Few sites on the East Coast inspire as much wonderment as Ocean House, in Watch Hill, R.I. In an alt-hospitality universe, where design is lifestyle minded and millennials rule the roost, Ocean House is a traditionalist: time-honored luxury not easily swayed by the trends of the day.
That’s not to say it’s operating with blinders on. While guests that include Conan O’Brien and Joe Scarborough come for the bygone, beach feel, the hotel, and the group it’s part of, OHM Collection, is being shepherded to be as relevant now as when the hotel first opened in 1868.
Making sure of that is Daniel Hostettler, president and managing director of OHM Collection, which includes three other hotels outside of Ocean House—Rhode Island’s Weekapaug Inn and Watch Hill Inn, the latter just down the street from Ocean House, and Spicer Mansion, in Mystic, Conn.
Hostettler running a luxury hotel collection makes perfect sense on account of his upbringing. As a child, he spent many summers in Switzerland, a country known for producing some of the finest practitioners of luxury hospitality. “Being exposed to airports, hotels and restaurants, I got a fascination for how these big, beautiful, grand hotels operate,” he said, foreshadowing his future career.
Hostettler was struck by how many of the grand hotels of Switzerland—Baur au Lac, The Dolder Grand—had to constantly reinvent themselves through the years. A constant progression not unlike what Hostettler faced at Ocean House.
A New Beginning
After Rhode Island fire codes were reassessed in the wake of The Station nightclub’s tragic fire in 2003 that claimed the lives of 100 people, Ocean House, after years of neglect, was deemed noncompliant with building codes. To the rescue came mutual fund manager Charles Royce, who purchased the property and promptly razed it to make way for a new $150-million, all-cash hotel, albeit one that was a facsimile of its old self, down to the positioning of the floor planks in the lobby. “It was always fascinating to me how these older hotels could be rein-vented, sort of like what we’ve done here,” Hostettler said.
His earliest taste of hospitality came during a high school catering internship, prompting him to seek a career in the business. His idea was to return to Switzerland and study at the famed Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne, until he found out that fluency in French was a prerequisite. Instead, Hostettler went to the Mile High City and the University of Denver, then onto post-graduate studies at Cornell University. A lifelong learner, earlier this year, Hostettler received a Certificate of Professional Development from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “I believe that when you start thinking you know it all, you should probably retire,” Hostettler said.
He’s not trading in his Relais & Châteaux lapel pin any time soon. (Ocean House is part of the exclusive group and is also one of only eight Forbes triple five-star hotels in the world.) Hostettler’s current success is attributable to his work ethic: he’s a doer, not a loafer. On busy Saturday nights at Ocean House’s Seasons restaurant, you’ll find Hostettler playing the role of line runner, plating dishes and assisting cooks. “I like to get my hands dirty—that’s the fun part,” he said. But it also drives home a point. “At the luxury level, you’re in the business of getting all the details right, and I’m a details guy. Guests appreciate that much more than being charmed.”
Hostettler’s work ethic could be traced back to his biggest mentor, a paragon in the world of luxury hospitality: Ali Kasikci. Kasikci has held jobs with such brands as Peninsula, Montage Hotels and Belmond, and Hostettler worked under Kasikci at The Peninsula Beverly Hills. He alludes to him with preternatural deference. “When he walked into a restaurant, it was like he had eyes in the back of his head,” Hostettler said. “He instilled in me how important it was to be on the floor and to be with the guests, to see all of the detail.”
Being detail oriented is a luxury Hostettler is able to have, in part, because of the scale of the operation—four hotels that are all in relative close proximity. OHM is not a large global chain, and that’s how Hostettler runs it. “At the very luxury end of the spectrum, you don’t operate to the [profit and loss] like a lot of these larger chains do,” he said. “We operate to the guest and their feedback. We expect that, then, when we give great service, we can charge the kind of rates we charge and it’s going to drop down to the bottom line. It does.”
Old is the New New
Just because OHM provides what could be described as old-school luxury doesn’t mean it’s being delivered in an antiquated manner. Guests will find Apple TV in rooms, bandwidth is strong and websites are fully optimized: 45-second videos of all 18 Ocean House signature suites figure prominently on the hotel’s website, while for other rooms, 360-degree tours are available.
All of the work has allowed the company to tap into a much younger guest. “We’re finding that the millennial traveler really wants to know what they’re getting,” Hostettler said.
With all the success, time will tell if the collection is expanded upon, and if it is, most likely it would be in New England. “I’m a control freak,” Hostettler jokingly said, adding they were looking at a potential hotel in Washington, Conn., and another in Rhode Island.
For 2017, controlling costs will be top of mind for Hostettler, a difficulty when running luxury hotels that demand high levels of service. To that end, Hostettler is prepared. “Every year, we go through the exercise of ‘What would we do if business suddenly fell off by 20 percent?’ Where would we cut without the guests feeling it?” Hostettler said. (Rates at Ocean House are steadily above $1,500 per night in high season.)
“My takeaway from 2008 was that a lot of hotels went into that without preparation and those that survived best were the ones who adapted quickly. We believe that any good hotel management company should have a plan for the downturn.”
In the case of OHM and Hostettler, business continues on the up and up.