Backstage at the Peninsula Hotel
To achieve five-star luxury is no mean feat. Well, actually, it is a little mean.
By Jessica Seigel | Contributing Editor
LUXURY, like sausages, should never be seen in the making. It is ugly. Hideous. Unspeakable, like the rage that welled in Ali Kasikci 's chest one morning during rounds of his five-star terrain. His anger proceeded him as he stalked red-faced through the closed doors separating the hotel's pampered public spaces from the worn private front offices behind the registration counter. "Go to my office," bellowed the general maanger, snaring three supervisors with his Turkish-accented holler, while lower-level employees scattered for cover.
Rich and famous guests adore Kasikci as a gracious host. Fellow Rotarians and 90210 civic leaders love his "magnificent personality." Gourmet Magazine dubbed him one of the world's top hoteliers, an "Ambassador of Ease" whose dedication and "quiet charm" turned the Peninsula into the ne plus ultra power mecca of Los Angeles. But this morning, the 42-year-old German-trained GM is dressed for carnage, his Hermes tie swinging like a pendulum after he removes his Zegna suit jacket, exposing gold cuff links. His dark monogram, AVK, dances on his shirt like a fruit fly. Added simply for effect, the middle initial "V," employees joke, stands for Vladimir. As in Vlad the Impaler.
Leaving the supervisors frozen before his desk, old Vlad darts off, barreling back a few minutes later gripping the source of his outrage: a spoiled fruit plate. The peaches are bad, left on display for more than 16 hours in a first-floor room after a guest no-showed the day before.
"What is this?" he screams. "Look at this crap!" What if new guests had checked in to the $350 a night room and seen the spoilage?
Silence. Kasikci grabs a peach and launches it across the room. It whizzes just inches past one terrified manager's head, and explodes on the office wall, splattering pulp on Kasikci 's collection of "Little Rascal" memorabilia, including his favorite, a statuette of Alfalfa. The supervisors slink off, promising it will never happen again. Someone rings housekeeping. And women with names like Olivia and Zayda come to clean up.
UNLIKE the manufacture of sausages, to produce luxury is to traffic in the intangible; the factory is invisible in plain view, hidden in a mountain of tiny details. Luxury is delivered in the smiles, eye contact, and body language, graded in regular performance reviews. It is expressed in the special treatment accorded each guest, precisely calibrated to match his or her room price ($350 to $3,000 a night for suites) and status. It abides in the lamp shades with their seams always turned to face the wall, in the silence of staffers who never carry jangling pocket change. It resides in the cordless phones served with banana brioche at breakfast, in the personally monogrammed pillowcases and engraved stationery provided to regulars. It hums along in the undogmatic checkout time, since rooms are rented for 24-hour hours from check-in, a commonsense industry innovation hailed by the hotel industry as "brilliant." What separates five stars from four, best from good, divine from merely deluxe in the cutthroat realm of world-class hotels is service. It is the human touch deployed with covert military precision. It is Ali Kasikci.
As a physical entity, the Peninsula Hotel is a faux chateau of generic elegance. In contrast to the stark lines of the I.M. Pei-designed CAA headquarters across the street, the hotel exterior is fussy five limestone stories of iron-railed French windows above a flagstone driveway curving to a wrought-iron porte cochere (that's an awning). One of six hotels allied with and named after the Hong Kong Peninsula, where the Japanese high command headquartered during World War II, the Beverly Hills branch evokes the pre-war mystique with two "Peninsula green" Rolls-Royce Silver Spirits parked out front to shuttle guests to nearby Rodeo Drive.
It is raining on the "jewel in the crown of Beverly Hills," as mayor Les Bronte calls it, the day of my behind-the-scenes tour. BMW-Mercedes-Jaguar-gridlock blocks the driveway as talent agents & co. descend for breakfast meetings in the hotel's five-diamond restaurant, the Belevedere, unofficially dubbed the CAA commissary. Parking valets bearing huge green umbrellas fall in behind them, dogging their steps to the entryway so no Armani gets drizzled on.
Just inside the hotel's front glass doors, a smiling blond woman proffers her hand in a gesture gentlemen once used to escort ladies from carriages. "Wipe your feet. You'll slip," she coos in a voice concerned as MotherLove, explaining that rain makes the polished-marble floor slippery as ice. I wipe. Everyone wipes.
From the concierge counter, another smiling blonde greets a sweater-clad guest heading out for the day. "Good morning, Mr. Reitman. How are you?" she trills to director/producer Ivan (Ghostbusters) Reitman. Waiting as his Mercedes is being retrieved, the producer-director shares why he stays only at the Peninsula. "It's warm here," he says. "I get a good feeling."
So do Glenn Close, Michael Douglas, Randy Travis, Winona Judd, Oprah Winfrey, and on and on. So does Sylvester Stallone who appears in the lobby this morning nursing a golf club, practicing his swing while waiting for a meeting. Though Sly's own personal assistant stands nearby, the hotel's VIP handler, Anton Poiss, shows up within minutes to hover at a discrete distance. "Anton is the man," says Stallone, who lives at the hotel nearly six months a year when moviemaking in town. "I get up at 7 a.m. he's here. I get in at 2 a.m. he's still here catering to my every whim." The bellmen loathe Anton for swooping down on important guests, ingratiating away tips.
THE STRATEGY OF INGRATIATION is devised every morning at the 8:30 staff meeting. While canned Baroque music pipes into the damask-walled conference room off the main lobby, Kasikci presides at a long oak table. Nine department managers sit straight-backed before nine coffee carafes next to nine Limoges coffee cups. To Kasikci 's left, marketing manager Christine Judd, reads the name, room, and quirks of each guest checking in that day from a computer list. Her British accent, product of her hometown near Southhampton (of Titanic fame), makes the drill as dignified as roll call at Parliament.
"Mr. M, Chairman of X. He likes six small Perriers, granny apples and grapes," she reads. "Mr. G, law firm partner, allergic to all blankets and sheets. They must be sterilized. He likes Ivory soap," she drones. The head of housekeeping takes notes. The boss remarks that Mr. G. loves chopped liver.
"We're all out," replies Victor Siao, the Philippino-born waiter representing the room service department.
"Get some," Kasikci commands.
Even for routine check-ins, Kasikci reviews each gift plate assignment -- small fruit displays for the $350 rooms, the medium-size for $500 villas, and the large for high-end suites.
Judd continues: "Ms. W, CEO Such-and-Such television network, monogrammed pillowcase. She always likes to be on the first floor with odd numbers.... Mr. D, executive VP of Marketing, Thus-and-So television network. Don't use the air-conditioning, he's allergic."
Done. Done and Done. Key to the "customer intimacy" program, the list of guest quirks are stored in detailed computer profiles gathered from secretaries, travel agents, and personal assistants. Hotel staff from maids to waiters help build the profile, by noting, for example, which fruits disappear more from a gift basket or what type of tea is requested. Then those items magically appear in the hotel room with lesser or greater attention depending on VIP standing.
"William Morris is starting to appear on the guest list," Kasikci notes, explaining that growing business with CAA's rival illustrates the Peninsula's total élan. Still, nothing is left to chance. "Can we make sure from now on to highlight all the William Morris guests?" he instructs, officially upgrading their status to primo suck-up.
The degrees of ingratiation are subtle as the legendary Soviet Kremlin power positions at the May Day Parade. One guest, staying in a $2,000-a-night suite for two weeks, is sent a monogrammed robe. Another receives a gift of special coffee blends. Kasikci orders a prettily-wrapped Tiffany cup for Stallone's personal assistant, Pat King, who had mentioned the other day how much he likes the hotel coffee. "If you make it into the kitchen or bedroom with a robe or coffee," Kasikci lectures, pressing his fingers together with a satisfied look. "You make it into their hearts."
Flattery works, too. Bleach blond publicity director Andrea Werbel earnestly describes plans to watch the upcoming Golden Globe awards on television, then send congratulatory champagne to winners staying at the hotel. Excellent, Kasikci nods her way.
Night front manager Nick Jones reports how he upgraded a honey-mooning couple to a better room because theirs wasn't ready. "Good," Kasikci glows, reaching out to pat him on the top of the head. Nick nuzzles up to the good-boy caress like a proud Jack Terrier after fetching a stick.
The mood switches to somber when Kasikci discusses a recent USA Today article on how one grand hotel was dropped from the coveted Mobil five-star awards list after 20 years. Without constant vigilance, standards slide, Kasikci reminds everyone, sending nine heads bobbing like backwindow car puppets.
On a final note, Kasikci prods the housekeeping manager to ride herd on the workers who polish the marble lobby floor at night. "My philosophy is simple," he says. "I want to see my face in it."
DURING HIS MORNING ROUNDS, Kasikci's image reflects in the marble. We visit a $500-a- night villa, tucked off the walkway from a fountain courtyard out back. Casting old-growth shade, rare palms transplanted from the Amazon stretch two stories high, their thorned bark trunks resembling pointy bubble wrap. Under our feet, their 12-foot roots grow in soil-filled tanks cantilevered over the parking garage beneath.
Inside the villa, flames from the fireplace cast shadows on beige and pink-accented decor. Extra pillows pack the fluffed, canopied bed. The day's newspapers are arranged like a fan on a maple desk next to the fax/phone. The movie executive who will check in shortly likes it this way.
Before we look into the bathroom --a "customer intimacy" highlight -- Kasikci folds back the white fuzzy rug so we won't dirty it. We step on the rose Aurora marble from Portugal, which covers floors to ceiling. Chosen for its complexion-enhancing qualities, the peachy marble casts warm light that make guests look better in the mirror, though they don't quite know why.
Kasikci takes inventory: Bulgari soap (smaller rooms get the house brand; larger digs get the coordinating cologne.) Rose-filled bud vase. Telephone.
We exit and head to the nearby walk-in closet: six coat hangers for him, six for her, four extra of padded silk. He hangs back scrutinizing, while I wander around running my fingers over the fabric-covered walls. When I return, he is wiping a mirror with his pinstriped cuff. "There was a little smudge," he says. I cannot see it.
Back inside the hotel, he inspects brass sconces for fingerprints. He picks up a piece of white lint here, a crumb there. On the way back to the lobby, his image reflects in the elevator's brass walls. "It is good," he says, smiling at his multiple liknenesses.
On the lobby floor just left of the elevator, we push open an oak door marked Private and step into the back of the house. The polish, twinkle, hush, and fluff vanish. I feel like Dorothy crossing out of technicolor Oz back into black-and-white Kansas. We clatter down a dull brown metal staircase to the hotel's beating heart. The color theme is industrial grey. The odor is school lunchroom. The sound is boom and clatter.
Safety posters featuring happy workers portrayed in 1930s WPA style smile from the walls: "Protect Your hearing." A notice tacked to a bulletin board lists employees whose birthdays fall that month and invites them to the regular celebration luncheon. With expansive jocularity, Kasikci greets everybody by name and they answer with joyous effusion. "Please. Hello. Come in," says Miguel Alvarado, head of the laundry, where rising steam and packed linen bins surround sweating workers from the Philippines, Guatemala, Bolivia, Trinidad and Tobago.
Farther down the hallway, maid's carts wait stacked with towels and Evian water for Irene, Ilene and Eveyln to take upstairs. The housekeeping office -- about as big as a guest bathroom -- hums from a dot matrix printer spewing guest orders noted in military time. Special requests are noted on a white board in green marker. "Room 562-- leave sheets folded on top of trunk." "420 --doesn't like bedspread turned down."
Housekeeping head Mercedes Lucero, familiar to me from the morning meeting, shows me the gold-monogrammed pillowcases stored in a file cabinet. One drawer holds A marked L. The other M through Z. Some guests take theirs home as souvenirs. Others leave them, so that when they return, they'll rest assured in the knolwedge that their Frette cotton pillowcases have never touched another's cheek.
Down the hall, human resources director Jeanette Moore tells how Peninsula salaries start at $9 an hour for maids (plus benefits), compared to $7.50 at similar hotels. The rate goes to $9.45 for maids who "exceed expectations" in performance reviews. The grading covers categories like "Makes eye contact with guest." "Greets guest before guest greets him/her." "Maintains friendly cheerful, helpful tone and body language."
Regarding interpersonal skills and teamwork, Jeanette clearly does not "need improvement." She looks me straight in the eye and declares: "Mr. Kasikci is the best general manager around and I don't mind saying it." He twists his legs into a pretzel under his chair, acting embarrassed.
Back up the clackety stairs, we enter the front offices behind the registration counter. Exuberant and suddenly playful, Kasikci hauls supervisor, Cedric, out of the telephone operator room to compliment his luscious bass voice. "Cedric. Cedric. Sing us a song," Kasikci teases. "Sing us a song. Sing us a song." Cedric smiles and protests that he does not know how to sing. But Kasikci won't stop.
Cedric is a black man. Employees who have witnessed the Cedric teasing, say it makes them gulp with worry that one day he might actually sing. I am reminded of an old movie where a white cop forces an upstanding black citizen to sing Ave Maria or go to jail.
Peaking into the reservation department, Kasikci says hello to his "golden girls" taking reservations. After kidding with Anna about her favorite tune, the "Macarena," he notices that the wall clocks are not synchronized. "Linda. The minutes should be the same," he orders. "Hong Kong is 10 past. London is 10 past. New York is 10 past." She jumps from her seat saying, "I'll take care of that right away, Mr. Kasikci," and does.
What is Linda thinking? What are any of them thinking? Only ex-employees will say. "He's like a pimp, you love him and hate him," says one former manager. "When he treats you well, he is cute and endearing. But when he cuts you down, it hurts to the core."
As three ex-supervisors tell it, the hurt is doled out at staff meetings like the one Kasikci opened by asking: "Who here thinks they're doing a fantastic job?" The dozen managers sat mute in their chairs under the Jasmine Room's crystal chandelier. Kasikci asked again: "Who's doing an OK job?" With the gall of Oliver Twist requesting more gruel, two employees raised their hands. "I wasn't going to sit there and take that," one of the them explains. "I thought there was no way you could say I wasn't doing an OK job." Wrongo. Kasikci launched into a sarcastic tirade ridiculing them for decorating a boardroom table with dainty bud vases rather than a horizontal floral arrangement. Bud vases!
"Look at him," one former manager says, wanting me to guess what famous person Kasikci resembles. "Look at those beady eyes. Look at the way he combs his hair. Have you ever seen anybody comb their hair that way?" Hmmmm. I give up. "Hitler without the moustache," she cries, triumphant. "If he doesn't like you, it's like Hitler's army over there."
What's her point? Didn't Mussolini make the trains run on time? That is what big bucks buy: good help. That's why Gilbert and Pat Wasserman of Providence, RI, spend more than $40,000 a month to winter at the Peninsula rather than buy their own place in Beverly Hills. "I must belong in an institution," Gilbert kids, confessing that he regularly scans the real estate section just to torture himself. "Why do I do it? The absence of discomfort," he says, amiably chatting with his wife in their sprawling two bedroom suite.
"I've had the butler and the maid and they're a pain in the ass," says Gil, a retired clothing magnate who wears a diamond ring as big as a nickel. "Help gets so damn personal. You want to be alone and there they are," adds Pat, dressed in clear plastic mules and dark toe-nail polish. "It's like you clean your house because the maid is coming," elaborates Gil, a self-made man who began life as a butcher's son. "Here the help is interchangeable. I have yet to find an ingenuine smile. They may all be auditioning, but they're great actors."
It is quite a show. Over a Limoges cup of tea, Kasikci sits, legs crossed, in the hotel's fluffy-couched Living Room lounge, all jumpy charm and gracious attention while describing his journey from mischievous Turkish-born teenager to hotel honcho.
AN INDIFFERENT STUDENT raised in Istanbul, he was 16 when his disciplinarian father, a well-traveled flight surgeon, packed him off to hotel high school in Munich. The German training was rigorous, like the time a manager in the school's student hotel saw him bend over in the front desk area to pick up a paper clip. "I felt a nudge in the butt," says Kasikci, who then was instructed to always bend from the knees, derriere down, keeping the head up to maintain guest eye contact.
And so he learned how to keep his eyes on the prize. "The only thing I ever thought about is being a hotelier," he says. "I focus on one thing: My hotel. Some people like art and music. Not in my case. I'm a monomaniac. I'm a single track person. People say I'm demanding. I'm really not. It just makes things more efficient." Those who criticize his management style he dismisses as "digruntled former employees who can't cut the mustard."
After high school , Kasikci spent 10 years working his way up management in South African resort hotels, then graduated to his greatest challenge: the rough and tumble American market. While learning the "intangibles of luxury," at the Four Seasons in New Port Beach, he also met his future wife, Donanne, then a sales manager the Laura Ashley store where he went shopping to furnish his bachelor apartment. "She selected the bedsheets she would sleep in one day," he says.
With the meandering speech patterns of a man rarely interrupted, Kasikci effuses wistfully over the mystique of the grand hotels --like Claridges of London, so exclusive guests needed a letter of introduction to check in. "You read about things happening to the rich and famous people who stay there, like the Chateau Marmont, where people get drunk and die. Like the comedian." (That would be John Belushi.)
Could it be that Kasikci 's notion of mystique thrives on that kind of ghastly mention? While staying at the Peninsula back in 1994, singer-actress Courtney Love was arrested in her room for suspected heroin possession. (Her syringes were prescribed for injectable pain killers and the white powder turned out to be zibhuti ash, a healing Hindu talisman.) And that same year big-busted model Anna Nicole Smith was taken to the hospital with a suspected drug overdose, which her denying publicist blamed on "migraines. " (The blood-stained room was riddled with hypodermic syringes, according to one ex-employee. "I have never seen a suite so trashed in all my life," he said.)
But Kasikci wouldn't dream of spilling beans on his celebrity guests, overdosed or otherwise. That is not the kind of élan he means. "There is a mystique that we call sixth sense," he explains, pointing to the tea service. "Here we are sitting holding Limoges cups," he says, holding up the delicate china. "Your eye sees the highly polished silver. Your palette tastes the brew, your nose smells the flowers." He inhales the aroma, waving his hands over the bud vase as if lighting Sabbath candles.
"We try to satisfy your sixth sense," he says. "You don't know what it is, but you feel exceptionally good. Like in a James Bond film. He has a sixth sense. He senses the danger ahead. It's intuition."
THE SUN IS SETTING. A gowned harpist strums up a twilight ambiance in the darkening Living Room lounge. Across the lobby in the oak-paneled Club Room Bar, older businessmen pair up with female cleavage for cocktails. (An undercover hotel investigator joins them many nights to tackle the intermittent hooker problem. "It's never the people you think it is," says food and beverage manager John Rucci. "You have people just with poor taste." ) Actor George Hamilton, tanned and ageless, sips a $10 Martini at a corner table. "Hollywood is about glitz," he says, comparing the Peninsula to an English Manor. "This is a place with class."
Neckties and tongues loosen, but there's no loosening for Kasikci. Out back in the courtyard, he spies something in a dark corner behind a potted bush. A CRUMPLED PLASTIC BAG. He plucks it up, then throws it down on the walkway for the next passing employee to clean up. The hotel's awakening evening soul twinkling around us is lovely, but Kasikci sees the clous that threaten the silver lining. "It's not perfect," he says, and yet he looks satisfied, secure in his matery of the quest for perfection. "I'm sure there are other things out there," he says, dismissing the world beyond his hotel, "but this is so much of a challenge."