Pera Palace Hotel Jumeirah: Bringing History to Life

June 18, 2013 in Tourism & Leisure

In recent years Istanbul has become a destination of choice for art lovers, pleasure seekers and the corporate world, spawning a plethora of beautiful hotels. Yet none have the pedigree, history of appeal of the Pera Palace Hotel, Jumeirah, which is haute culture personified.

The extraordinary history of the Pera Palace has long attracted aristocracy and the rich and famous, which has merely served to add to the appeal of a hotel which today blends its past with the visionary ambition of the Jumeirah Group.

pera-pera-palaceThe Pera Palace Hotel, Jumeirah first opened its doors in 1895, having been designed by the renowned local architect Alexander Vallaury.

Down the years the hotel has played host to a myriad of Royalty and the rich and famous, including Ernest Hemingway, Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock, Greta Garbo and Jacqueline Kennedy. More recently the likes of Matt Dillon, Ben Affleck and Liam Nielsen have stayed at the hotel.

Indeed, to commemorate such illustrious patronage, there are a number of rooms named after famous guests, including the Agatha Restaurant, the Ernest Heminway Suite and The Atatürk Suite, a museum room dedicated to the famous Turkish leader Atatürk, himself a regular visitor to the Pera Palace.

The hotel was granted “museum-hotel” status in 1981, when, as a tribute to the founder of modern Turkey, Room 101 was converted into the Atatürk Museum.

Aside from catering for the rich and famous, the hotel also welcomes a variety of people in Istanbul for business and pleasure. The leisure market currently account for roughly 60 per cent of guests, with business visitors making up the difference.

For the past four and a half years, Pinar Kartal Timer has been General Manager for this most prestigious of Istanbul’s hotel. During that time she has seen the hotel undergo restoration, successfully re-open and then undergo a takeover by the Jumeirah Group.

With so much happening in that timeframe, it is reassuring to learn that the tradition of Pera Palace Hotel remains its best selling point as it continues to attract high society and all manner of customers seeking the best that Turkey can offer:

“The hotel is the most historical in the city and is located in the modern part of the Old City, within walking distance of the Ottoman area and the modern parts of Istanbul. People who know Istanbul and its history tend to stay here and Agatha Christie in particular played an important role in the fame of the hotel,” she describes.

“Being located in Istanbul and experiencing the culture and history of the city is a big plus. We are located within a kilometre radius of restaurants, open top terraces, museums, clubs and concert halls, while Taksim Square in the heart of the city is just a short walk, with no need for a taxi. There are lots of boutique hotels in the area, but we are the only luxury hotel here.”

Whilst history and luxury are very much big selling points for Pera Palace, adapting with the times is also of paramount importance and lead to the closure of the hotel in 2006, as Timer recalls:

“We closed for four years for renovation, but this was not straight forward as we have a Listed Heritage building and had to seek appropriate approvals before work could begin. The hotel was restored and we added a number of new features – including air conditioning for the first time and Wi-Fi. We also created an 800 metre square spa and an additional 200 metre square meeting room, along with the Agatha Restaurant.

In total the work cost in the region on 23 million euros and saw the hotel reduce the number of rooms, concentrating on quality rather than quantity, as Timer continues:

“We decreased the number of rooms by 30 and today the hotel operates 115 rooms. Historically the First, Second and Third Floors were occupied by aristocrats who had travelled to Istanbul on the Orient Express. The rooms were large and had high ceilings. The floors above were much smaller and were occupied by their servants. With the work we have increased the size of these rooms now. All of the renovation was done without affecting the aesthetics of the building.”

Today the Pera Palace Hotel, Jumeirah, occupies approximately 11,000 metres squared, including 4 popular, high-ceilinged meeting rooms and operating with 155 full-time employees.

Timer says that business starts to significantly pick up from April each year with the high-season ending in October. From then onwards the Hotel tends to carry out maintenance work, while staff undergo all-important training.

Having successfully re-opened in 2010, the hotel was acquired by the Jumeirah Group in 2012, which has provided employees with a new level of training, as Timer explains:

“Jumeirah Group has its head office in Dubai but last year embarked upon a big expansion programme which saw it acquire an additional 11 hotels around the world (including the Pera Palace). Today the Group owns 21 hotels and has quickly attained a reputation for innovation and luxury, with a very solid financial background.

“For us it was a big accreditation that the Jumeirah name wished to be linked with Pera Palace Hotel.

“It can be much harder for a free-standing hotel to market its appeal effectively and we are now part of a bigger group and can call upon support in all areas, from investment and infrastructure support, through to knowledge and skills sharing across the Group,” she says.

“All of a sudden we became part of a big global network and we have been able to introduce new technologies such as digital marketing and integrating our IT infrastructure into the Group’s.

“Jumeirah also has a number of international sales offices and we work with a lot of these as well as the corporate head office, on topics such as SMB and cuisine. The day to day running of the hotel is the same as before but the systems have changed and there is much more reporting and auditing now which helps us to see where we can improve.

“We have also increased our training which always trails back to guest satisfaction and our hiring process is extremely important: we hire for attitude and not for skills. We are also able to call upon the skills of the Jumeirah Group which includes many chefs and we have in the past invited chefs to visit Pera Palace and help with our training, and at other times we have sent team members to Jumeirah’s training headquarters.

“Jumeirah has a big learning and development department offering a number of training modules, including leadership; indeed we recently played host to a Jumeirah trainer on this subject. The Group also operates a great intranet system called Mercury which is one of the most established in this sphere and again provides useful learning and development resources for our team.”

The hotel will shortly being redecorating the public areas with the help of Anouska Hempel, the reputable British designer, starting with the patisserie in July. More imminent is the opening of the Terrace in mid-May, which aims to create links between the hotel and the younger local community:

“The Food and Beverage Director of Rome, Jumeirah is an award-winning bartender and will be coming here to mix cocktails on opening night,” says Timer, “this underlines the benefits of being part of a worldwide group.

“The Terrace will be open until mid-October and will serve tapas food with a Turkish and Asian twist. It is a popular terrace and for the coming season we are partnering with a local leading radio station and their disc jockeys will play live from the Terrace.

“Whilst the Pera Palace Hotel is historical we also want to show how we the city’s trendy side.”

Timer says that whilst there has been a noticeable global economic downturn over the past five years, awareness of Turkey has never been higher in her experience:

“Turkey managed well through the economic crisis and whereas 20 years ago we were trying to convince people to visit Istanbul, last month I was in the United States and everybody I spoke to had either visited the city or wanted to come here.

“There is a big desire to come to Istanbul and there is so much that the city offers from shopping to nightlife, history, nature and great food.

“There are also many international hotel chains looking to come here and Istanbul is a hub from which people can reach other areas like the Middle East and CIS countries which are booming. Istanbul has also become a cultural centre of arts in the last four to five years and this year launches a new festival called Art International.

“These are good times but at the same time people do question every penny that they spend which puts more pressure on making sure we provide the best possible value.”

In a competitive environment, which Timer suggests is getting busier all the time, the Pera Palace Hotel, Jumeirah does have the great advantage of all that history. But history alone is not always enough to create a sustainable future.

To that end the hotel has introduced Expresso coffee machines, tea and coffee making facilities and i-docks  in every room which now offers high speed Wi-Fi, while the concierge service aims to keep guests abreast of all the activities taking place in the city.

Still it is hard to deny the weight of history and tradition that lay heavily around the hotel and draws as many as 100 visitors each day to the museum room and to visit the hotel’s unique library of books on the history of Istanbul.

The hotel still acquires antique furniture through the large auction houses such as Christies and Sotheby’s, while the 120th anniversary was celebrated with the publishing of a book, written by Andreas Augustine, founder of ‘The Most Famous Hotels in the World®’ and simply titled ‘Pera Palace Hotel’.

With Timer at the helm, the Pera Palace Hotel has been through quite a journey of transition over the past few years and continues to enjoy growth and success. Having seen so much change over her four and a half years in charge, she is prepared for the next phase in the hotel’s history:

“From November to the end of March things are much quieter and we are competing with every other hotel in the city. But this is a great area of Istanbul and I am sure there will be some 5 Star hotels opened by international competitors in the future.

“However, I see this as a positive move – it will further renown the area and they will be marketing Istanbul. I believe strongly in healthy competition.

“We are doing a lot of work around F&B and appointed our new F&B Director last month, who will be working closely with Jumeirah’s Food and Beverage team in creating new attractive concepts to turn our hotel in to a bar and dining destination in Istanbul.

“Among the many firsts, the Pera Palace Hotel was the first place to serve afternoon tea in Istanbul and we would like to enhance this service and add signature dishes. Orient Terrace certainly will be the place to be with its ambiance and F&B offerings this summer.

“Now we are settled and we can concentrate on more strategic actions to enhance our positioning as the landmark hotel in Istanbul, where our guests feel themselves extremely well and enjoy history and refined service,” she concludes.