From Harvard Business School to Hillside Beach Club … Edip Ilkbahar’s secrets of feeling good

November 25, 2016

7 years ago I met Edip Ilkbahar, a Turkish entrepreneur who told me about his fantastic Hillside Beach Club on the beautiful turquoise Mediterranean coastline. He was redefining the luxury vacation, in terms of service and experience, but also in terms of business model and how to deliver it.

His passion for customers, for creativity and for the very best service were enticing. At the time he was also launching other locations, hotels and also city-centre fitness and entertainment concepts. Hillside was rapidly defining itself as a lifestyle concept. The branded music compilations captured the mood, but it was the Hillside people who made it real. In 2012, I told the story of Hillside in my book Creative Genius: The Business Leaders Handbook to Innovation.

Over the years we have kept in touch, and when we have met for lunch, Edip always has a hunger for learning about what is new, different, better, incredible. Whilst the number of boutique beach clubs and resorts has proliferated, he has worked hard to keep Hillside ahead. Now, the evolution of Hillside Beach Club has been captured in a great new case study by Harvard Business School.

The study was developed by Harvard’s Senior Professor Rajiv Lal, who exclusively focuses on marketing and guest-oriented organizations and is an esteemed authority in this area. Through one-on-one meetings with İlkbahar, plus his managers, employees and guests, Hillside Beach Club’s authentic approach to service, original marketing insights and innovative management methods have been thoroughly examined.

Operated by Alarko Holding Tourism Group, the luxury resort is praised for its authentic management methods, motivated staff and popularity with guests in a case study named “Delivering the Ultimate Family Vacation in the Mediterranean”. Through an analysis of Hillside Beach Club’s practices, students can appreciate and learn what it takes for management to create and maintain a successful company culture and achieve exceptional rates including 99% guest satisfaction and 68% repeat guests.

In training and motivating its staff, behavior over technical training and human motivation over systems are what really matter to Hillside Beach Club. The case study highlights the resort’s “happy employees, happy guests” philosophy, and mentions the renovations to staff accommodation to ensure they’re well cared for. Testament to the success of this approach, employees stay at Hillside Beach Club for an average of 6.2 years.

Speaking of Hillside Beach Club’s mission to create a “feel good factor” amongst staff and guests, Ilkbahar said “We are bound to our employees, as well as our guests. We are in the business of making people feel good, we define feeling good in the real sense, not through notions like possessing or luxury, but as the emotions that you feel sitting under your favorite tree or the joy of having a friend over at your home. This philosophy of making people feel good with sincerity has helped us gain many guests that keep coming back, and staff that stay with us for many years”.

To cater to evolving guest demands, Hillside Beach Club employs a culture of “continuous improvement” and closely aligns global trends with human psychology to introduce new and diverse experiences each year. The Harvard case study credits the resort’s innovative offerings such as the “Hillside Beach Order” app which allows guests to place an order without leaving their sun-lounger, as well as its “Chief Instagram Officer” job advert campaign which received 62,000 applications and achieved the “Best Social Media Project” award in the 14th Golden Spider Web Awards.

Here is an extract from my own Creative Genius case study:

Hillside is the luxury lifestyle brand that is redefining the rules of cool – by ignoring its competitors, and defining the aspirations of its customers.

Described as “heaven-on-earth” Hillside Beach Club, on the Turkish southern coast, luxuriates in a perfect bay of turquoise blue water, pine trees and the most amazing views. This is where luxury meets tranquillity, service meets perfection. With the most personal, flexible service from its smiling and attentive hosts, designer hotels are made to look like mediocre commodities.

The beach club, the secret haunt of the likes of Richard Branson and Renzo Rosso, is just one jewel in the crown of Hillside Leisure, the lifestyle brand from Turkey that also numbers a range of city hotels, restaurants, shopping malls, spas and fitness clubs within its portfolio. In a world, where design and service are always looking for a new edge, Hillside is recognised as a global treasure.

Edip Ilkbahar, executive vice president of Alarko Tourism Group, has overseen the development of the brand and its unrivalled properties – starting with a new approach to fitness clubs in the centre of Istanbul – a live DJ selects the beats that inspire you to work harder – and then developing spa hotels and the beach clubs in a plan that now looks to London and Paris for its next frontiers.

“We don’t think of ourselves as a hotel, or a resort. We don’t think of the product, or even the service” says Ilkbahar proudly. “We think of concepts – be it the lifestyle that people aspire to, or the environment in which they seek to be seen in, or a special world in which they want to disappear in”. The Hillsider magazine was one of his early innovations, helping to define the brand as a contemporary lifestyle,that goes far beyond the world of hospitality.

“This is a team effort” says Ilkbahar, explaining how his people are constantly exploring how can they stretch and change their properties, surprise and inspire their guests. “We don’t see any hotel or resort as the benchmark. We learn from little things in all sorts of places, and keep evolving”.

Guests lie at the heart of his concepts. “This is about much more than customer focus. We try to think like the ultimate guest, and imagine what heaven would feel like for them. Then we set about creating it” he says, explaining that innovation starts by understanding individuals much more deeply “for beyond the conventional research surveys or focus groups”.

Hillside Su, near Anatalya, is perhaps the most architecturally striking property of all. Designer Eren Talu uses a palette of three colours  – white, red and black – whilst everything else is done with lights and mirrors, including a awe-inspiring lobby dominated by six gigantic, rotating disco balls. Hillside Su is chic, lean and intensely cool – like staying in a giant iPod, in fact it even has its own record label.

At night, the beautiful people come out – dressed in white, plus retro Adidas. And these are just the staff. Rooms are white on white, with two enormous double beds – one for the room, and one for the balcony, from which you really can dream under the stars.  With the most luxurious cottons, the most exotic cocktails, organic cooking and Balinese massage, Hillside creates an experience that stimulates all the senses.

Ilkbahar and his team are brimming with innovation and ambition. This month they launch their latest venture in the centre of the Istanbul, a city that is now at the cutting-edge of design. A new hotel, fitness centre, restaurant and boutique shopping complex is based on the concept of fast luxury  – a workout in thirty minutes, the perfect meal in the remainder of an hour, instant luxurious gifts to pick up on the way out.

“We don’t follow trends, we set them” says the passionate leader “We don’t watch our competitors, we sense where customers are going. We define cool, and help people to find it”.

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