No Room for Mediocrity

Do you want to check out the future of hotels? Then check into the Peninsula Beverly Hills, where Ali Kasikci is creating rooms with incomparable service — built around unconventional ideas.

"Do you want to know the biggest problem in business?" asks Ali Kasikci, general manager of the Peninsula Beverly Hills hotel. "Too many people have copied too many other people's best practices. That's a sure route to mediocrity."

At Kasikci's hotel, there is no room for mediocrity. Last year, Cornell University's renowned School of Hotel Administration dubbed Kasikci the "Overall Best Practice Champion" among hotel general managers. To be sure, as part of the luxurious Peninsula chain, Kasikci's hotel has plenty of resources to invest. But he won the award for an innovation that he says didn't cost a dime: a 24-hour-a-day-check-in policy.

We've all suffered through the conventional approach to checking into a hotel. You've spent 12 hours on a plane from Asia. You land in Los Angeles at 10 AM, desperate for a shower. Sorry ... check-in isn't until 1 PM. Not at the Peninsula Beverly Hills. The moment you arrive — whatever time of day — Kasikci and his colleagues have a room available.

This simple (but revolutionary) innovation is illustrative of the way that Kasikci thinks — an unconventional style that has made the Peninsula Beverly Hills the LA pied-à-terre for a raft of celebrities. The Peninsula is the only hotel in southern California to win the Mobil Travel Guide Five-Star Award and the AAA Five Diamond Award, beating out the famous Hotel Bel-Air and the Beverly Hills Hotel. Kasikci himself is a vivacious Instanbul-born Turk who is considered to be one of a handful of luminaries in the hotel-management world and a star among LA stars. "He's remarkable," says Cathy A. Enz, the Lewis G. Schaeneman Jr. professor of innovation and dynamic management at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration. "He's one of the most creative thinkers I know."

Fast Company talked with Kasikci about how he keeps guests coming back — and where he thinks hotels are heading.

How did you come up with your check-in policy?

There was a huge void in the industry as a result of people being inflexible. We decided to be different. Many people take flights from Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. They fly all night. They get here at 9 or 10 in the morning. At that point, there is nothing worse than telling them that their room isn't ready.

It must have been a nightmare to implement.

There are hassles with everything. To me, the question is, Can you build systems to eliminate the hassles? Some of our maids had to come earlier in the morning. That was uncomfortable for a few of them. But for others, it was great, because they could leave earlier. They also work differently. The vacuums that they used before sounded like 747 engines. That was okay at 10 in the morning, but not at 6. Now they use handhelds.

So how much did this system cost in terms of new staffing and computer systems?

Zero. It's mostly about record keeping. Guests almost never have to wait when they arrive. The funniest thing is that it was simple to do. We just did our job.

What's your definition of good service?

Good service is memorable service. You have five senses. Good service is the sixth. You can't describe it, but you know it when you experience it. Good service is also a culture. You can't teach it. All you can do is provide fertile ground so that good service can grow there.

What are the defining characteristics of a good-service culture?

Our goal is to make your stay synonymous with whatever you're in LA to do. We call it "aligning with the customer's thinking." We think about the customer, but above all, we think about the purpose of the customer's visit. And we think ahead of the customer. Waiting for customers to tell you what they need is like driving your car by looking in the rearview mirror.

Our job is to invent something that customers haven't thought of before. For example, we monogram pillowcases for regular customers. We want their experience here to be so wonderful that they become dependent on us. Because if people are dependent on us, then every time they come to LA, they'll feel that they have to stay with us in order to function.

How do you make people dependent on you?

By giving them things that they had never thought of, things that make their lives easier. People know that they are happiest at the Peninsula Beverly Hills, but they don't know why. It's because their needs have been anticipated.

How do you anticipate needs?

You listen to your frontline employees. A bellman once came to me to ask if we could store someone's luggage until he returned to visit the hotel again. As a result of that request, we now have beautiful trunks for regular guests. We take their dirty clothes to the laundry so that when they arrive, everything is steamed, pressed, unpacked, and hung up. We don't charge extra for the service. Another employee told us that someone had asked that the restaurant pack a lunch to take on the plane. We now offer small gourmet box lunches, and they're a popular item for us.

Most people would be thrilled if their hotels offered a fraction of your service. What do you think is the role of a hotel?

We think of our hotel as a stage, with each guest playing the leading role. In a typical day, we have 250 guests from 250 walks of life who have 250 needs, habits, and personalities. Our job is to set the stage for a flawless experience for all of them.

So every day starts with a morning meeting, during which we go through the arrival list in great detail. All of the operational managers attend: valet, front office, telecommunications manager. Everybody emerges from that meeting with detailed notes. Information is extremely important to us. We use it to create value. We keep a comprehensive database of our guests, and access to that information is widely shared. Once a week, we have an operations-committee meeting with members from the main divisions of the hotel. There is no fixed agenda, just a flow of ideas that generate more ideas. Our purpose is to create innovative products and services for our customers.

Jill Rosenfeld (jill6q@hotmail.com) is a former Fast Company senior writer. Contact Ali Kasikci by email (akasikci@peninsula.com).

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