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BHC - Ali Kasikci 123104

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    Profile of:
    Ali V. Kasikci

    “Don’t compliment me about something I’m doing well because I’m paid to do it well. Instead, I’d rather hear what I’m doing wrong and how we can do it better.”
    —Ali Kasikci

    By John L. Seitz – Courier Managing Editor

          “Don’t compliment me about something I’m doing well because I’m paid to do it well. Instead, I’d rather hear what I’m doing wrong and how we can do it better.”
          In a nutshell, that kind of frank talk pretty much sums up the business philosophy of one of the 21st century’s most honored hotel leaders, Ali V. Kasikci. The managing director of The Peninsula Beverly Hills is both consummate gentleman and ultimate perfectionist, totally demanding of his staff but even more so of himself.
          “Operating a hotel is a continuing process with no beginning and no end. It is a series of ups and downs, partial successes or total disasters – full of supposedly grandiose ideas which often have to be destroyed before being reworked and rebuilt. All we can hope for are small victories.”
          Kasikci continued: “And I believe in never clinging to a single idea, regardless of how well it may have worked in the past. This industry and its customer base are constantly changing and demanding more. You had better be able to accept frequent upheavals and, when needed, be willing to say ‘no’ even to a customer.
          “I closely follow companies devoid of any hotel industry connection to see what is working for them and whether any of this might be applied to our own business. Just emulating what a direct competitor has been successfully doing to keep up with or ahead of the pack seldom works. If The Peninsula Beverly Hills did that, we’d have lost our edge years ago. Instead, when one of them adopts an innovation of ours, we simply move to plan B. They never know where we’re coming from and always appear to be playing catch-up.”
          All this tough love may seem out of place for him, but it really isn’t. The native of Turkey grew up in Istanbul with absolutely no interest in the hospitality business until his parents, as is a tradition in that country, decided the matter for him at age 16.
          “My father had become a physician for the airlines so we were able to travel to several exotic places gratis and, therefore, had money left over to stay in fine hotels. He got the idea in his mind that tourism made the most sense as a career path for me since I didn’t have the grades to become a doctor, engineer or even a lawyer.”
          Kasikci was sent off to Germany but before being allowed to enter Tegernsee’s Hotel and Catering College, he was required to serve an apprenticeship in nearby Munich at Bayerischer Hof, then regarded among the 100 best hotels in the world. “It was real on-the-job training – strict and disciplined – and I was put through the ringer in just about every department there was.”
          Once receiving his college diploma in 1973, he was recruited as an accelerated management trainee by Tennessee-based Holiday Corporation, which had planned opening 20 Holiday Inns across the continent until the oil crisis hit, currencies were devalued, and these big dreams went awry.
          Holiday assigned Kasikci to its properties in South Africa but before making the trip, he did a detour from Germany to Great Britain for six months of intense English language training at Oxford University.
          With the last few dollars in his pocket, he left Holiday to take a position with hotel magnate Sol Kerzner and his Sun International casino reorts in South Africa, his first assignment being at the Maseru Sun Casino in the tiny country of Lesotho. By 1979, he had risen through the ranks to become food and beverage director for the glamorous new Sun City Resort, dubbed “Africa’s kingdom of pleasure” by Beverly Hills’ own Frank Sinatra, who performed there shortly after its debut.
          Three years later, it was determined this 26-year old whiz kid was ready for his first general managership. The property selected was the soon-to-open La Montagna, a non-casino resort outside Durban.
          “Of course, I was on the fast track and ‘knew everything’ about the business at this point. After all, I’d been in it a whole decade!,” laughs Kasikci. “Was I in for a rude awakening. After concentrating on the internal operations, the hotel opened but no guests magically appeared.
          “The one element I had completely forgotten was marketing of which I knew nothing about. I soon realized the casinos had been the draw at my previous stops but at La Montagna we had to scratch for anything we got. The hotel went bankrupt two months later and I was fired without being given a chance to right the ship. Of course, I wouldn’t have known what to do about finding guests for the place anyway.”
          He adds: “It brought me a most important discovery: namely, regardless of how well you operate a hotel, it has nothing without good marketing. Still, in all, getting ousted was a big shock and humiliating but I was determined not to obsess about it, learn from the situation and start over.”
          Kasikci was soon hired as special projects manager in the corporate office at Durban’s chic Royal Hotel. When the managing director there left after three months, he was named acting general manager and ended up running that property for five years
          “Being at the Royal was a real break for me. First of all, it was the best hotel in the city – high class in every aspect. Secondly, it taught me, though guest comfort is paramount, the hotel business is still primarily about business not hospitality.
          “The Royal’s chairman, Russell Stevens, insisted we under-promise and over- deliver on service. He also told me wisdom and integrity were the two most important things to be a success in my vocation. Integrity meant to always deliver on your promises while wisdom is not to be idiotic enough to make those promises in the first place if you are going to lose money by carrying them out.”
          After more than a decade in South Africa, he was ready for a rough and tumble new challenge and came to the United States, a country he had learned to love while attending training classes at Cornell University in New York and Holiday Inn University in Memphis.
          In 1987, Kasikci became director of food and beverage (and later, manager) of the Four Seasons in Newport Beach. He noted that was an especially significant year in his life as he met and married his wife of 17 years, Donanne, who was sales manager for the Laura Ashley store where he had gone to furnish his bachelor apartment.
          He claims his tenure at the Four Seasons not only taught him the real meaning of what a real luxury hotel was but served an excellent, all around educational experience. While there, he attended night classes at Claremont University’s Peter F. Drucker Graduate Management School, earning an MBA.
          “In the classroom, I would rehash my daily experiences at the hotel so it became some sort of an experimental lab for my job and allowed me to make adjustments. It also taught me that to be an effective manager you have to constantly educate and reeducate yourself – from cradle to the grave.
          About that time, he was approached by The Peninsula Beverly Hills, which had just opened in Aug. 1991. Six months later, he was on board as resident manager and in Oct. 1992 became its third managing director.
          Designed as the reincarnation of an 18th century French country estate, it had 196 guestrooms including 36 suites and 16 private villas, Italian marble bathrooms, and the latest technological gimmicks.
          Despite all this, the new hotel was underperforming and actually losing money. His task was to turn it around.
          Recruiting a solid management team – many from his former Four Seasons’ staff – his goal was to set The Peninsula Beverly Hills apart from its well-established posh brethren on the Westside. In less than a year, occupancy had risen from 52% to 74% and the hotel was in the black.
          “Right off the bat, we got a major break which allowed us to prove ourselves,” Kasikci explained. “The Beverly Hills Hotel had just closed for its extensive renovation project so we took advantage of the timing as a large number of their prior guests were now available and looking for alternative accommodations. That jump-started us and we haven’t looked back since.”
          “The one thing I wanted to accomplish from the get-go was for us to stand on our own feet. I had no intention of us being referred to as a junior Beverly Hills Hotel or a Bel Air Hotel clone.”
          Now, 13 years later, he remains at the helm of a franchise property universally recognized as one of the world’s truly great hotels, constantly maintaining five-stars from Mobil and a five-diamond rating from AAA. “Sometimes it’s hard for people to realize we’ve been around for such a short time,” stated Kasikci. “And since we didn’t have multi-generational nostalgia from decades of weddings and parties in The City to fall back upon, our hotel had to make its own history and develop a spirit with the community from scratch.”
          When questions abound as to how The Peninsula Beverly Hills did it, he is quick to credit his close-knit management team for going that extra mile to always exceed the expectations of their high-toned clientele. These may include any number of Forbes 400 industrial tycoons sequestered away on any one day or seeing Oscar winning actors like Michael Douglas, Sidney Poitier or Sylvester Stallone walking through the lobby.
          “We never attempt to ‘educate’ our guests because we’re here to bring them the amenities and services they want, as opposed to what we might want to provide. We just try to get people addicted to us for that itself assures repeat business.”
          “If you ask our loyal ones why they keep coming back, they rarely can articulate one reason or another. It’s not the bed, size of the room, the Belvedere restaurant or the flower arrangements, but a combination of everything which put together offers an experience which satisfies, what I like to term, their sixth sense. Everyone already has five senses so outstanding service is the extra step beyond. The ideal for me is when a guest thinks of his or her stay with us as being marvelous but can’t pinpoint why.”
          Kasikci and his staff aim to treat each guest as a total individual. All employees are instructed to learn the names of the clients, gleaning as much information of their personal likes and dislikes through observation and exceptional research, which would be the envy of the CIA. Birthdates, children’s names, anniversaries and promotions are automatically jammed into a database – and so much more.
          For instance, if the visitor has feasted on a particular fruit in a basket during his or her’s last stay, next time there will be an extra supply of that item. If the maid reports the guest sleeps on the left or right side of the bed, the pillow will be turned down on that side. Nothing is left to chance with all this minutiae being carefully rehashed at the daily morning staff briefing to which everyone attending must come totally prepared.
          Among the things The Peninsula Beverly Hills has introduced during and because of his watch is the 24-hour check-in. The room is ready when the guest wants it to be, not after 3 p.m. The rationale is that persons arriving at LAX exhausted after a 14-hour flight from Australia or Asia shouldn’t have to wait hours to get into their room. Concurrently, checkout time is when the guest wants it to be.
          Some other perks include in-house laundry and dry cleaning around the clock; customized minibar; and ‘to-go’ meals for travelers to take with them from the hotel to avoid the often dreadful airline menu fare. And there is the luggage-less arrival where guests avoid airport hassles by shipping their clothing to the hotel, where it is carefully unpacked and awaiting them in their room upon their arrival all pressed and hung in the closet.
          Kasikci, who was named “independent hotelier of the world” last month by industry bible Hotels magazine, self-describes himself as a strategist whose aim was and still is, even after all his multiple successes, to establish a functioning organization with definitive goals and no time or resources to squander.
          “I would firmly believe in the ‘creative destruction’ of everything we’ve built here thus far if it meant being able to adopt even more effective new ideas. You must be willing to often reinvent yourself before your competitors are breathing down your neck and make it become necessary to do so.”
          For this reason, Kasikci says he spends a great deal of time working with lower-level employees, training them to think like managers and develop a range of thought and behavior aligned with that of the guest. No longer in a servant relationship, they must be able to have a respectful dialogue with the client in order to satisfy the latter’s expectations.
          “We develop our employees internally with the opportunity to grow, learn every aspect of the operation, grow make good money. And we often rely on existing employees to refer family members and friends as potentials for us though our annual turnover rate of 20% is less than any hotel in the area.”
          Kasikci continued: “The hotel business is far more professional than it was 25 years ago. Formerly, there were no real qualifications to enter it but now most people on the management training side are college graduates and have chosen hospitality as a career rather than a stop-gap employment step. I try to relate my own experiences to the students and have taught a few classes at Cornell since 1996. Michigan State and UNLV also have renowned hotel schools.
          “I have always believed that imagination comes with youth while experience comes with age. The goal is a marriage of the two. However, until recently, we didn’t let youngsters ‘think’ in our business - a big mistake because they are ones with the fresh ideas, many of which we could and should adopt, tempered by our own experiences.”
          In his own industry, Kasikci claims the three reasons some formerly great hotels have declined is a combination of management arrogance, denial and nostalgia. “They simply refuse to consider new ideas because the old ones have worked so why rock the boat?
          “We always intend to be cutting edge and constantly move the bar higher and higher. If one ever believes they’ve actually reached perfection, he or she is not only kidding themselves, but they are already on the way down.”
          Kasikci thrives on the relatively few complaints from guests at The Peninsula Beverly Hills believing they are right 90% of the time.
          “There will always be unhappy customers because things do go wrong. It’s vital to have a contingency plan ready that allows you to turn a bad situation around. Once you do, the client’s satisfaction level will be higher than if you got it right in the first place.”
          In a recent Town & Country Travel article, he reeled off a list of how to be a demanding guest. Among the tips: complain immediately if something is wrong with the food or room – don’t wait until you get home to write a letter; and when making a reservation, tell the clerk your particular wants or aversions and have the hotel confirm these in writing.
          Still more were upon making a reservation, contact the concierge to plan your stay in advance of your arrival; meet your chambermaid and tell her the time you want your room made up; inform the hotel of special occasions; and let a hotel employee unpack and pack your bags for if a garment needs pressing they will take have it taken care of immediately.
          Kasiksi has also taken the time to become a pillar of the community. Named The City’s “executive of the year”, he has served as president of the Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce, chairman of the BH Conference & Visitors Bureau, and member of the BH economic advisory committee.
          He and wife, Donanne, were recently honored by the Maple Counseling Center and are actively involved in the Aimee Karen Cancer Fund and its annual ranch outing for children.
          Asked about the future of the hospitality industry, Kasiksi immediately demurred saying such predictions were not hard – just impossible. “I remember in a 1966 article in The Wall Street Journal many of the world’s biggest brains were predicting that by the year 2000, we’d be housed in climate controlled domes, living on Mars, have flying automobiles, and travel from New York to Tokyo in two hours. Instead of being, I’d much rather stick to keeping our own place in order.”
          There is certainly one prediction sure to come true and already shared by more than a few of his high-powered clientele: under the command of a fearless visionary and free spirited innovator like Ali V. Kasiksi, who is always willing to challenge the traditional for the sake of improving it, The Peninsula Beverly Hills will continue to be regarded as one of the great hotels on the entire planet.
          So who cares if we’re not living on Mars! We’ve got something even better!

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