From chefs to scions, investors to film stars, Boutique Design’s (BD’s) 2018 Up-and-Coming Hoteliers share an instinct for building brands that bridge the comfortable, real-world fundamentals of their guests’ everyday lifestyles with the wish-list, wanna-have touches that make every traveler feel like an influencer.
This year’s honorees—Robert De Niro, Nobu Matsuhisa (chef) and Meir Teper, cofounders of Nobu Hospitality; Michael Fuerstman, cofounder and creative director of Pendry Hotels, and Brian De Lowe (president), Brad Korzen and Alex Samek, cofounders of Proper Hospitality— have drawn on their dramatically different career paths, life experiences and social connections to craft start-ups with strong enough voices to rise over the competitive din and speak to a narrowly defined and carefully curated target market (the same one every cool-hunting hotel company is tracking).
What’s making their message get a hearing (and justifying their status as bellwethers for luxury lifestyle hotels) is that they’ve created destinations where they and their friends would choose to stay, eat, work and party—places where it’s okay to kick off your designer shoes after a long day or throw on your bespoke jacket for a Michelin-starred dinner. And this hands-on group has test-driven every piece of the hotel machinery. De Lowe moved into the building that would house the San Francisco Proper Hotel and made his home there for a year before the property’s 2017 opening. Fuerstman, his wife and new baby spent “a few months” at a small Airbnb near the Pendry San Diego to get every detail right and tells BD he did the same for the Sagamore Pendry Baltimore. Chef Matsuhisa says he’s on the road 75% of the year to maintain a personal connection with what’s happening at the hotels and restaurants that bear his name.
This kind of personal stamp defines why these young brands are both innovative and relevant. The leadership for all three flags has found distinctive design and service solutions that make guests feel “at home” as they would at a friend’s house. There’s a lot that’s familiar, but there are also some glamourous, witty and just-beyond-reach elements that make for an escapist experience. Read on to find out how these innovators broke the hotel mold and how they plan to keep their brands’ names in lights.
It’s probably a little galling for all of the hoteliers pouring blood, sweat and tears into trying to launch their passion-project hotel brands to see this trio of superstars honored as three of Boutique Design’s (BD’s) 2018 Up-and-Coming Hoteliers. Robert De Niro, Nobu Matsuhisa and Meir Teper are already so famous in their chosen professions as actor, chef and producer, respectively, that they could expect to start at the top of any side hustle and kill it.
What earned the cofounders of nine-year-old Nobu Hospitality a legitimate space on the dais for this award was the fact that, while the public may think De Niro, Nobu and Teper are too big to fail; they clearly didn’t. Nor did they come at this venture with a “hey, we stay at hotels, so why don’t we just develop our brand?” kind of flippancy. Like any good performers, they made it look easy. It wasn’t.
That’s especially true for Nobu. While both De Niro and Teper have weathered some scathing reviews of their craft, the Japanese-born chef has spent more than his fair share of time facing down the personal side of failure. Before he was winning James Beard awards and nabbing Michelin stars, Nobu was grappling with more tangible struggles—from failed restaurants in Peru and Argentina to a devastating fire in his then months-old Anchorage, Alaska, eatery that left him deeply in debt and “at the end of his rope.”
After a wound-licking return to Japan, a friend told him about an opportunity at a small sushi restaurant in Los Angeles. It was a decade-long climb to get to the 1987 opening of Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills and to getting his Japanese-Peruvian fused cooking in front of A-listers such as De Niro. And, just for the record, the actor didn’t just pop the partner question on a whim. He was a Matsuhisa regular but was tipped off about Nobu’s potential to go bicoastal and beyond by noted restaurateur Drew Nieporent, who cofounded Nobu Restaurants with Nobu and De Niro.
While De Niro, Nobu and Teper don’t have hospitality degrees, they did on-the-job training while overseeing the restaurant group that laid the foundation for a foray into hotels. “Nobu restaurants were asked to be in a lot of places, from shopping centers to, very frequently, hotels. We were asking, if we’re going into those places, why not do this ourselves?” says De Niro. “We had something people wanted to elevate their [hotel] brands. Since we’d proven we could give credibility and cachet to a place, there was no reason we shouldn’t consider launching our own hotel group.”
Since his name was going over the door, Nobu approached the move into hotels with the same mix of practicality and innovation that are the hallmarks of his culinary genius. “We’re under a lot of pressure to make sure any Nobu-branded touchpoint is seamless. To achieve that, detail is key,” says the chef turned hotelier.
On the hotel side, that means that “nothing is a carbon copy,” he says. “Each project in our portfolio mirrors the personality of its location. From Rockwell Group’s beach-house inspired rooms in Nobu Hotel Miami Beach to the street art feel created by Studio Mica and Studio PCH for London’s Nobu hotel in Shoreditch (featured in BD’s January/February 2018 edition) to the traditional Japanese inn-referenced look Studio PCH, Montalba Architects and TAL Studio created for the Nobu Ryokan Malibu [California] (covered in BD’s May 2017 “Life Stylists” story), every property feels like the place that it’s in. It’s the same with the restaurants. We use locally sourced and fresh ingredients and the menu is slightly tailored to reflect its locale.”
While that’s business as usual, just as on the culinary side, the hotel group isn’t afraid to spice up its natural leanings toward elegant, modern simplicity with a red-hot wow element—whether architect Ron Arad’s glass-and-steel design for the Shoreditch property or the shafts of Mediterranean-blue hue that flow from spotlights in the Nobu Hotel Marbella slated to open later this year.
It’s also about not being afraid to take on conventional wisdom. The executives behind concepts as bespoke as this one usually want to keep their portfolios micro-manageable. Not so with Nobu Hospitality. The eight-hotel pipeline will more than double the portfolio, but that may be just the beginning. “We have to grow as a company, so we will continue to evaluate what is best for us as a restaurant and hotel brand,” says Teper. “I don’t think there’d such a thing as ‘too big.’”
Teper, De Niro and Nobu share an opportunistic development outlook. Basically, they’ll go where their guests want them to be. Near term, that means the flag will soon be flying in Atlanta, Barcelona, Chicago, Marbella, Riyadh, São Paulo as well as Los Cabos, Mexico, and Toronto, the latter of which will also be home to the group’s first branded residences.
As for the long-term prospects, De Niro sees consistency as the linchpin for brand building. “Nobu—the person and the company—have withstood the test of time by continuing to be creative and yet simple,” says the actor/entrepreneur. “Consistent quality is what makes hotels and restaurants great. And the service has to be good. You can tell when people care and when they’re letting things run down.”
There’s nothing innately disruptive about the concept of boutique hotels in 2018, according to the masterminds behind the three-year-old, California-based Proper Hospitality company: Brian De Lowe, Brad Korzen and Alex Samek.
“Our target guests—affluent members of the ‘creative class’—have developed higher-end tastes and prefer more refined experiences. They virtually grew up with the last wave of boutique hotels, and now they are looking for something a bit higher end and/or more casual and experiential,“ says president and cofounder De Lowe (for more from him on the firm’s upcoming DTLA outpost, see Boutique Design’s March 2018 issue).
In other words, these are travelers who look at OG lifestyle brands, yes, even icons like Morgans Hotel Group or Joie de Vivre Hotels (now part of Two Roads Hospitality) as been-there, done-that. It helps that all three cofounders have already mastered the art of transformation at a personal level—good training for trailblazing a new hospitality landscape that moves beyond the conventional concepts of either boutique or big box hotels.
Korzen originally studied law before realizing it wasn’t for him and turning to real estate investment. What started as a family-and-friend backed business with a portfolio of two- and four-unit apartments in Korzen’s native Chicago became investment/development/management firm The Kor Group, which has now handled $3 billion in assets and is an investor in the entire Proper Hospitality portfolio, currently including San Francisco Proper Hotel and Hollywood Proper Residences, with further outposts in Downtown LA, Santa Monica and Austin to open soon. De Lowe started with a real estate degree, but soon found himself learning the ropes at The Kor Group, as well. Samek may have begun his career in banking/private equity, but he too was swept up into the rising tide of The Kor Group.
So, just what do these three cofounders think makes a hotel concept truly outstanding today? First of all, push past the over-analysis of the target market and settle on one key consumer base who can become loyal to all of a brand’s products. In Proper’s case, that means both hotels and residential/extended stay hybrids.
Who is the “Proper” fit? A quick look at the hotels’ neighbors answers that question. The traveler wanting to stay near companies such as Viacom, Fender, NeueHouse or Netflix in LA; Twitter, Square, Uber or Spotify in San Francisco; or Google in Austin. All share a need to be near “the action,” both in their industries and in hotels that match their educated-but-eclectic tastes.
That blueprint offers plenty of flexibility in Proper’s development and style. Newbuilds and adaptive reuses both have a place in their world, as do design signatures from airy California cool in the Hollywood residences to Euro-chic, complete with vintage pieces, in the San Francisco hotel. The goal is for each property to be deeply integrated into its surrounding community. Kelly Wearstler, head of her eponymous LA-based design firm (she’s also married to Korzen; the two collaborated on many projects before Proper) and the creative force behind the look of the brand’s current and upcoming properties, puts a fresh spin on her signature textural approach for each outpost.
Clearly, though, the look of a hotel is just one facet of “lifestyle” for the Proper guest. That next layer of drill down takes not only elbow grease, but time. Ask De Lowe, who moved into the historic building that became the San Francisco Proper for a year to do on-the-ground connecting and research. “I wanted to fully understand/absorb the neighborhood, meet the people driving Mid-Market’s/San Francisco’s culture, and make connections with local influential/like-minded brands, including Luggage Store Gallery and Bon Vivants,” he says.
What’s next for the young company? Samek says they’re interested in “innovation districts” in markets such as Miami, Nashville, New York, Portland, Oregon, and Seattle. As far as specific locations, there’s a long checklist.
“We want them to be physically compact, transit-accessible and technically wired, and offer mixed-use housing, office and retail,” says De Lowe. “The potential site should be anchored by leading institutions and companies, connected to start-ups, business incubators and accelerators.”
Korzen points out that each project is a detail-oriented team effort. That’s key for impressing today’s worldly (maybe even cynical) luxury guest.
Michael Fuerstman likes to take risks. But, he says, the 2016 launch of the luxury lifestyle Pendry Hotels brand wasn’t one of them.
“We’d taken a long, hard look at the market and saw that there was a growing customer base that wasn’t being served in the right way,” says this young hotelier, the son of Alan Fuerstman, founder, chairman and ceo of the hospitality management company that’s the parent of the 5-star Montage Hotels & Resorts (MHR) and Pendry Hotels group. “We created and then developed a product and an experience specifically for the guest that has a love for architecture, design, art and culture but also wants vibrant food and beverage, attention to wellness and modern service. Pendry has its own look and style, but it’s a natural extension of what we’re doing with Montage. So, no, the launch didn’t feel like a big risk.”
That sound bite would seem like little more than press release fodder if you didn’t know the younger Fuerstman’s backstory. His career path should have been a cake walk. All he had to do was grab the golden ticket that was his birthright and settle into MHR’s respected C-suite for life. Like so many other self-starting family scions, he turned that down to blaze his own trail.
“I like to push myself,” says this avid surfer and skier. “The best opportunities to learn and grow exist outside of one’s comfort zone.”
Fuerstman’s bio bears that out. He ventured into acres of uncharted personal territory as he transitioned from being a Tufts University graduate with a political science degree to trying his hand as a social media entrepreneur to working his way up from an internship to a post as an assistant project manager with Athens Real Estate Group.
It was a tough learning curve, but an invaluable one, in his view. “I learned early on that it’s not enough to just have a good idea. You have to be able to execute on your concept and convey it to the consumer very concisely.”
For example, while the premise of creating Social Monkey as a mobile social networking platform—think Foursquare before Foursquare existed—seemed like a fantastic business decision, that light bulb moment wasn’t enough. “We tried to do too much all at once and lost our way. I was crushed,” he admits. “But, when that door closed, I moved on to Athens Group and, in 2009, joined MHR as residential sales operations manager for the Montage Residences Beverly Hills.”
Working in sales and marketing, on the residential sales side of MHR and in acquisitions and development filled the last gaps between executive and entrepreneur.
“While growing the Montage brand, we were in a fortunate position to understand what resonated with our existing guests and how their needs and desires were changing,” says Fuerstman, who served as corporate director, acquisitions and development, prior to the Pendry rollout. “We could then begin to see what the next wave of luxury customer was looking for. A small group of us within the company began to work on a new brand (that would eventually become Pendry) to appeal directly to those guests.”
He’s enjoying the fact that the brand “is riding some momentum now.” But, he’s wary about expanding too fast. Fuerstman’s not likely to “lose his way” twice. “We are laser focused on bringing new luxury to cities, neighborhoods, and destinations that we feel are good fits for our guests,” he says.
In the next five years, his goal is to open a Pendry hotel in at least one major city on the East and West Coasts, and “have a collection of some of the most interesting experience-driven destinations in between. I’d love to expand our portfolio to include locales in wine country, the mountains, the desert and the beach as well as a country manor.”
He also plans to follow the best advice offered by his father. “He told me to just to enjoy what we’re doing,” says the family scion. “We all work so hard, we have to enjoy the success, the competition and camaraderie. My dad is awesome like that. We’ve always been able to balance home and work life, and it’s a very special thing to be able to grow this company together.”