Nissenbaum Raises Bar at Peninsula Beverly Hills

The managing director now uses two tools—process management and an innovation committee—to hopefully create a guest stay that’s second-to-none.

“Process management basically is breaking down each experience in the hotel and looking at Step A to Step Z of what happens during that time period,” he explains. “We basically dissect the whole process and say, ‘Are we doing the best thing that we can for the guest?’ Because so many hotels do things that are convenient for them (the staff). It doesn’t matter how I think or how I feel.”

Since roughly half of his hotel’s guests arrive by plane—often from overseas—Nissenbaum uses a dissection of the arrival process at Los Angeles International Airport as an example.

“What happens to a guest when they arrive? What happens on the way from the airport to here?” he asked himself and his staff. “Is this the best experience a guest can have?

Hotel page Jesse Henderson removes a guest’s purchases from a car outside the Peninsula hotel in Beverly Hills, CA.

“Let’s put ourselves in the guest’s shoes,” he continues. “He’s coming off a flight. He’s usually very tired. Nobody feeds you anymore and if they do, it’s terrible. So what are the things that are important? It’s important to be quick, meet them promptly, get their luggage. And we get them into the car.”

It’s about a 30-minute drive from LAX to Beverly Hills, and guests are given the opportunity to order from the room service menu during the ride, so that a freshly prepared meal can be delivered within minutes of reaching their room.

“The guests love it, because that half hour between LAX and here now becomes productive, which saves them time when they check in to the hotel,” Nissenbaum notes.

Room service also was the topic of discussion during meetings of the managing director’s second unique tool: the innovation committee.

“It is comprised of people from different departments who are truly interested in making a difference in the hotel,” he says, pointing out that committee members don’t have to be managers, but simply “people who are open to discussing things that are completely outside the box and people who are not afraid to challenge the current method that we’re doing things today.

“It’s very interesting what comes up in these meetings. My role is to really get them going and to make sure they’re thinking outside the box. And the rule is that there is no rule.”

One outgrowth of such brainstorms was the Peninsula Beverly Hills’ one-course-at-a-time approach to room service for guests seeking a leisurely meal without heading to a restaurant.

“Why can’t I have a dining experience like in the dining room? Why can’t I get my appetizer first, then my main course, then my dessert and someone pouring my wine for me?” Nissenbaum says, putting himself in the shoes—or maybe simply the socks—of a guest. “So we created this experience where guests now have the option…that if you want to really have a dining experience in your guest room, you really can.

“Does every guest utilize it? No. But some do, and they say, ‘Wow! I’ve never experienced this anywhere else.’”

“We have a noon meeting when we go through the arrivals for the next day,” notes Gareth Roberts, an executive assistant manager at the Peninsula. “When we’re going through the notes we have on the guest, we’re looking at how we can adapt and do something that’s really a ‘wow’ for them.”

That “wow” could be provided by a basket of goodies from their homeland or the addition of a particular fragrance to the room. Monogrammed pillowcases are standard, as are towels personalized with a dog’s name for people traveling with their pooches.

Monogrammed pillowcases greet guests in their rooms

“We practice what we preach,” Roberts adds. “There are a lot of hotels that talk about customization and personalization and all of that. I think we actually do it and we follow through on it.”

“The human factor is critical in this hotel,” Nissenbaum observes of his somewhat-unorthodox personnel practices.

“The way we hire people is not based on their experience … I’m interested to know what makes you tick, what makes you happy and what kind of a person you are. If you’re someone who’s warm, caring and genuinely concerned about other people’s well-being—and that I can’t teach you, you either inherently have it or not—then you’re meant to be in this business.”

“For the front desk at the hotel, we very rarely hire someone who’s had prior experience,” he says citing an example. “I’d rather take someone who’s never worked there before. [Then] I have someone who’s fresh [with] no preconceived notions, no bad habits and they genuinely care about the guest experience. I can teach them how to work a computer and ‘double-double versus king’ and all the innuendo of our business. But I can’t teach them to be a wonderful human being.”

“We have a lot of staff to make sure that we can execute whatever the guest demands in a timely fashion,” explains Christian Boyens, the property’s other executive assistant manager. “Does it work 100 percent of the time? Probably not. But I think it happens at the Peninsula more often and closer to 100 percent than at most of our competitors.”

“We generally are leading the market,” adds Gareth Roberts. “We are generally charging a premium over other hotels in Beverly Hills. And, yes, people will pay a premium when they feel there is something they’re getting for it.”

Rates at the Peninsula generally start in the $500-$600 a night range, which is indeed somewhat higher than the base price at neighboring five-star hotels. Rooms for the first weekend in March 2011 start at $585 at the Peninsula, $550 at the Montage, and $369 at SLS.

“We’ve tried a few things that haven’t worked, and that’s OK. I’d rather be doing something than not doing anything at all,” Nissenbaum says of his unique management style that’s so very, very different than that of Leona Helmsley nearly 30 years ago.

“What really resonates with [guests] is how they feel when they’re here. And it’s the staff that makes that happen.”

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