Kevin O’Shea + David Bowd
This episode is brought to you by American Leather. For more information, go to americanleather.com.
Partners in business and in life, Salt Hotels cofounders Kevin O’Shea and David Bowd cut their teeth in the industry—O’Shea at Starwood Hotels & Resorts and Bowd across the pond, working with hospitality heavyweight André Balazs on London’s iconic Chiltern Firehouse—before their paths crossed. While both employed by Morgans Hotel Group, the two met working on the opening of the now-shuttered Mondrian Scottsdale. In 2011, they decided to go into business together, opening the quaint 15-guestroom Salt House Inn in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Although they initially intended to have only one bed and breakfast, its success spurred other openings and led the pair to form Salt Hotels, which now boasts properties in Miami, Los Angeles, Nantucket, and more.
With no signs of slowing down, O’Shea’s favorite thing about the industry is that he never runs out of things to learn. And together, they help others learn at Salt School, a free, intensive hospitality course they launched in 2016. As O’Shea says, “There is something to learn from everybody that you work with, that you work for, that works for you, or that you come into contact with.”
Stacy Shoemaker Rauen: Hi, I’m here with David and Kevin. Guys, thanks so much for joining me today. How are you guys?
David Bowd: Great, thank you.
Kevin O’Shea: Great.
DB: Nice to be here.
SSR: Yes, it’s nice to see you guys over video. All right. So we always start at the beginning. Let’s start with you, David. Where did you grow up?
DB: I grew up in a small village called Salt. Hence, part of the reason for the naming of the company.
SSR: I don’t think I knew that.
DB: Yeah. My parents still live there now and it’s a very small village, about 60 miles out of Manchester, in Northern England.
SSR: Amazing. And were you creative as a kid?
DB: Not really. We always laugh about this. I was the youngest. I’m the youngest, and my brother was truly the perfect child and the perfect student. My sister, who is the middle child, I always blame her as being the bad influence, particularly on me. I wasn’t a big fan of school. I guess I was fairly creative. I was much more a doer than a studier, and always liked to socialize and always liked to be in very social environment.
SSR: Got it. Was there any kind of early moments of hospitality or travel or anything that might have given you that bug early on?
DB: Yeah. When I was very young, my mom was a school dinner lady, and so she was in hospitality in that way. And when I was in my early teens, she bought a restaurant and her best friend ran this sort of cafe restaurant. And every weekend I would work there. And that was my very first thing was I wanted to be a chef and I loved the environment, I loved the fact that no two days were ever the same. And my dad was a policeman and so he was much more sort of serious and my mom was much more hospitality driven and I took after her and always, from an early age, wanted to be in hospitality and thought that I would be a chef early on.
And then when I finally did go into a kitchen, I didn’t like it. I much preferred the front of house. I have such respect for chefs because the intense pressure, the intense, the heat, the small amount of time that you have to deliver something was just way too stressful and pressurized for me as a kid. So I went back into front of house and then stayed there for the rest of my career.
SSR: Okay. Well let’s pause there and go to Kevin and then we’ll go back and bring it all together. All right, Kevin. Where did you grow up?
KO: I grew up in Denver, Colorado, out in the suburbs.
SSR: Fun. Were you creative as a kid?
KO: I was. I was kind of isolated kid and I did a lot of art and drawing. I was fascinated with architecture, so I was always holed up in my room, drawing buildings and floor plans. Little did I know before that would all lead to
SSR: Yes. Was there anyone in your family or around you that inspired you to do this? Or was it just innate?
KO: Yeah, I would spend every weekend at my grandmother’s house and we always go on these crazy adventures. And she’d often take me to big fancy hotels and taught me etiquette and how to eat lunch with the old ladies. I think early on I had such a fascination with hotels because of that. It was just there was this energy in them that was really intoxicating to me as a kid. And I was like, I don’t know what these are, but I like this.
SSR: Got to do it. Did she live near you in Denver?
KO: Yeah, she wasn’t too far away. It’s funny, I look back on it now and I don’t know why, but probably my parents were quite smart. They were like, all right, get rid of him all weekend. And so grandma got me and so she’d tried to figure out how to entertain me and off we would go. I was a willing participant to go hang out with her and her old lady friends and go to tea and lunch and do whatever else.
SSR: I might have to use that method moving forward with my children. Be like, Bye. See you. That’s awesome. So did you end up going to school then for design?
KO: So weirdly, like David, I was fascinated with culinary as a kid. I did culinary school for my junior year of high school. And then simultaneously I got into hotels, I was very into food and beverage. I was a banquet server on the side and decided culinary wasn’t quite the right fit for me. Similar to David, that the Kitchens are tough. So I went into food and beverage management school actually right out of high school, and thought that would be a nice balance of front of house, back of house. And it was a hospitality accounting class that made me run screaming from that. I was like, “What the hell is this?” So it was like a foreign language. And so I shifted gears and then went to design school. And it wasn’t until I moved to New York that it all kind of came, these seemingly disparate experiences all came back together in hotel world.
SSR: Got it. Where was the design school? Where did you go?
KO: I started at the Art Institute in Colorado doing interior design, and then I transferred to RISD and finished there with a degree in interior architecture.
SSR: Okay. And then what was your first job after that? Is that when you went to New York?
KO: Yeah. So when I was at RISD, everyone was getting summer internships. I was a bit late to the game. And we had a job board and Starwood Hotels and Resorts was looking for interns for the design team for Sheridan in New York. And so I was like, “This is great.” I didn’t realize that their offices were in White Plains. And so it wasn’t quite the vision of New York I had imagined, being out in the suburbs of White Plains. But so I interned for the summer and then they invited me back to and hired me to work on when they brought Le Meridien on board, which coincided with me leaving college. And so that was my first job. And that was the moment where I was like, this is all of the things that I love in the world. I can do design, I’m in hotels, I’m involved in food and beverage and all these other things.
SSR: And it was an exciting time for Le Meridien, wasn’t it?
SSR: Because you guys were kind of re-imagining what it is and should be and developing the brand.
KO: Yeah. There was a very small group of us and it was kind of carte blanche at that point. It’s where I learned about how you can look at the heritage of something and pull narrative out of that and create something very interesting going forward.
SSR: Yeah, very cool. Okay, David, let’s go back to you. So you worked with your mom and then where did you go from there? What was next?
DB: So then not being a particularly good scholar, shall we say, I was much more the talker at school. And so at 15 years old I had an opportunity to go to a higher education and do further education in hospitality, or I also got an interview and I went to become a trainee manager in a hotel in the middle of England, a beautiful old chateau, which was a luxury five star hotel. And so at 15 years old I left home and I went and moved in to this hotel and became a trainee manager. And my first job was actually a bellman.
So back in the mid ’80s, and we always laugh, is that the very first shift I had as a bellman on a Sunday night, they always put the new team on a Sunday night because it was quietest shift to train on. And we would change light bulbs and we would clean the most disgusting things in the hotel. But I realized literally from day one that I absolutely loved it. And I remember the people, the team that I worked with, who I’m still friends with today. And I just loved this being a bellman in the center of everything that’s going on in a hotel and meeting different people every day and just the drive and excitement that you get from a hotel environment.
SSR: And so how did you work your way up then? What do you think it was your secret to get to where you are today, and because you had a lot of different stops along the way?
DB: Yeah. I made the decision early on that I wanted to learn every aspect of a hotel. And so the trainee management program was really good for me, because I could sort of sample into different departments and see what was the best fit for me. It turned out definitely the best fit was front of house, but I worked in housekeeping for eight months, and a little bit like we were saying on the chefs. Housekeeping is a tough gig in a hotel, and we were turning 16, 17 rooms a day. We had a very, very tough executive housekeeper. And you know, learnt how to work in a pressurized environment, but also I learned how to treat people, how to work within a team. And so I spent literally six to eight months in every single department in the hotel, from bellman, some time in sales, front desk, all food beverage departments.
And I really planned my own career. I moved then to London when I was 18 years old and got into more detailed front of house side of things, with reservations in a large 800 bedroom property. And I think it made me better as an employee because I understood when I was working the front desk, how housekeeping operated. So I understood that you can’t ask for 20 rooms at nine o’clock in the morning for all your Americans getting into London off the red eye. And I carried on really until my mid-twenties, working in all different departments and then started to get into more management positions.
SSR: Got it. You’re a hotel general manager, you for right, Sol Melia and a couple other hotels. And then you ended up at St. Martin’s Lane in Sanderson, for Morgans?
DB: Yeah. So I was a general manager in London for a company called Thistle Hotels. They were at the time the largest London hotel operator. My first GM ship was running a 300-bedroom hotel in a not so salubrious location in London. It’s now super cool and trendy, at the time it was not like that. But it was a great hotel to cut my teeth on. My attitude was always go where I’m told to go. And that was I think one of the reasons why I’d been successful, and by the time I was 30 years old I was running a 300 bedroom hotel in London. And then I went to a general manager’s conference and I walked into this GMs conference and I was by far the youngest person in there. And I just had this moment of, “Is this my future? Is this what I’m going to be doing for the next 25, 30 years of my life, working in very corporate-driven hotel environment?”
And Ian Schrager had just opened Sanderson and St. Martin’s Lane in London. I received a call to go and interview for St. Martin’s Lane and had the opportunity to meet Ian, and was just blown away by the philosophy of what I still today to consider a true genius in our industry. And as expected, he wowed me for sure. And so I then really switched directions and had to unlearn all of the corporate side of things and relearn real lifestyle and boutique and what that meant and how important. I remember day one him saying to me, “I expect the lobby and everything within this hotel to look the same as it did the day we opened the doors and it should never, ever change. Nothing ever gets moved. It is maintained.” And that’s very different from a traditional hotel environment.
To me it was wonderful. To me it was cool, it was interesting. It was much more challenging in certain ways, that the entire team were much more creative. And so you had bellman, our entire bell team were all actors or models and all super creative. And so I think that was really in my early thirties, I think working with Ian was where he lit the spark of my creativity and showed me that there was a very different way to run hotels.
SSR: Yeah, that’s awesome. And you stayed with him for quite a few years and then you went to Andre Balazs, right?
DB: Yeah. So I moved to then run what had then become Morgans Hotel Group, looking after operations for all of the properties out of New York. And the company was expanding, it was a really exciting time for us. And then I got the opportunity to go to Andre Balazs, and he at that time had literally just signed the lease for the Chiltern Firehouse. So he wanted somebody that understood the London market to run his company. So I had what I would probably say is one of the best jobs in the world, of running the standard brand on one side and then running the luxury collection of iconic hotels like the Mercer, Chateau Marmont, Sunset Beach, and then opening Chiltern Firehouse. It was tough because I was back and forth between London and New York all of the time. But it is and will always be probably one of the most amazing projects and iconic hotels that I’ve ever been involved in.
SSR: For those that have never had the wonderful opportunity of going there, can you explain a little bit about what makes it so special?
DB: Yeah. Chiltern Firehouse, it’s only 27 rooms. It’s actually the second-oldest firehouse in London and in an area where there were very few other hotels. And Andre looked at this sort of blank canvas, this old firehouse. His focus was that you would walk past it after it was opened and you would think it had always been there as a hotel. And so with Studio KO out of Paris, we worked on creating this magical environment that’s really behind a walled garden, and that feels like it’s been there forever. Beautifully designed, very high-end service, and just an incredible atmosphere. But then you have this really personal level of service on the hotel side, and then you have this really energetic restaurant that is in where the fire engines used to live. And then on the other, this incredibly cool bar where we had the true a-list of the world in this bar, and every night had this electric energy that was just on fire.
What I learned very early on with Andre and Ian is how much time they invested in their project. And I think that’s really come on something to us of, you can’t create a wonderful environment and not be in it. You’ve got to truly be in it, truly live it and feel it. And Andre moved to London for a year and created this new destination in London that was like nothing anybody had ever seen before. And from a design point of view, from an experience point of view. And anybody that listens to this that hasn’t been, you should go and you should experience it, because it is so different from I think any other hotel in the world. It’s 10 years old next year and continues even after so long of being just such a special destination in London and such a talked about place.
SSR: So you got to work with, arguably two of the greats in the industry. There’s others, but what did you learn? I know you just mentioned a little bit of what you learned from Andre. But where Ian was saying everything should stay as it is and really kind of retain what it was meant to be from day one. What did you learn from Andre, besides really living it and experiencing it on the design side? What did he teach you when you’re creating this hotel and others?
DB: Yeah. I think attention to detail. Never accept something that’s below par for any reason at all. Go back and challenge it, make it better. And I think Andre is the master at pushing boundaries. I would sit in architectural meetings for the Chiltern Firehouse and you would have code consultants giving you all the reasons why you can’t do whatever. And Andre would sit there in those meetings and say, “Well, I want to do that and we are going to do that. And then to everybody else, figure out how we do that and let’s push it further.”
And I think that his projects, like Chateau Marmont, the Mercer, the Standard New York as well, is everything was pushed to the absolute limit. He never just took yes for an answer. And I think that that’s the easy option is always to take yes, or the easy option is to say yes, we’ll do that and that’s going to work. Where I think with Andre he pushed you to, and sometimes you’d be pulling your hair out and saying, “We cannot do that.” And he would say, “I’m sure you’ll find a way.” And nine times out of 10 we did find a way. And so I think that that, that has been something that I’ve taken with me throughout my career, from both Ian and Andre is can always push it a little bit further.
SSR: Yeah. It must have been exciting too, to work mean for both of them and be part of Morgans and then the standard kind of creation and launch, especially with his luxury properties as well.
DB: Absolutely. It was a very early time in our career, in our Lifestyle Hotels life cycle. There weren’t as many as there are today. And it was the most incredible team. It was all about the team. And I think both Ian and Andre surrounded themselves by the most talented people that you could ever work with. And later on when we got the opportunity to work with Ander on the Asbury Park properties, Ander spent 30 years with Ian. The level of talent that came from both of those stables were incredible, and I’m sure still is, still is. But for me, it was working with them, but it was also working with this incredible talent that they surrounded themselves with. And the number of over nighters that we all pulled to get the job done, to get, whether it was an RFP that we were replying to, to get a new project, or whether it was the lead up to our hotel opening, everyone was in it together. And that really does create a very special moment and a very exciting time.
SSR: Yeah. So Kevin, I want to come back to you now too, because then we’ll get to Salt Hotels because I feel like we’re getting there. So you were working at Starwood on Le Meridien, which working for another industry visionary, Barry Sternlicht. And then you decided then you moved on to Morgans, correct?
KO:Yeah. I was again making that commute out to White Plains every day and I was like, this is not quite the New York I imagined and had the opportunity. Ian had just left and Mari Belestrozi was working at Starwood. She left to takeover design for Morgans. So she made the phone call and was like, “Hey, do you want to come work in the city?” And I was like, “Yes.” And I still remember the first day of walking into those corporate offices on 10th Avenue and it was like, oh my God, this is what I imagined New York Design Hotel Company to be. Those offices were really special and it was an exciting time. I think the company had just gone public. We had a lot of expansion plans. We had a lot of the iconic hotels were at a point in time where they were starting to need a little love and maintenance.
And that was my first task was getting to work on these incredible properties and sort of interpret Philippe Stark’s designs and understand how can we start to refresh and maintain these and do it in a way that’s sympathetic and keeps these products still feeling really interesting. So I’d say I learned a lot through just the kind of inherent DNA of those projects. And there was many days where we would laugh about what would Ander do or what would Felipe think with this or Ian. And so much of those rules that David spoke to of nothing is ever changing, that was indoctrinated in all of us. And it was really important because I think it taught me a level of detail that just remains in my career today, of down to every little minutiae thing. It’s like, what is the paper on the card in the room and the font? And that font’s too big or it should be gray, not black. And just that crazy stuff that is a lot of extra work, but to me I think it really does create an exceptional environment that’s memorable for people.
SSR: That must have not been an easy task though. How do you evolve a design for the next kind of generation without totally changing it, right?
KO: Totally. Yeah.
SSR: It’s a fine line. And how did you all approach that?
KO: It was very challenging. I think looking back on it now, I think some of it was more successful than others. We were facing all kinds of challenges, like things weren’t made anymore. Or I remember at Hudson Hotel, that fabulous bar upstairs that had the lit floor. The technology that was in the floor when it was built originally in 1999 was so far advanced, but 10 years later it was so antiquated that the only option was to take the floor out. We were up against weird and wonderful things like that. To me, it was always about, each of those iconic properties like Delano, Mondrian in L.A, they had these really strong narratives. And those I think were always our jumping off point of, we got to freshen this thing up, but how do we continue to tell this story but maybe in a little bit of a new or different way.
SSR: Yeah, for sure. And is it at Morgans where the two of you met?
KO:Yes. So it was not long after I had joined, David was still running the two hotels in London, but the process of him starting to move to the U.S was kind of in progress. And we all shipped off to Scottsdale, Arizona, to open the Mondrian in Scottsdale, which is an interesting project. And it was actually my very first trip. I had started and Mari was like, “You need to go to Scottsdale and sort this thing out. It’s opening in three weeks and I think it’s a bit of a mess.” So I arrived by myself with Benjamin Noriega, the designer. And he and I were kind of standing there one day of, “Okay, we have three weeks to get this thing open, let’s figure this out.”
And then the corporate team arrived to kind of task force for openings. So that’s when David arrived and we met. And it was a sort of quick week long romance, but we thought we were being really sneaky and no one knew, but we weren’t very good at it. And so we laughed that we broke all the rules, we started a relationship international, long distance, and working together. But I think it has led to our success over the years.
SSR: Yes, for sure. I love that. So it was love at first sight.
SSR: And the rest was history.
SSR: So were you guys working together then from then on? And then you left, right, Kevin? To do your own design firm?
KO: Yeah. So we did work together, just with David running operations and so me on the design team, there was naturally just… I think it’s when we formed our, we call them our camps of what he’s good at, what I’m good at, and they actually bookend each other really nicely.
Yeah, we sort of stay in our lanes and I think there’s a lot of areas that we’re very collaborative in, and I think a lot of that came from working together at Morgans. It was just we understood each other’s roles. For me as a designer, it was always about, I think having a deep understanding of the operations, having come up through operations. And to me it’s always this challenge of how can we push the envelope but still make this thing functional? It still has to work for housekeeping, it still has to be maintained.
And I think often that can get overlooked In hotel world, people are trying to do interesting theatrical things, but there’s not a consideration or an understanding of how this stuff actually works day to day. And I think that that’s where the two of us have always been in a really good lockstep with each other of pushing boundaries but making sure that it’s still works. So yeah, I was at Morgans for a while, and then I kind of frankly was sort of burned out by the corporate thing and was feeling sort of stuck and not creative. So I completely shifted gears and I started doing ceramics.
SSR: As you should.
KO:Yeah. I just needed to go in deep in creativity. And so I had a ceramic studio in Midtown, and I was selling on Etsy in Etsy’s infancy. And it was fun, it was not money making by any means. David was very patient with me at the time. I had dinner on the table every night and that was about it. I was contributing to our world. And then P-Town happened. So that was my next big step was moving up to Provincetown to deal with our crazy old house and then eventually Salthouse, the first inn.
SSR: Yes. So explain, so this is what? 2011-ish that you guys purchased and opened your first hotel? Well, opened your first hotel, maybe purchased it earlier.
KO: Yeah. We went to P-Town, we fell in love with it and then we looked for an inn first. Because we were like, oh, that’s what everyone’s dream is. Everybody wants to run a bed and breakfast. And we were like, “Hey, we’re in hotels, how hard can this be?” So we found a property that we loved, couldn’t make the deal work, so we walked away from it and ended up buying a house instead. Huge project that was not our intention, but old 1700s house that was a restaurant and had to be converted back into a home. So I having nothing to do, left my ceramic studio in New York and moved up and lived on an air mattress with some string lights, while David was still running companies in New York and dealt with this crazy old house for a while. And then at that point another season had transpired and the owners of the inn came back and they were done.
They were like, “Okay, let’s make this deal work.” So David had a very fun moment where he called me one evening and he was like, “Hey, so I think the game plan with this is we’ll just hire a manager, put them in there, they’ll run the inn for a couple years, and then eventually we can kind of transition out of New York and we’ll go there.” And I was like, “Well, doesn’t make a ton of sense. I’m already up here. There’s parts of this business I don’t know about, but how hard can this be a bed and breakfast?” And little did I know that that was his whole strategy. He never was hiring a manager, he just needed to get me on board.
SSR: Well done, David. Well done.
DB: When it becomes Kevin’s idea, it’s a very good idea. And I learned that early on.
KO: He’s very good at manipulating that.
SSR: Secret to a successful relationship.
KO: So we both kind of jumped headfirst into the inn and it was a massive learning curve, not easy. And to this day, we still laugh. It’s like, we have run or been involved in some of the most iconic hotels in the world, big hotels, massive corporate operations, running a 15-bedroom bed and breakfast almost killed the two of us.
SSR: What was it? Was it just all the little details? Was it that it was a historic property that had to be redone? Was it the location? Was it all of it?
KO: All of the above. I laugh with people. It’s like, you go from having a team of people, to you have to do it. It’s like the pipe broke, you got to figure it out. You’re doing the housekeeping, you’re doing the check-ins. David at night in New York would get home from a long day at work and he would do revenue management and reservations.
SSR: But probably having two jobs wasn’t easy.
DB: Exactly. It was accounting and all of those aspects of running a business, that frankly when you’re in a corporate environment, you have a team of people who are doing all of those things. And suddenly, like Kevin said, you’re doing everything yourself. I think the beauty of working in a larger team is you have people to bounce ideas off and to say, well we’ve got, whether it’s a revenue management decision decision or a finance decision. And we just had the two of us and Kevin’s sort of bouncing ideas off me, I’m bouncing ideas off him. And I think that was how we, again, so solidified how well we can work together because he knows nothing about revenue management, but it was a good discussion and a good thing for us to talk about. And so the same with design, I learned so much listening to him. And so it became so valuable. But it was the biggest shock. We thought we knew it all and realized we knew very, very little.
SSR: What did you love most about it though? Because obviously you loved something that kept you going.
KO: It’s funny, on the flip side of that, doing everything yourself is really rewarding. And I think it was like every day, every decision that was being made was our decision and therefore we created this world. And you got to have really personal conversations with guests, and we got to do all the things that we loved, like cooking. I cooked every day for breakfast.
SSR: Your post on Instagram makes me hungry all the time. And I know it’s you, which is crazy. I know now you’ve grown a bigger team, but still I know you guys are still very involved.
KO: Yeah. I think it was just for both of us, it was getting to really do the parts of the industry that we loved the most and getting to do it sort of every day in an environment that we were controlling.
SSR: Right. Okay. So you start with your first one, 2011. Was the goal to keep expanding or did it just kind of happen that way?
KO: Our goal was not to keep expanding, but everybody around us was like, “Well, of course you’re going to start a hotel company.” And that was news to us. David was quitting his job. We got to a point where there was stability in our world, so he could leave New York and we decided that we would kill each other if we were working day to day in the same building. So he started looking for another hotel in P-Town. Because he was like, “How about you have this one and I’ll take another one?”
SSR: What was next then?
DB: Yeah, so the plan was to really enjoy this beautiful place of Provincetown, really take a more calm life and approach, get a dog and walk on the beach every day. And then we realized, I think for me the realization was talking to our guests and hearing how much they were loving what we were doing. And I realized that we were onto something. I realized that you can have beautifully designed properties with wonderful service and a personal touch and you can do all of those things.
And so it was a case then of, okay, no dog, and let’s get a second hotel. And that was Eben House. And as Kevin said, it allowed us to have sort of separate areas where we could be every day, but still do a lot of things together and still bounce everything off each other. And then literally as that hotel was coming together, the opportunity of the Chequit on Shelter Island came at exactly the same time. So we ended up opening both properties at the same time, and started to then bring in a wider team to help us grow. And again, then it’s a whole new set of fun and challenges and everything else is where hotels in multiple places. But it was definitely a really exciting and fun time.
SSR: And as you expanded, was there an ethos you wanted each of your hotels to have? I know they’re not cookie cutter by any means, but was there something that you guys started thinking about, like this should be Salt, this is what we should be or want to be?
KO: So I was adamant at the beginning that this was always going to stay small little B&Bs. I was like nothing over 50 bedrooms. The Chequit was 30 bedrooms, that felt like a nice scale to me. When David departed New York Life, he got approached to consult on the Asbury Park projects and he was kind of doing that on the side. And then it came time for operator discussions and he was like, “I think we should do this.” And I was like, “No.” I was like, “That is not a B&B, that’s a big hotel with multiple food and beverage outlets. That’s not what we’re doing.” And I kind of held out for a while. I was like, “This is not happening.” In fairness, I couldn’t wrap my head around how we could have Salthouse in P-Town at 15 bedroom, like seasonal bed and breakfast, and then be operating the Asbury, which is a big hotel with multiple F&B outlets. I didn’t see how those two things could connect. But the more we talked about it, he broke me down and convinced me it was a good move..
SSR: Did he make your idea?
KO: I don’t know on that one. I think that one you just were like, “This is happening one way or another.”
SSR: And for those that don’t know, it’s in Asbury Park, New Jersey, which was seeing a revitalization. So it was a really big project for the area. Not only was the hotel a big project, but the entire kind of master plan was.
KO: Yeah. And I think that was the point, when I realized that we could have a common thread throughout the sort of collection of hotels. That really comes down to that attention to detail, I think an authenticity in design and sense of place and service, the kind of ethos through Salt School and education and training that we do, but that guests can go to different hotels. And it doesn’t matter how big or small they are, there’s a sort of feeling and experience that’s consistent amongst them. And that’s something that we’ve really tried to maintain as we continue to grow.
SSR: You mentioned Salt School. Can you tell us a little bit about it and what you teach and how you teach service?
DB: Yeah. So Salt School came about, and we laugh because I call this my working girl realization moment of, I was in a meeting on the Asbury project. And somebody had said, “You’re never going to get great staff. It’s not an area known for hospitality workers and so you’re going to struggle.” And anybody who knows me that tells me that we’re not going to do something is usually the greatest moment of, “Okay, well then this will happen.” And later in the day we talked about in a separate meeting about what makes a community and how do you really to create a hotel that is connected to the community that it’s in. And so part of that community, a lot of communities center around schools. And the two suddenly came together. And then Kevin and I worked on, okay, well from my background where I didn’t finish high school, I had no formal qualifications and I ended up running some of the best hotels in the world and certainly some of the best companies as well.
And so we said, “Well, let’s train our own people. Let’s invest in the very, very beginning and create a hospitality school that is open to everybody, that is free, and that teaches people the fundamentals of our industry.” And so much of what we do you can’t teach in a classroom, it has to be in real life. But we focused the school and we called every friend that we have and said, “Will you come to Asbury Park and will you help us educate this group of people on different aspects of hospitality?” And everybody said yes, which was so phenomenal. So we opened the applications. That was probably the scariest part, because I thought what if nobody comes, what if nobody applies for what we thought was a good idea? And we ended up having over 400 applicants.
The largest space we found we could accommodate 150 people, so the first Salt School in 2016 was 150 people in the Boys and Girls Club of Asbury Park. And every week we delved into different departments of a hotel. So one week week we would talk about front office and housekeeping. The next week we would talk about design and social media, food and beverage, accounting, revenue management, all of the different areas. And we got experts from within the industry. As I said, we called all of our friends and got them to come and talk to people and share their stories and how they had gone through the industry and what the industry meant to them. And it really resonated with people of this is a good company, this is an industry that I want to get into. And then people started to naturally navigate to where they wanted, which departments would be suitable for them.
Some people it was, “I don’t want to deal with the public on a day-to-day basis, but I love this environment.” And they moved into maybe accounting or line rooms and things like that. So the first one was actually 12 weeks and we’ve since abbreviated it down to eight weeks, but it’s every Saturday and it’s four or five hours on a Saturday morning. And it’s really a chance for lots of role playing, lots of fun, really lighthearted. And it’s a chance for us to get to know the applicants, them to get to know us. And for also the biggest thing that I learned on in Asbury Park was to learn about the community and to learn about what makes the community special. And so when we’re going to launch a hotel, then we can make sure it is really targeted to being part of that community and to get the most from the hotel and to get, because we always want people from the community to be part of everything that we do as sort of a fundamental for Salt Hotels.
SSR: What has that done running this school? Has it kept you inspired? Is there any interesting takeaway from watching reactions and seeing people go through this process?
DB: Yeah. I think for it has changed us as a company, it’s changed me as a person. I think it’s become one of the most important things that we do as an organization, is bringing people into our industry. Especially now, post-Covid, we see it every day that other industries are poaching our great talent. And so it’s really invested, it’s made us in ensure that we invest our time in all of our team members. It has drastically reduced turnover. Team members feel that they’re really invested in the company, in the hotel, and we’ve seen that as a tangible return from a lack of turnover. And it’s become a huge passion of ours that will carry on forever.
And we have shared the Salt School story with multiple companies, and including some of the big boys who wanted to do Freehand as a hotel group, were launching LA and they had seen Salt School and were like, “Okay, how did you do it and can you help us?” And so we helped them format Freehand University. And I think that it’s not proprietary education and attracting people to our industry is not proprietary to Salt. It’s something that we all have a responsibility to do and I think it’s that passion. I would love it if even more of the big boys wanted to get involved in this and to attract new talent to the industry, because I think it benefits us all.
SSR: For sure. I love it. So you’ve also expanded outside of the East Coast, Northeast, you in L.A and Miami. Can you talk about, let’s go first Asta, which is one of your newest, which is a pretty cool concept and location. Can you tell us a little bit about that and why you wanted to take that on and split coasts?
KO: Yeah. We’ve been looking on the West Coast for a long time and just hadn’t really found the right project yet. This one came up and it was very interesting. It was a private members club. It was the H Club out of London that sadly closed during Covid. The ownership group, there’s a person that David used to work with at Morgans who kind of approached us and said, “We have this asset, it’s kind of strange. You guys are good at doing sort of odd, quirky hotels. What do you think about it?” And for us it was interesting because primarily it’s a membership club. We have 35 guest rooms and some pretty robust food and beverage, but the main focus of it is membership. And I think that was an interesting challenge to us. LA’s a very crowded membership market, especially post-Covid with people working remotely.
And for us, we saw opportunity in the membership model from a service standpoint. How do you approach the membership model from a place of hospitality? Which I think is maybe lacking in some other models. It’s funny, when we started Salthouse 10 years ago, we really looked at breaking out the rules. And there’s so many rules in hotel world that was like, we’re like, “Why are all these rules around? Who decided three o’clock is check-in time?” So we abolished that and we figured out instead how to operate to let people arrive when they want to arrive and we kind of work around that. And I think we saw the same sort of situation in membership world of you have to submit your financials, you got to submit your, what do you do for work? You have to have three other members vouch for you. And we were just like, this feels off to us. And so instead it was like, why don’t we approach this from a community building standpoint? Why don’t we approach this from a hospitality standpoint, and see if that resonates? And I think it’s been really successful.
SSR: That’s awesome. I do think you hit on a point. There are a ton of membership clubs that have become popular over the past five years. I feel like we write about a new one every other week. Do you see that as a model that you guys will continue to look at, that might be something interesting to add to your properties or just as another kind of option to add your element of hospitality to this kind of hybrid space?
DB: Yeah, I think so. I think that certainly the interest we’ve had come to us post opening the Asta would indicate that we’re onto something that’s very interesting there. As Kevin said, leading with hospitality. And we’ve learned a lot, like every project, but they Asta more than anything else. Of learning about how a membership operation runs and the demands of a member, which are very different from our hotel guests. And so learning through those, and it’s fun. It’s really interesting and it really allows you to push the programming boundaries to the next limits. And so I think that Nantucket has a membership component. We’re talking about putting a membership component into Newport, Rhode Island, the same into Minneapolis. So I think that we will definitely continue to expand that. We will stay at the core of what we do as a hotel company, but I think that now includes a little bit more on the membership side of things.
SSR: Got it. And also you opened the Greystone in Miami. What did you want to create there?
KO: Well, I think Miami, we have a lot of nostalgia for just through Morgans, Donno Shore Club, David Running Standard down there. We have lots of happy memories and it’s such a fun, unique market in the U.S that we’ve had also been looking there for a long time. And when the Greystone opportunity came up, it kind of felt perfect. It’s 20th and Collins in the heart of everything. It has so many of the amenities of the larger resorts that are on the other side of the street, on the beach side. But it’s got this wonderful intimate scale. And so again, we saw the opportunity here of being able to provide really highly personalized luxury service and do it on this kind of one-to-one basis, but still have a beautiful design and you get all of the amenities that’s happening across the street. I think that’s harder to achieve in the bigger resorts.
And I think that the other piece of this from a food and beverage standpoint is that a lot of the locals in Miami, they don’t go to the beach. It’s a very touristy thing. It’s like someone’s in from out of town, let’s take them kind of obligatory. And so we were like, how do we start to attract those folks again, and create that really dynamic mix of locals in the hotel, plus the guests that are staying in there? And I think we’ve done a pretty good job with that, with our food and beverage offerings and just again, through initiatives like Salt School and our sort of commitment to community organizations down there.
SSR: Amazing. Okay. So in sake of time, I want to dive into a couple other questions beyond projects. So what do you think has been one of your secrets to success along the way, for Salt hotels and for working together?
DB: That’s a great question. I think for working together, as Kevin mentioned earlier on, it’s definitely dividing and conquering and having our own areas of responsibility to try and to shut off and that it’s not 24 hours a day of Salt Hotels. And I think we’ve got better with time with that. And I think for Salt Hotels has been really treating everybody, and I mean everybody with kindness. And it has been something very important to us is having a company that truly looks after people, that cares about their owners and their employees and their leadership team and their hotels. And I think that, that shows in the end result that we do care.
We have one rule as a company, which is no assholes. And it’s something that we talk about a lot, because we could probably do five or 10 times as many deals as we wanted to do. But for us, finding those right partners, finding the right deals are really, really important. And I think really coming out with the sort of continuing to think about one size doesn’t fit all. And each hotel, to Kevin’s point earlier on of certain hotels being 15 rooms and then we’re building a hotel now of 250 rooms. There’s massive two ends of the spectrum, but we can do that and they can still embody the values of the company and staying true to those values.
SSR: Amazing. Kevin, anything to add?
KO: I would add that the two of us are kind of relentless. Nothing’s ever done or good enough or finished. So even Salthouse is a great example of the very first project every single year, it closes and it’s like there’s a list. It’s like, how can we make this better? How can we do this differently? And I think that it’s so easy to rest on your laurels and you open something and you move on to the next thing. I think we’re always constantly revisiting, constantly pushing, constantly seeing how the markets are evolving, people are evolving. I think the way people have traveled has changed so much in the last few years post-Covid and just being able to kind of react to that. But I think it’s a constant pursuit for us, good and bad.
SSR: And everything in between.
SSR: What’s one thing people might not know about you?
DB: I think for me, it would be I am a fanatical music lover and adore, love, love, love any live performance of any type. I love huge vinyl collection and music is an escape.
SSR: Love it. Well, maybe Kevin, people didn’t know that you are into ceramics. Do you still make ceramics?
KO: I don’t. Unfortunately, no. That’s a good point. Most people don’t. No. I think it’s something I’ll come back to again at some point when I have time. It’s still something I’m passionate about. I think anything that I get my hands into. So cooking is a huge part of my life, ceramics, anything that I can kind of craft and create with my hands, that is when I’m most happy.
DB: Yeah. I don’t know if people know what a great chef you are.
KO: Thank you. And we finally got our dog.
SSR: You finally got the dog.Yeah. It came full circle. So what has been your greatest lesson or lessons learned along the way? I will start with you, Kevin.
KO: I think it is to follow your dreams and take those risks. I think when we started this craziness and doing this inn, it was kind of an overwhelming thing, but it’s been so wonderfully rewarding. And it’s like, take the time to get out of your comfort zone, that’s when growth happens. And I think it’s really scary for a lot of people, and I get it, especially going off and working on your own, but it can also be one of the most rewarding things.
SSR: Awesome. And David?
DB: I think it is learning from everyone. There is something to learn from everybody that you work with, that you work for, or that works for you, or that you come into contact with. And I think being a sponge and just taking as much as you can from all of those people around you is something that I’ve learned. I always love to learn, I still to this day focus on what can I learn every single day and who can teach me something. And I hope that never ends. And in our industry that is ever-changing, I think there’s always something new and never think that you know it all.
SSR: Yeah. Learn something new every day. Well, thank you both for spending this last hour with me. It’s been such a pleasure. Loved hearing your stories and hope to see you see you both soon.