Innovation: Game changers? Or 1,000 little touches?

By Arnie Weissmann
Arnie WeissmannWhen Israeli-born Offer Nissenbaum was general manager of the Omni Berkshire Hotel in New York, former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres was a frequent guest.

Both men have since moved on to different jobs. Peres is Israel's president, and Nissenbaum is managing director of the Peninsula Beverly Hills. But they have stayed in touch, and last month the two reunited in Jerusalem at Peres' 90th birthday celebration, which was attached to his Presidential Conference, an annual gathering of leaders from various disciplines to discuss global issues.

At his Beverly Hills property, Nissenbaum is accustomed to the presence of celebrities. Still, the array of stars gathered for the birthday party impressed even him: Bill Clinton, Barbra Streisand, Tony Blair, Robert De Niro, Benjamin Netanyahu and Sharon Stone were among the guests.

But the conference portion of the gathering impressed him even more than the party. Business leaders participated on panels with scientists, doctors, entertainers and politicians. The unofficial theme, he said, was "innovation -- faster, better, more efficient, targeted."

Nissenbaum knows a thing or two about innovation. The Peninsula Beverly Hills, always well-regarded, has attained new levels of recognition recently. Nissenbaum was in New York last week to pick up the property's award as the "No. 1 large city hotel in the United States" from Travel + Leisure.

Earlier in the year, Conde Nast Traveler had called the property the best hotel in Southern California, and Global Traveler magazine had recognized it as the No. 1 hotel in the U.S.

Additionally, AAA had rated the property Five Diamonds for the 20th straight year, and Forbes gave it five stars.

I first met Nissenbaum when I stayed at the Beverly Hills property in February 2008, shortly after he joined it. He followed Ali Kasikci in the managing director role, and Kasikci was credited with making the Peninsula the hotel in a very competitive Beverly Hills set. He was not only a tough act to follow, but a competitor; he left the Peninsula to open the Montage Beverly Hills.

When I stayed at Nissenbaum's hotel then, I saw signs of disruption. Service, in particular, was surprisingly inconsistent for a Peninsula anywhere, let alone Beverly Hills. I asked him what he had done to turn a shaky start into an award-laden hotel.

It was innovation, he said. But not the faster-better-more-efficient-targeted kind.

"On one hand, you can't run a successful business without a culture of innovation," he said. "But people think you have to come up with some huge, game-changing concept. That's not necessary. A thousand little touches can come together as an innovation culture."

His predecessor was, by reputation, an exacting perfectionist who set high standards and expected the staff to adhere closely to his vision. Nissenbaum says that, in contrast, he instituted a culture that embraces employees' ideas.

"This is an empowered culture, where people are involved in the decisions," he said. "We have a roundtable meeting in my office every two weeks on how to improve both the guest and employee experience. We have an innovation committee, and everyone has a part. We have dishwashers sitting in the meetings. They have a voice, and we want to hear it."

For many career hoteliers, Nissenbaum said, the way to advance is by moving from hotel to hotel. But he has established a career path within Peninsula for those he considers management material. "We may send someone to take a leadership course at the University of California Los Angeles, or to improve computer skills, or develop a better understanding of human resources. Assignments are based as much on their needs as on their contributions."

When he returns to Beverly Hills, he plans to share the Travel + Leisure award with the entire staff.

"It's their award, too," he said. "We're going to decorate the ballroom and give them a full Hollywood experience. We'll have stylists to work on their makeup and hair, and then take their photo with the award. I'll be on the balcony, barbecuing and serving everyone."

In an industry as people-oriented as hospitality, innovation must begin with people, Nissenbaum concluded: "There are a lot of physically beautiful hotels. But to be on top, you have to create the best guest experience, and that only happens when you realize that, ultimately, your people are your product."

Email Arnie Weissmann at aweissmann@travelweekly.com and follow him on Twitter. 
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