One-on-one: Montage Hotels & Resorts’ Alan Fuerstman

(Alan Fuerstman, founder and CEO of Montage Hotels & Resorts, has opened three luxury hotels over the past few years and is ready to expand his fledgling brand further still.)

Alan Fuerstman, founder and CEO of Montage Hotels & Resorts, has opened three luxury hotels over the past few years and is ready to expand his fledgling brand further still.

Montage has properties in Laguna Beach and Beverly Hills, Calif., and Deer Valley, Utah, but that’s just the beginning. “We are in a growth mode,” Fuerstman told Hotel Management.

“A healthy company is a growing company and we see positioning Montage globally in a market that can support ultra luxury.”

New York City is on the top of Fuerstman’s radar, but he and his team are building a robust pipeline, focusing on major gateway cities in general, as well as resort areas that have markets that could achieve rates north of $500 a night.

“New York is very important to us,” he said. “It’s a very strong hotel city and it would really help with our presence.” Other areas of interest include Washington, D.C., London, Paris and China. Projects are underway in Mexico’s resort destinations and there’s a Bahamas resort in the pipeline. “We are looking in the Caribbean as well,” he added.

Fuerstman’s primary development concern is making sure that opportunities are consistent with the Montage brand. “We really don’t want to compromise on the quality with location. Even within the destinations we want to be in, there is often just a small opportunity where Montage would be most suited,” he said.

The Birth of a Brand

Naming Montage wasn’t easy. Fuerstman had asked several firms to come up with a moniker for the young company, but wasn’t satisfied with the long list he received. Time was tight because it was nearly time to announce the Laguna Beach project, the first hotel in the portfolio to open. He went to an art reference guide and found the word “montage,” which means, “artful compilation collection.”

“I said, ‘Wow, this would be a collection of hotels, a collection of people coming together to do extraordinary things,” Fuerstman said. He put the word into the mix of hotels he wanted to compete with and practiced the sound of it. “I am staying at the Ritz; I am staying at the Four Seasons; I am staying at the Montage. It sounded great off the tongue. It’s been a great fit since day one,” he said.

Employing a word with artistic meaning was equally significant for Montage Laguna Beach because the ocean resort in Southern California is located in an artist’s enclave. “We wanted to embrace the community. We want to be active and be supportive in the neighborhoods where we operate our hotels,” he said.

That effort has paid off. Drive around Laguna Beach and its neighboring towns and most locals will ask you if “you’ve seen the Montage.” They’re proud of the Craftsman-style property, which has drawn from the upper echelon of the global luxury market since it opened in 2003. They’re also likely aware of the “Hearts of Montage” program that involves the hotel with projects such as local blood drives, beach cleanups and other volunteer initiatives.

Fuerstman became involved with what is now the Montage Laguna Beach post-9/11. He met the project’s developers, the Athens Group, who wanted to discuss an opportunity in Beverly Hills with him. They took him to Laguna Beach, which was already under development, to show him the type of work that they did. Fuerstman fell in love with the oceanfront resort.

“I knew it would be the ideal platform with which to launch our brand,” he said. It was early 2002 when Fuerst­man’s company became involved with the project, which debuted in 2003.

While Montage’s model is that of a management company, it is investing in its first few properties to “help to create the brand and really have the opportunity to deliver what the Montage experience will be and what it is ultimately,” Fuerstman said.
The Montage Beverly Hills opened in November 2008; the Montage Deer Valley followed in 2010.

A Marriott Man

Montage’s rise through the competitive luxury market didn’t happen overnight. Fuerstman started at the bottom of the hospitality ladder and worked his way up, as did so many other top players in the industry today. As a senior in high school, he was a part-time doorman at a Marriott hotel in New Jersey, where he grew up. That led to a summer job as a bellman throughout his college years. As he was graduating, the general manager of the New Jersey Marriott offered him the job of bell captain at a Marriott resort he was opening in Southern California.

Being part of the opening team for a new hotel solidified it all for Fuerstman.

“Being fully immersed in that excitement and energy, I determined that I would love to pursue a career in the hotel business,” he said. He went right into the Marriott Management Training Program and worked his way up, overseeing the front desk, housekeeping, the front office and food and beverage. The hard work paid off: Fuerstman was named resident manager of the hotel operator’s flagship resort, Marriott’s Desert Springs in Palm Desert, Calif., in 1987. The opportunity gave Fuerstman a lesson in what it is like to run a resort.
Recruiters got a hold of him, however, and he moved over to manage El Conquistador Resort and Country Club in Tucson, Ariz., which was part of ITT Sheraton at the time.

There, he became involved in hotel development for the company. Fuerstman moved to The Phoenician in Scottsdale, Ariz., which ITT Sheraton had acquired, as managing director, and subsequently was made president for a small group of luxury hotels for the company that included The St. Regis Aspen (Colo.) and The St. Regis Houston. That role also involved resort development.

In 1998, he left to open and manage Bellagio in Las Vegas for Steve Wynn. “The exciting challenge for me and for the team was to introduce luxury at that scale, with 3,000 rooms in a luxury environment. It was a great challenge, and we had terrific success there,” he said.

Fuerstman enjoys the friendships he forged from his early days in hospitality. “My relationships with former colleagues is one of the most gratifying aspects of my profession,” he said. “These early relationships helped build the foundation of our team at Montage and I still rely heavily on my network of former colleagues as we recruit new talent.”

Venturing out on his own

Bellagio was a home run from the beginning, but Fuerstman had an entrepreneurial spirit tugging at him. In 2000, it was time to branch out on his own. He left Bellagio to launch his own management company, which evolved into Montage Hotels & Resorts.
His vision for the hotel landscape, which he felt at the time was dominated by Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons, was to have an ultra-luxury hotel company that was smaller in scale and would provide personalized attention and connect with the next generation of affluent travelers.

“I wanted to avoid the pretentiousness of the old trappings of luxury and still have an incredible attention to detail and appreciation for fine craftsmanship,” Fuerstman said.
If you’ve visited any of the three existing Montage properties, you’ll find service is delivered in an intuitive, gracious manner that creates an aura of relaxed luxury.

Fuerstman credits his leadership team with establishing that environment, noting that most of them have either worked with him in the past or with people that had worked for him. 
The successes of Montage’s associates are constantly celebrated with stories of extraordinary performance shared throughout the company. “We share how our staff looks to create the wows that are memorable and that help to build those deep-rooted relationships with our guests,” Fuerstman said.

This focus has led Montage to enjoy a high level of repeat guest business—clientele who tend to be the “who’s who” of the international affluent circuit and expect exceptional service. “And they should,” Fuerstman said. “We charge premium rates and we have to deliver and exceed the expectations of our guests.”

Cuisine is a key component of each Montage property and the company invests heavily in its chefs, who interact quite naturally with guests and are encouraged to be creative in their environment.

Case in point: At Montage Laguna Beach, general manager Todd Orlich got the inspiration to create a garden on a field outside of the hotel’s oceanfront Studio restaurant. He collaborated with Studio’s executive chef, Craig Strong, and the two approached Fuerstman with the idea, which was approved. Guests now tour the garden with Strong, who said that he had recently brought a young diner out to the garden to pick her own basil for her spaghetti dinner.

“That drives the whole notion of being interactive and experiential; we have a strong appreciation for that,” said Fuerstman, who relishes that staff come to him with ideas. “To hire a great talent and then stifle their creativity is a huge mistake. So we really encourage contributions through all levels of the organization,” he said.

As for Montage’s general managers, “Ultimately, they need to be a gracious host, a strong leader and have the requisite business acumen to run a complex organization,” said Fuerstman, adding that a good general manager is one who looks at all of the nuts and bolts of a hotel but still is creative. As he expands Montage, he’ll keep an eye on nurturing talent from within and also for “exceptional folks” externally that he thinks would do well within the organization.

Developers who are considering if Montage is a fit for them should know that the company is looking to work with those who understand the ultra high end of the hotel market.

“That’s very important,” Fuerstman said. “We are interested in projects that make good financial sense because we think that to associate with projects that aren’t built on sound economics is a recipe for disaster. We want to be certain that the project really stands on its merits.”

A residential component that is consistent with the hotel is also vital, he said.
But don’t think of Montage as only interested in new builds; Fuerstman said there might be opportunities to redevelop existing hotels in the right locations that can be repositioned into a luxury product.

One might wonder, being based at the Montage Laguna Beach, where Fuerstman would go “to get away from it all” for a holiday. He said during busy vacation periods, such as Labor Day weekend, he stays on property.

“I love to be there engaging with our guests and our staff,” he said. “I tend not to travel over the major holidays, and I find it very important for me to be very visible at the resorts. I am typically either in Laguna, Beverly Hills or Deer Valley for busy times.”
He does love to travel for leisure, however, and stayed a few years ago at the Wakaya Club & Spa on Fiji. “It’s a romantic, small island resort, which was a great little getaway,” he said. He and his wife also enjoy Italy and this summer ventured to the Maldives. The hotelier at heart also loves to visit great resorts in other parts of the world.

The task of expanding the Montage brand also keeps him busy. “I travel to our existing hotels but I’m also very active and engaged in the development process,” he said. “Looking at new opportunities takes me on the road quite a bit.”