When he took over management of The Peninsula Beverly Hills in 1992, Ali Kasikci was the envy of his peers worldwide taking the reins at a new luxury hotel catering to the elite in the entertainment industry and a VIP clientele of L.A. visitors.
The 196-room hotel at Wilshire and Little Santa Monica boulevards is known for premiere service at premium prices with room rates at $325 to $500 a night, villas and suites $600 to $3,000.
Kasikci, 41, landed the job after serving as manager of the Four Seasons Hotel and Resort in Newport Beach. Born in Istanbul, Kasikci left home at age 19 to study at the Hotel and Catering College in Germany. He apprenticed at the Hotel Bayerischer Hof in Munich, Germany, mastered English at Oxford University and held senior management positions at hotels in Germany and South Africa before coming to Southern California in 1987.
A past president of the Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce, Kasikci is known as much for his community involvement as he is for his unstinting service to his guests.
Question: Gourmet magazine recently rated you as one of the three top hoteliers in the world. What do you think were some of the reasons?
Answer: I couldn’t have done it if I wasn’t manager of the Beverly Hills Peninsula. Let’s be honest. I always joke whenever I am given a recognition either locally or internationally, being in Beverly Hills and managing a beautiful hotel gets you there anyway. Of course, if it wasn’t for the owners with the original dream and the staff that gives their life to it, I couldn’t have done it. I just happened to be sitting at the helm and happened to be identified as the best general manager.
Q: You’re very involved in the community. How is this important to the hotel?
A: The hotel is an organ of the community. No business can be successful without the help and acceptance of the community. A community can help or make a business successful. Things might be different if we were an insurance company, but we have a social obligation, especially being a hotel, because we bring people in from the outside. Our actions and what we do affects the people in the community and that’s why I spend such a good portion of my time in community activities.
I spend much of my free time in activities with the Rotary or Chamber of Commerce and philanthropic organizations and that really is relaxing for me.
Q: When you travel and stay at other hotels, what are the things you look for?
A: In the past, when I was young, I always went to other hotels to see what they were doing wrong. Now I go to other hotels to see what they are doing right and what I can learn from them. What fascinates me is that they don’t seem to be there they never look at the guests. All they seem to be concerned with is how to streamline services and do it just to satisfy the guest.
Sometimes, with all good intentions of adding a guest service, they end up inconveniencing the guest. For instance, a line to check in, even if there’s only one or two people ahead of you, is still a line. Then, when you get to the counter, they look at you and say, welcome – we’ll take you to the VIP counter to check in. And it’s wasting my time. I think, with all the good intentions, you want to give me a VIP check in, why don’t you just check me in here? Why do you have to escort me to another line or even walk me somewhere else?
Q: How do you customize service to a guest?
A: By establishing relationships. I think that is the key to the success of the hotel. You have to get to know your guests, they have to get to know you. First of all, do not run away from your guests, talk to them. But even more important than talking to them listen. By listening to your guests, you learn an enormous amount. And then you pick up things.
I make a point of going and seeing them on their own turf, in their offices in New York, Washington and Chicago. I make a reservation and tell them I’m in New York and just need 10 minutes. I go there for one simple thing tell me what I can do for you to make you very comfortable. Tell me everything you like. And then I observe what is in their office, what’s on their desk and what they’re doing.
When we know you are coming, the day before you come to our hotel, you receive a package at your office via Federal Express. In the package is a key to your room so you just come here and walk into your room. Everything is there, it’s almost like an apartment that is ready for you. Simple things that we do here. For our regular guests – a turndown with their favorite beverages stocked in the refrigerator. Monogrammed pillow cases for those guests visiting on a frequent bases. This isn’t magic, just attention to detail.
Q: Do you remember all those details from just a 10 minute visit to a client’s office?
A: You have to have a person in your organization who handles the day-to-day details or otherwise I would be hooked on trivia. I travel with our sales manager. I never go to see them alone and the reason I never go alone is that you can’t build an entire structure on one person in the relationship. But I do have a great long-term memory and seem to be able to pick up on things like this.
Q: As you walked through the lobby, you greeted employees by their first names. Are you a hands-on manager?
A: I know 90 percent of our employees names and about 70 percent of their birthdates and special events. It’s not really difficult to know this as we all started about the same time so that makes it pretty easy on me.
I don’t consider myself a hands-on manager. I consider myself more of an empowering manager. My concept of leadership is walking behind people instead of walking ahead of them, and so I am there if they need help, but more than anything else, I am there to create an environment which gives them freedom to do their jobs.
Q: Is your style of management more Westernized or European?
A: If we would apply the training that I received 20 years ago in Germany to today’s standards, it would be training for failure. At that time, it was really an outstanding experience, but purely technical, nothing about the managerial.
I believe in cradle-to-grave education. You have to continually educate yourself to stay sharp. When I noticed our business was changing from technical to managerial, I worked very hard to educate myself in the changes of a managerial environment as that was where the business was going.
Q: How has the role as general manager changed since your first job in Germany?
A: Today, the role of the general manager is to be a leader. We are now really business driven, our business has moved from an activity-oriented business mode which required very highly technical training and very strong adherence to policies and procedures to a very competitive business mode of total quality management and competitiveness.
Competition was the name of the game from the mid-1970s until mid-1980s. Now we are actually in a very customer-oriented mode. Serving (the guest) separates yourself from competition. And so my training has helped me for the first 10 years but the initiatives that I have taken helped me further.
If I had stuck to my German training, I would not be as innovative as I am today.
Q: What do you mean by innovation?
A: Many people don’t understand innovation, they confuse it with invention. If you take the idea of check in and check out, most hotels have a set time. There’s typically a two-hour difference between check in and check out time, presumably to clean the rooms. Why then restrict your guests and shortchange them? With this today global travel, planes arrive from all over the world at different times. So we abolished check in and check out times, you simply can check in any time you want and check out any time you want.
There is nothing nicer after flying 17 hours from Sydney to find that your room is ready. And there’s nothing uglier, after 17 hours of flight, to be told that your room won’t be ready for four hours.
Q: Other than the ratings, what makes The Peninsula Hotel different from other L.A. hotels that cater to the same type of clientele corporate as well as famous?
A: The ratings, the occupancy, the rate are all results of our work. People actually judge the hotel from the results, we judge it from what we put in. What makes it really different is that The Peninsula has a very clear vision of its mission. The purpose of this organization is very clearly understood by everyone who is involved in it. I believe that everyone in this hotel has a very clear purpose of what they are doing here. That makes it very different from other hotels. That purpose is translated into action and those actions are translated into results. What makes a difference is that our purpose is centered on our customer service, satisfaction, and loyalty.
Q: What will your mark be when it is time for you to move beyond The Peninsula Beverly Hills?
A: The most important mark, that any hotel general manager can leave, is for the organization not to collapse after he is gone. The worst thing a general manager can do is to build a structure, a culture and an organization that is purely resting on his shoulders. The mark I’m going to leave here, is to make sure that the organization runs, and gets better without me, than with me.
Company: The Peninsula Beverly Hills
Born: February 20, 1956
Education: Bachelor of Arts, Hotel and Catering College, Tegernsee, Germany. MBA, Claremont Graduate School in Claremont.
Hobbies: Cycling, collecting Little Rascals memorabilia.
Career turning point: At age 26, Being appointed general manager of a hotel in South Africa and having that operation fail.
Personal: Married, no children.