Celebrating its 16th anniversary this year, Montage Laguna Beach marked a new era of luxury hotels. Relaxed, unbuttoned, in tune with its destination, and known for top-notch service, the brand was an instant success when Alan Fuerstman debuted it in 2003. Now, with six hotels and residential developments currently open, the brand plans to double its portfolio in the next three years, with openings under development in Healdsburg, California (2020), Big Sky, Montana (2021) and La Quinta, California (2021) announced. Meanwhile, its sister brand, Pendry Hotels & Resorts, launched in 2017 by Alan’s son, Michael, has already opened properties in San Diego and Baltimore, with plans for New York (2021), Natirar, New Jersey (2021), Park City (2021), and West Hollywood (2020). Here, from a suite at Montage Beverly Hills, they share with CSQ their paths to success and plans for the future.
What first got you interested in hospitality?
Alan: As a senior in high school, I got a part-time job as a doorman at a Marriott hotel in New Jersey. I worked there as a bellman during my college summer breaks, and after graduation in 1978, I moved to California with a friend with the intent to stay for a year before going to graduate school. When I got to California, coincidentally the General Manager I had worked for in New Jersey was in the process of opening a Marriott resort in Rancho Mirage. He persuaded me to take a position opening the resort as its first bell captain. Gaining much insight from him and through that experience, I fell in love with the hotel business. I decided not to pursue more schooling and entered Marriott’s management training program. Over the next decade, I went on to work at five Marriott properties in various departments such as, housekeeping, front office, and food and beverage, developing my skills and progressing my career towards hotel general manager. My career with Marriott culminated in opening Marriott Desert Springs as Resort Manager. From there, I was recruited to be the General Manager of the then Sheraton El Conquistador Resort and Country Club in Tucson, Arizona. In that role, I got involved in resort development in addition to my management responsibilities. In my mid-thirties, I became President and Managing Director of The Phoenician in Scottsdale, Arizona where I oversaw multiple hotels and resorts and continued my resort development responsibilities. In my early forties, I went on to open Bellagio in Las Vegas as the Vice President of Hotel Operations.
Michael: I can’t remember life without the hospitality industry. My earliest memories are running around hotels with my dad. I pulled the fire alarm during the pre-opening at the Warner Center Marriott, I’d visit him at work in Palm Desert and have a drawer full of Legos to play with. My first job was as a pool attendant at the Bellagio when I was 16. I was always fascinated by hotels, but when it came time to go to college, I was choosing between Tufts University in Boston or The Hotel School at Cornell. I opted for Tufts, to explore if there was something else out there for me. I studied Political Science. In 2006, while finishing school, I started a mobile social networking site, Ssocialmonkey.com, that was like Foursquare before Foursquare existed. It was pre-iPhone, pre-GPS. We had an initial amount of success that fizzled quickly, and we had to shutter the business. I moved out to LA, bummed out after the failure of my startup. At this point, my dad had launched Montage Laguna Beach, and was working on the development planning for Montage Beverly Hills. I attended an owner’s meeting with him on a whim, and for the first time in my life saw the makings of building and developing a hotel…a room full of people discussing guest experience, design, value engineering decisions. I instantly fell in love with the development side of our business. I begged our development partners, the Athens Group, to let me intern with them—unpaid. I was about 22 at the time and learned a lot, mostly in project management.
How did you go about launching your brands?
Alan: I had been thinking about creating a luxury hotel company for a few years before I launched Montage Hotels & Resorts in January 2002. My take on ultra-luxury at the time was that old-world traditional luxury was too pretentious and stuffy. I sensed that the next generation of luxury consumer was looking for a more gracious and humble approach with a less-scripted style. I felt that as the dominant luxury companies, like Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton, were getting larger, there was room for a smaller highly personalized luxury brand where each hotel and resort had a distinctive sense and spirit of place.
I always had an entrepreneurial mindset and had learned from my experience at The Phoenician what incredible value could be created when the right hotels are combined with an extraordinary service culture. The Phoenician was valued at $240M when I got there in 1994 and valued at over $400M when I left in 1998.
After 9/11, the hotel industry was hit very hard, and I felt that the timing would be right to launch a luxury brand, provided that I could raise capital to acquire luxury assets. Over lunch with my friend Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, I shared my plans for a luxury hotel company. Pierre decided to invest in hotel assets which enabled me to create what is now Montage. His investments gave Montage a platform to show proof of concept as a brand and operator. We now manage four multiple hotel owners, and Pierre is still a partner in Montage International.
In early 2002, I met with the Athens Group who were in pre-development of a hotel in Beverly Hills and were in development of a resort in Laguna Beach. The property in Laguna Beach was being developed for Marriott to be operated by Ritz-Carlton. When I toured the property in Laguna Beach, I knew it would be the ideal platform to launch our brand. We were successful in negotiating with Marriott to purchase the property in large part because of the value we saw in the residential component of the project. My original plan for launching a luxury company was to acquire an existing asset and then use its name for our brand and company. With the acquisition in Laguna Beach, the challenge was to select that name.
Our advertising agency and PR company offered many, but none resonated with me. Inspired by Laguna Beach’s history as an artist colony, I went on the internet, found an A-Z art reference guide and started searching for the right name. I saw the word “montage” which meant “artful compilation, collection” and thought it represented what we were creating… a collection of hotels and resorts, as well as people coming together to do extraordinary things. The word “montage” sounded good off the tongue, and the name was born.
Michael: A lot of the themes Montage hit on years ago—culinary, spa, sense of place, being comfortable—were forward thinking at the time, but standard now. Fast forward 15 years, and we’ve taken the same forward-thinking mindset to create a complementary new luxury brand. We saw post-recession that luxury was coming back in another way. We wanted to create something for the new luxury guest who has a slightly different value set than the previous generation’s luxury guest. This new luxury guest cares about design, architecture, art, culture, new culinary trends, pop culture, music…but they also want the service and execution of a traditional luxury hotel. Pendry has a strong point of view on design and aesthetic, each hotel is one of one, and we collaborate with other visionaries in design and architecture. Relative to Montage, a Pendry will still have a great location in an amazing setting, but the style will be different, and the square footage might be less. We set out to build a brand around that positioning and have really found our niche.
What makes you successful?
Michael: We are passionate about what we do, and we live it. We spend time traveling and seeing the best that the world has to offer, and we spend a lot of time at our hotels. There is no substitute for being in our own operations. I don’t go more than a couple of months without visiting each of our hotels. On an east coast trip it isn’t uncommon to be in Baltimore, New Jersey, and New York in the same day. Also, I think we have a strong point of view on were luxury is headed and how our customers consume the world.
Alan: The foundation for the success of Montage is the service culture and the staff who deliver extraordinary experiences for our guests. Our focus on hiring and learning combined with our staff’s passion for creating memorable and highly personalized gracious service differentiates Montage. We are incredibly discerning about the location of our hotels as well as the architecture, design, and amenities. All of our Montage Hotels have had a residential component that has been an essential element to the success of each project. Residential has been in our DNA since our inception in Laguna Beach and will continue to be as we expand our portfolio.
How do you operate in a family business where it’s important to draw boundaries?
Alan: The boundary part is important at home. We could talk about work 24/7. It’s not that work is an off-limits topic, but we want to be mindful about not shutting everyone else out of the conversation. We engage all our family members though, and they bring in different and unique perspectives. At work, Michael brings a highly valuable skillset to the organization. Importantly, he takes on his role as my son as a responsibility and not a privilege. It is inevitable that Michael feels an added pressure to perform, but he has exhibited an exceptional aptitude for the hotel industry and has worked amazingly hard to accomplish all that we have with Pendry.
Michael: I give my dad all the credit. He made it easy for me early on with enough latitude to do things on my own and fail, but at the same time, I appreciated the opportunity and worked hard to make the most of it. In my younger years, it was harder. I think there was a perception, right or wrong, true or untrue, of a son wanting to prove himself. At this point in my career, I’m confident in my own skin, and it feels great to be building something special collaboratively with my dad.
How do you seek inspiration from your competition?
Michael: There are always little nuggets of inspiration everywhere. Generally, I like properties that are designed by hoteliers with a point of view. Firmdale does a great job. I like Kit Kemp’s hotels—you can see how much they all reflect her style. I appreciate what Schrager has done and how he continues to reinvent himself. Ashford Castle, the old Guinness Estate, is a lovely stay. We have to see the world to stay inspired and keep pushing and innovating ourselves.
Alan: I am continually inspired by visiting amazing hotels and resorts across the globe. Whether it is the old world charm of Villa D’Este in Italy, or the bare-foot luxury at the Wakaya Club in Fiji, or the incredible sustainable initiatives and luxury offerings at the Brando in Tahiti…I find inspiration from what others do.