What It Was Like to Work with Boutique Hotel Pioneer Bill Kimpton

  • Skift Take
    If there were ever someone who truly influenced and mentored an entire generation of hotel leaders, Bill Kimpton would be at the very top of that list.

    Earlier this week we published a 60,000 word account of the early days and evolution of the boutique hotel industry in the United States, the Complete Oral History of Boutique Hotels.  

    The story featured interviews with over two dozen key players, and took us from fledgling brands in San Francisco and New York in the early 1980s to the biggest brands in hospitality in the modern era. We’ll be running a series of related stories over the coming weeks.

    In compiling the story, a common response we heard from nearly everyone who worked for Bill Kimpton at one time or another was this: he was simply a great boss.

    Kimpton, with his hotels, was the pioneer of developing the charming, welcoming boutique hotel. His hotels were the kinds of places where you were always invited in the lobby for an afternoon wine hour. Or where you’d pop into the restaurant regularly, just because it was your favorite local hangout.

    And each of those properties, especially the earliest ones, reflected facets of Kimpton’s personality, and his own vision of what hospitality should look and feel like.

    Here’s what some of Kimpton’s former employees, as well as his daughter, had to say about the late boutique hotel pioneer.

    Laura Kimpton, Bill Kimpton’s daughter and a contemporary artist: In terms of personality, [my dad] had the best charisma. He was very much about hanging out with the housekeepers and different people behind the scenes and letting them do what they want. He was a very personable boss; he didn’t even have a desk.

    I also remember his dyslexia, which I also have. I’m an installation artist. I think my dad was an installation artist at heart, too, he just never knew it. He would go and see a space, and then he would “install” the space. He could move things around in his head, and that was his favorite part of the creative process.

    Finally, I would just say he was a visionary. He always wanted to be in the hotel business since he was young. He was also a Buddhist meditator, so he ran the hotels from his heart. No one’s been able to repeat it because everybody does it from the mind, no one does it from the heart. He was able to do that and still be personable, loving and completely understand what people need. Kimpton’s always been about being warm, and accepting of everybody.

    Steve Pinetti (left) with Bill Kimpton in 1991. Pinetti worked with Kimpton on the opening of the very first Kimpton hotel in San Francisco, the Clarion Bedford Hotel. Source: Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants

    Steve Pinetti, former sales and marketing team member when Bill Kimpton opened his first hotel in 1981, now senior vice president of inspiration and creativity for Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants: I had two significant mentors, other than my mom and dad, in my life.

    Werner Lewin was my boss when I was with Hilton. When I was working at Hilton, that was really my first professional job. It was my first suit-and-tie job and it was my first business dinner and I had to learn about how to drink wine and what went into it and all of those things. I had an awesome teacher but the subtext of my mentorship there was how [the hotel] business is difficult and business is almost a little bit like being at war. Your hotel is either full or it isn’t and how you go about, how you go about your business of the day in a hotel or a restaurant, is fairly intense. It’s very, very busy; people are very demanding. You really need to be on your game and you need to be sharp and you need to be. You really need to bring your best you to the job every day. I got more of the business acumen, if you will, from my first mentor then.

    With Bill Kimpton, it took on a completely different course. I actually got more in touch with myself. A lot of what our mission here at Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants is about — it’s not in hotels and restaurants.

    Bill was a pretty heart-centered guy. He had a little bit of experience with some Buddhist beliefs, and he suffered from ADD [attention-deficit disorder] and dyslexia. So I think I got the sense of business from my first mentor, but I got my sense of humanist and human connection and just my whole spirit, and so on, in connection from Bill. It’s an incredibly powerful balance between these two individual mentors.

    My earliest memories of Bill were in his office, in our first hotel, and he would come to work every day. He would love being there when people are checking in to the hotel at the end of the day, with his glass of wine and he’d just say, “Welcome to our hotel.”

    He wanted to be everybody’s friend and then he would be there in the morning with the coffee and the pastries and say “Do you really have to go? Can’t you stay one more day?” He made people smile. One, it was very clear that in this small, because I came from the Hiltons and the Hyatts, but it’s very clear right away where his brain was.

    He loved talking to the guests. He hung out in the lobby during wine hour and then he dragged them all into the restaurant for drinks and dinner. My first memories of him. He was a happy guy. He was a centered guy. He was a very heartfelt guy, and he loved life. I guess that would be the simplest way: he loved life and everything that it had to offer.

    That was good for me because it made me slow down, because I tend to sometimes not stop and smell the roses, and then, here’s a guy that’s going to disrupt the entire hospitality industry because he loves hanging out with people in this little hotel of his and he’s changing the world.

    Maybe he wasn’t quite a disruptor like a Steve Jobs or somebody like that, but we did revolutionize and disrupt our industries, so says all those people who evaluate us. Those are my first memories.

    Niki Leondakis, former president and COO of Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants and former CEO, hotels and resorts, Two Roads Hospitality, now CEO of Equinox Fitness Clubs: I have so many fond memories of Bill, and I still have a little statue of him in my condo in the city [San Francisco] here. We gave away statues of him at some sales conference one year, and it’s just a great cut-out of Bill, a little statue of him staring down at me. I love looking at it because Bill was definitely opinionated, but he was reasonable, and very balanced. He was a very fair person. He had a strong point of view, and I felt from a leadership standpoint, he was quite empowering to his people. He was really ahead of his time in his approach to business and approach to leadership. I learned a ton from Bill.

    He abhorred pretense.

    One story I remember, was he was entertaining some investors and I had just joined the company. I was maybe with the company for six months. We were doing a meal in a private room at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel. The hotel wasn’t open yet, it was under renovation, but I got a team of people together assembled, a banquet staff from our other hotels, and, anyway, I really wanted to impress his investors so I rented, fresh out of my Ritz-Carlton tenure — this was like 1993 — I rented tuxedos and white gloves, and I used the silver domes and hats, and synchronized service. I organized synchronized service for dinner, meaning all the waiters go in in a synchronized way and drop all of the food at the same time. A very formal style of service. I had this execute to a T with this precision that was incredible, and I was very proud of it.

    When he found out, he hated it, he absolutely hated it. He thought that level of formality was horrible, and pretentious, and unnecessary, and extravagant, and he asked, what was I doing? He would have much preferred a family-style dinner where people were passing around platters of food and sharing. That was his way. I learned very quickly to let go of that level of formality; he wanted things to be comfortable and relaxed.

    Chef Walter Pisano at Tulio Ristorante. Pisano continues to run his own restaurant in Seattle in Kimpton’s Vintage Park Hotel. Source: Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants

    Walter Pisano, executive chef of Tulio at Kimpton’s Hotel Vintage Seattle: When I had mentioned that I was heading to San Francisco [to interview for the chef job at Kimpton’s new hotel in Seattle], part of the interview, in a lot of cases, especially now and even back then, was that chefs would have to do food tastings. I went over and conceptually, I knew what we were thinking about as far as the restaurant, so I went to Kuleto’s and prepared for a food tasting.

    Back then it was a small group of people. It was really pretty casual. A small group of people would show up. At that time, I did my tasting in the afternoon, early afternoon, and for some reason Bill [Kimpton] got tied up and he couldn’t come. The tasting went well and everything was great. You prep, you do what we call mise en place, which is all your prep. I had all my mise en place ready. I did the tasting. I was done.

    Then I got a call from Bob Puccini, who was in charge of the restaurant project I was applying to be chef for, and he said, “Hey, Bill was really sorry he missed your tasting and really would love to try some of your food. Is it OK if he brings his girlfriend over to Kuleto’s tonight, and would you mind cooking for him?” I’m like, “No, absolutely.”

    Of course, all my prep was pretty much depleted so I was doing the “Iron Chef” thing, running around and making sure I could get stuff together. The memory was really great because Bill sat at the counter and at one point, I thought, “They have to be getting full,” and I went out and said, “So how are you guys doing?” He goes, “Well, if you want to keep on cooking, we’ll keep on eating.”

    Christine Lawson, former sales manager of the Tuscan Inn and SVP of sales and catering for Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, now SVP of Loews Sales Organization: It was incredible to work for him. One, because he was incredibly smart. He always continued to really tout his vision and make sure that all of us were really on the same page, and that we all understood what we were trying to do and that not just that we understood it but that we all shared his passion in it.

    He wasn’t really interested in people that just wanted a job. He was interested in people that wanted to be part of this revolution. His energy and passion around it was contagious.

    He also was incredibly humble, which I think might be surprising to people because he was such a force in the industry at that time. In San Francisco, he was really quite famous. He was out and about and people knew him and he was hobnobbing. He was really humble in the sense that he never threw his name around. He would always come around to the properties and talk to all of the employees no matter what your title was. He knew people’s names. He really wanted to understand what was working well and where could we actually improve on this vision of bringing this new experience to the hotel and restaurant industry.

    The thing that I thought was most amazing about him was the amount of trust that he put in his employees. He had disciplined experts obviously in sales and operations. Both at the home office level, our corporate offices at the time, and also at the property and restaurant level. He really never told people how to do their job. Even if you asked his opinion and said, “What should I do about this sales opportunity?,” he would always say, “You’re the expert. What do you think you should do about that?” He would wait to really get a sense of what your vision was and then he would be willing to weigh in. Even if he didn’t agree with you 100-percent, as long as you weren’t kind of going against the grain of our commitment and our culture in the spirit of what we were offering, he really trusted all of us to dip our toes in the water and take risks.

    I think that has been a huge component of our success over these 35 plus years. That kind of innovation and trust building, that currency of trust that was built by Bill is something that really has carried through at every level of the company now. It really enabled us to be very agile and to continue to never accept today as being the best that we can be. I think for a company, and Bill inspired this, to ensure that we’re constantly looking to be better and to ensure that the product and experience is better for our employees and for our guests. Bill always felt that evolution was kind of the fun part of the business, and that has been kind of a tenet of the company over all these years, even after his passing.

    He used to take the directors of sales, at the time, out to lunch on a monthly basis. There were six of us at the time, and he didn’t have a lot of hotels yet. I was always fascinated by the fact that he would sit with us. The first time I sat with him at lunch he said, “I don’t really know what you do. I know you sell for our hotels, but what do you do?” I remember thinking, “That’s impossible, he used to work for Wall Street and he helped Kentucky Fried Chicken go public, he sold typewriters door to door …” Again, what I remember most about him was that humbleness and that spirit of making sure we knew we were in the driver’s seat, and that it was our responsibility and that we had his trust to ensure that we were really delivering.

    For even more personal stories about what Bill Kimpton was like, check out Skift’s Complete Oral History of Boutique Hotels, or click here to view an entire collection of video interviews with current and former Kimpton employees.

    Photo Credit: Bill Kimpton, who pioneered the boutique hotel movement in the U.S. was known by colleagues as a visionary boss. Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants
    Subscribe Now

    Already a member?

    Already a member?

    Subscribe to Skift Pro to get unlimited access to stories like these

    Subscribe Now

    Already a member?

    Exit mobile version