Montage Deer Valley does not announce itself quietly. Skiing down the slopes of Empire Canyon in Park City, Utah, you can’t miss the sprawling complex high above the base of the valley.
It is a big hotel with big ambitions.
It also could have been a big mistake.
The project entered its final year of construction in 2010, while the economy was still in free fall—and as people suddenly stopped treating themselves to cars, jewelry and vacations. The luxury market was among the hardest hit. And while the worst appears to be over for the moment, travelers remain wary of spending.
But Alan Fuerstman, founder and CEO of Montage Hotels, never considered pulling the plug, slowing down or curtailing amenities like the four-lane bowling alley or the 35,000-square-foot spa. With 174 guest rooms and 81 residences, the hotel aims to compete with those in Aspen, Vail and Jackson Hole, opening in time for the start of ski season in December and poised to host an event for the Sundance Film Festival in January 2011.
“It’s full speed ahead,” says Fuerstman. “Luxury hotels need to withstand the cycles that can happen. Yes, it was as severe as we’ve seen. But this property was built for generations to come.”
To a certain extent, Fuerstman lucked out: It was better to be completing a hotel this year than trying to fill one. The downturn also enabled him to recruit top-tier talent from a flooded labor pool. He had been down this road before, having opened Montage Laguna Beach and Montage Beverly Hills. He remains convinced that quality, particularly Montage’s intense focus on service, sells.
The company strives for the wow factor—something people never thought to ask for but, once they’ve had it, can’t imagine living without. Like the two-greeter service at the airport: One waits to retrieve your luggage while the other whisks you away to the hotel with a room service menu in the car so that your meal will be waiting upon arrival. When a guest didn’t like the way she looked in the brown robes at Montage Beverly Hills, she found a white one hanging in the closet on her next visit. For a family that had come to Montage Laguna Beach five Christmases in a row, the hotel surprised them with an afternoon in the kitchen, where they prepared their own dinner with a chef and his team.
“It’s the difference between a real switched-on hotel and one going through the motions,” says Fuerstman. “There’s a passion to get those things right and to exceed our guests’ expectations.”
In many ways Deer Valley is Fuerstman’s attempt to top himself. The hotel is designed in a Craftsman style, evoking the traditional mountain lodges of the West with stone foundations, expansive great rooms, outdoor decks and sweeping views of the Wasatch Mountains. The spa features 29 treatment rooms, an outdoor sun deck, an indoor lap pool, daily yoga and fitness classes, a salon for hair and nail services, and alpine-inspired ministrations. The hotel will arrange nature photography sessions, guided hikes and mountain bike treks, naturalist outings, fly-fishing instruction and gourmet picnics.
Despite its promise, the new resort has significant challenges ahead. It will compete with the area’s elder statesman, Stein Eriksen Lodge, as well as the Waldorf Astoria in Park City and the St. Regis, both of which opened on the mountain last year. Occupancy rates will rise and fall with the snow report, and the hotel will have to be creative about luring crowds in the off-season.
The son of a dentist and a homemaker, Fuerstman originally intended to go to law school. But after working part-time as a doorman at the Marriott in Saddlebrook, New Jersey, while a high-school senior, then as a bell captain at the Marriott Rancho Las Palmas Resort near Palm Springs, California, the summer after college, he knew he’d found his calling. “I was attracted to it immediately,” he says, “the interaction with guests.”
He gradually worked his way up through the Marriott chain, managed the El Conquistador in Tucson, transferred to the Phoenician in Scottsdale and oversaw a portion of ITT Sheraton’s Luxury collection until he was wooed away by Steve Wynn to open and manage the Bellagio in Las Vegas.
In 2000 he decided to try building his own business. “I’d had a great career with some large companies,” he says. “I really have an entrepreneurial spirit. And if I wanted to go out on my own and create a company, now was the time to do it.”
Fuerstman doesn’t immediately come across as a cocksure top executive. Watch him walking through one of his lobbies, dining in one of the restaurants or skiing down Deer Valley’s slopes and the 54-year-old father of four with salt-and-pepper hair looks like most of the other middle-aged hotel guests in his midst, not the mogul who runs the place. Underneath that muted exterior, however, is an aggressive entrepreneur with a solid ego and sizable business plans. Fuerstman doesn’t know how many hotels he ultimately wants to open—“there’s no magic number”—but he believes Montage belongs in the same league as established chains like Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental and Peninsula Hotels.
To be sure, he sweats the details, from the composition of a Cobb salad to the color of a bed throw. During a visit to a model room for Deer Valley, he said he wanted to see the brown pillows a shade darker and to have bedside tables equipped with sliding panels for extra space.
“It’s a very important exercise for us to perfect the room,” Fuerstman says. “Is this outlet in the right place? Is the couch comfortable enough?”
The hotels have become integral to his personal life: He and his wife, Susan, live full time at Montage Laguna Beach. Fuerstman’s children grew up living in the hotels. His first and third work for him; his second did, too, until starting law school; and the fourth expects to join the fold someday. Fuerstman approaches Montage as a family business, operating more like a benevolent patriarch than a dictatorial chief executive.
“I enjoy the aspect of motivating,” he says. “My role as the visionary for the company is one I take very seriously.”
At the same time, he can get frustrated—mostly when employees should have known something about a guest but didn’t. “I go off the wall sometimes,” Fuerstman says. “If I wasn’t passionate and didn’t emote over some of these things, the staff wouldn’t care as much. You have to share your passion. If you’re disappointed and it shows, there’s nothing wrong with that.
“Getting consensus isn’t enough: You need to be a strong manager,” he continues. “There are a lot of nice guys who don’t run great hotels.”
Montage is counting on the strong following at its existing properties to feed Deer Valley, along with early support from the travel industry and a strong marketing effort. “There has been a steady buzz about the property,” Fuerstman says. “People are letting the world know we’re coming.”
Room rates at Montage Deer Valley range from $345 for a standard double to $5,000 for the Presidential Suite. To book, call 435-604-1300 or go to montagedeervalley.com.