It cannot be talked about. It needs to be experienced, and the experience will make all the difference.