Insider's Guide to Spas
Montage Laguna Beach

Behind the Brand

Personal Touch Makes Montage Magic

Perry Garfinkel


The timing could not have been worse—or more ironic. It was the summer of 2007. My back went out in the middle of a speaking tour of luxurious hotel spas after my book Buddha or Bust was published in paperback. I’d taken an early morning jog into the red rock canyons surrounding Mii amo Resort and Spa in Sedona, Arizona, where I’d spoken the day before. Within two hours I was on a flight to California to speak the next morning at the Montage Hotel in Laguna Beach. Problem was I don’t really jog and the run exacerbated a lower back annoyance I thought had gone away. By the time I stood in front of the entire Montage staff, I was so stiff and in such discomfort that I looked like the letter V painfully laid on its side.

The added irony was that I’d billed my talk as “The Buddha’s Massage: How to Pay Attention on the Table and Off.” I had not paid attention to my own body telling me: “Don’t push it.” I was speaking about wellness—of balancing mind and body—but my body was telling my mind: “You’re way off, bud.”

Somehow I stonewalled it through the speech. But I fooled no one. Several people came up afterward and asked if I was okay.

Days before I’d arrived at the Montage, I had scheduled a treatment for that afternoon; I think I had preselected a deep tissue and had filled out a form providing info about various trouble spots. When I showed up, my situation was acute and it read all over my face. But the practitioner was not looking at my face or my body too carefully. Her nose was buried in the form I had filled out as she asked some specific questions.

Impatient and in severe pain, I admit to snapping. “Can’t you see I’m in no shape for whatever I signed up for?” I interrupted her through gritted teeth. Then she took a long hard look.

In the hotel world they say it’s how well staff reverse a mistake that turns a disgruntled guest into a loyal guest. And it was how well and quickly that therapist flipped her own script once she realized my condition that won my great admiration. Instead of a massage, which she wisely knew would not ease my pain at that point, she orchestrated daily visits to a local chiropractor and a Chinese acupuncturist. She brought me big bags of Epsom salt, and for the next three or four days my regimen was back-to-back trips to each of the alternative medicine specialists sandwiched with 45-minute meditations soaking in my hotel bathtub. Once a day, I returned to the spa for progress reports. When I was finally able to walk upright without too much pain, I made my way to the airport. The spa team sent me home with a short list of gentle stretching movements that eventually helped me find my mind/body balance.

Montage continues to impress with its dedication to holistic wellness in every sense of the word—as a company, as a community member, as a protector of the environment—and as protector of my and your body.

That’s how the Montage won my loyalty back then and, as I examined the brand recently, how it continues to impress with its dedication to holistic wellness in every sense of the word—as a company, as an employer, as a community member, as a protector of the environment—and as protector of my and your body.

At the time of that first visit in 2007, there was just the Montage Laguna Beach property. Its second property, in Beverly Hills, was just about to open. Its resort in Deer Valley, in Park City, Utah, was a construction site. Founder and CEO Alan Fuerstman had a slow-growth rollout plan. And he has remained consistent to that. Now the collection has added properties in Kapalua Bay, on the island of Maui; Palmetto Bluff, along the May River in the low country of South Carolina; and the upcoming Montage on the Santa Maria Bay in Los Cabos, Mexico, opening in 2018.

Year Founded/Established: 2002

Corporate Headquarters: Montage International, 3 Ada Parkway, Suite 100, Irvine, CA 92618

Founder Behind the Brand

Alan Fuerstman is a soft-spoken man, a personal exemplar of the grace and humility he hopes his hotels reflect. A family man, he and his wife Susan have four grown and accomplished children. In a roomful of people, he’s not the one you’d pick out as the dynamic and charismatic leader. You’d think he was the accountant. He’s the quiet one, seemingly in the background, picking up all kinds of cues and data before weighing in brilliantly and succinctly.

Talk about starting from the ground up, Fuerstman began in the hospitality industry while a 17-year-old student at New Milford (NJ) High School, working part time as a bellman at a Marriott Hotel. After graduating from Gettysburg College, he began a management training program with Marriott. His first actual job was bell captain at the Rancho Las Palmas Resort in California, eventually rising to manage the front desk, housekeeping, and food and beverage. Next, it was assistant general manager at one of Marriott’s Long Island properties before becoming part of the opening team for Marriott’s property in Desert Springs, California. He later helped open several other Marriott properties.

Fuerstman joined ITT Sheraton as general manager at the El Conquistador Resort and Country Club in Tucson, Arizona. His next step was a Big Step up: as president and managing director of the 600-room Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale, Arizona; he also oversaw its luxury collection. In 1998, Vegas legend Steve Wynn hired him to oversee the opening of the Bellagio, which defied odds by being a 3,000-room hotel that maintained luxury service standards.

Then in 2002, he gave birth to his own vision of what high-end luxury should feel like. Read about that below.

But aside from his professional credentials as a hotelier and business entrepreneur, aside from the many awards he has collected, the key to understanding Alan Fuerstman—and by association his hotel brand—is the surprise that lies behind his cool, calm, and collected exterior: he’s a rocker. Yes, the seemingly staid man is a very solid rhythm guitarist; whenever he can, he joins with his two sons in a band they have dubbed Maximum Occupancy.

Claim(s) to Fame

Montage Hotels was established at a time when luxury hotel companies were getting bigger and bigger. “They were going the cookie-cutter route, which was cost effective but not the direction I wanted to go,” explains Fuerstman. The Montage properties would have less rooms and more personalized service, marked by understated but efficient service.

Like the architect Buckminster Fuller’s “small is beautiful” philosophy, Fuerstman wanted to provide even more refined service with a smaller guest to employee ratio. And he wanted his hotels to all be different, to have the look, feel, and touch of their environments.

Another claim to fame—and an important factor in financing that high-end service to all—was real estate development. So every Montage offers an opportunity to buy a home on or adjacent to the hotel, with the advantage of access to all hotel services like room service and turndown if the owner would like. “We’re finding that the residential component complements what we’re doing well and economically makes our projects more viable,” he said.

A third characteristic is the bedrock of any hotel and spa worth their sea salts: training. Montage prides itself in training. In a Q&A I wrote for the New York Times in 2008, Fuerstman focused on that particularly. I asked him: “Can you really teach grace and humility?”

He replied: “Not only do we teach it, but we also reinforce and reward it. The teaching starts with modeling. We show staff the kind of kindness, support, and respect we hope they show guests. We are very big on offering all employees extracurricular educational opportunities that can be applied in or out of our hotel. We sponsor leadership trainings based on ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.’”

The one additional piece of what makes Montage stand out is its Elements of Wellness program, which you can read about below.

Mission of Brand

Using the word “montage” is telling. It suggests the juxtaposition of elements, an artistic assemblage. The company’s stated vision: “To create an artistic collection of distinctive luxury hotels, resorts, and residences in stunning settings that offer comfortable elegance, a unique sense of place, impeccable hospitality, and inspired memorable culinary, spa, and lifestyle experiences.” Its philosophy, in part:

“Montage is devoted to delivering an elevated guest experience . . . a commitment to refined living, impeccable hospitality, exceptional epicurean experiences, world-class spas, and an elegant yet welcoming ambiance with the goal of creating lasting and cherished memories.”

Number of Properties

Five properties, consisting of the hotels in Laguna Beach and Beverly Hills, California; Park City, Utah; Maui, Hawaii; and Palmetto Bluff, South Carolina.

Number of Spas

Five—all Montage resorts have spas, as will those in the future.

Number of Employees

2,809 Montage employees, plus 89 at the corporate headquarters

Most Successful Spa 

Determining “most successful” all depends on how you define success. Is it how many awards and Top 10 lists on newspaper and magazine readership surveys? Is it revenue? Is it repeat guests? With companies that have only a small handful of resort spas, owners, managers, and spa directors are reluctant to choose from among their own “children.” In this case, therefore, allow me to choose. It’s not hard. It’s actually a toss-up between the flagship property in Laguna Beach and the one in Beverly Hills, both boasting 20,000 square feet of pure bliss. Here’s why:

The Montage Laguna Beach was where my story began, above. It was where I saw the extent to which this brand was committed to holistic health and to bringing personalized state-of-the-art modalities to the table . . . literally and figuratively. At that time, it seemed to me the bringing together the rigor of a program like Pritikin with the pampering of a quintessentially 5-star experience. When I returned recently, I had a thalassotherapy treatment (thalasso is Greek for sea water) that was basically a walk along the edge of the shore with a spa professional who teaches yoga. I will never walk a beach the same way again. She explained that deep meditative breathing—inhalation and exhalation—along a shoreline where the bubbles burst with each incoming waves brings big doses of oxygen to the body. Oxygenation has long been shown to have many health benefits. There’s growing research and studies about sea therapy, known anecdotally since the time of ancient Greece, now at least part of scientific inquiry.

Beverly Hills boasts the product line of L. Raphael, as mentioned above. I had an L. Raphael back-to-back bonanza—almost too much good stuff for a guy. I went from the Oxy Slim Body treatment to the Oxy Star Anti-Pigmentation treatment. Ms. Raphael is into oxygen, too—big time—but not from ocean bubbles. The first treatment uses oxygen and L. Raphael’s exclusive Slimming Complex with black-currant seed and apricot oil, to slim and reshape the body. The treatments include three massages using a unique slimming gel, a fat burning serum, and a special firming body oil to tighten the body for a slimmer, more youthful physique. The oxygen is applied from a kind of gun; I didn’t even want to look. It felt like I was in a tiny wind tunnel; I imagined my face rippling like you see on astronauts’ faces in training.

Corporate Spa Director

Janet Denyer is a 30-year veteran of the spa industry. She joined Montage Hotels and Resorts in August 2013. Prior to that, she was CEO of Gene Juarez Salons and Spas, luxury day spas and cosmetology schools in the Pacific Northwest. Before that she was senior management at Elizabeth Arden Red Door Spas. She also ran a spa consulting company, Natural Resources Spa Consulting, Inc., working with such companies as Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons, Westin, Marriott, Loews, Fairmont, Disney, and others.

All to say she’s got highly sophisticated spa chops.

She had met Fuerstman when the two worked together at Marriott’s Desert Springs.

Now, she says, “What delights me most at Montage is how much attention we pay to honoring our core values and making sure that comes across at each of our five spas, while also showcasing the indigenous herbs, plants, oils, and other products that come from the regions of resort.”

You’ll notice no plaques of award and honor on the walls entering Montage spas. “We appreciate the recognition, but once you enter our sanctum sanctorum, it’s not about us—it’s about you,” she emphasizes.

One of her special enjoyments is sourcing new products. She made a great find when she “discovered” L. Raphael, the skincare brand founded by Israeli Ronit Raphael. The Montage is now the only West Coast spa to offer the line of ultra-premium, technologically advanced skincare, beauty, and anti-aging treatments (ultra-premium is a Rodeo Drive way saying expensive).

The Art of Surrender

The Montage spa story could not be fully told without paying tribute to the early input and influence of Anne Bramham, the founder of a spa training certification called Advanced Spa Therapies Education & Certification Council, aka ASTECC, and a leading spa consultant. Her “constitutionally” based ASTECC curriculum is widely regarded as the benchmark for spa therapy education. She’s also known for creating Spa Montage’s Surrender program.

“The program’s lifestyle and constitutional analyses allow us to determine combinations of biochemical elements and treatments that best address the guest’s very specific needs,” Anne explains. “Surrender is a process of communication and touch that promotes self awareness. It’s both therapeutic and regenerative for the guest. A ‘whole body’ approach, the program carries the potential of gently shifting perception. With a better understanding of their essential self, we find guests usually become more proactive in their own wellbeing. The goal of Surrender is connection—connection with oneself and the environment we inhabit.”

To that end, she reiterates Janet’s points about using indigenous elements. “Partnering with Montage was easy,” she says, “ as we are philosophically aligned in many ways. While hospitality, service, and ‘casual elegance’ were priorities, so was connection with their guests. In planning, we agreed each Montage would be an expression of its unique environment. That begins with engagement with the local communities. Within the spa we expressed this message through natural elements and services reflecting the essence of the surrounding environment. For example in Laguna it’s the Pacific Ocean, in Deer Valley the mountains, in Beverly Hills the merged cultural influences of Spain and Persia.”

Future Plans for the Brand

“I think you will see growth in a balance of beautiful coastal or mountain settings and major gateway cities such as New York, London, and Asian cities,” says Fuerstman, still emphasizing slow growth “where our brand makes sense. I’d rather be patient than put a Montage in a locale where it would not really fit just for the sake of growth.”

Another example of the future of the brand may already be happening in the form of Pendry Hotels , a brand within the Montage brand which launched in 2014 and now has two hotels, one in San Diego, the other in Baltimore. Pendry positions itself as a luxury boutique “lifestyle” group. In today’s hotel parlance, this means design driven aimed at a hip demographic of business and leisure travelers. Michael Fuerstman, Alan’s oldest son, already a seasoned hotelier (he, too, started from the ground up, as a pool boy at the Bellagio at age 15), who is co-founder and creative director of Pendry, describes it this way: “Playful and tasteful. Think London hip, New York-paced, and California healthy.” Another clue: the motto connected to the British family surname Pendry is “Know Thyself.”

Signature Treatment of Note

The Elements of Wellness is not actually a treatment but Montage’s hotel-wide system of self-care that begins with a Buddhist-like attention to the present moment, from the micro-details of dis-ease to the macro holistic assessment and prescription for healing thyself. Keywords, the usual: customized, personalized designed to “best suit your unique needs.”

Montage spas take those clichés a step further. There’s a pretty comprehensive “health profile” before the session, and then a sort of Healthy To Do list of how to move your experience of feeling better back to where you live, in both senses of the word.

My “home care recommendations” focused on my dry skin, a product, I’d like to think, of a long rainy winter spent mostly indoors, advice on which exfoliants, which cleansers, which moisturizers, oils, masques, and wraps might help.

My treatment itself was a mix of this and that—a scrub of mineral salts and botanical muds, seaweed body wrap, reflexology, a connective tissue massage. Every now and then my practitioner gave me a hit of aromatherapy, putting a cup of orange blossom oils (I think!) under my nose and directing me to take a long slow inhalation. That had followed another thalassotherapy walk I’d taken. After that morning I felt both full and empty, mellow and energized.

Three Words that Best Describe the Brand

“I can do it in two,” says Fuerstman: “Enriching lives.” He adds: “Whether the lives of guests, the members of the communities that surround us, the associates we hire, or the investors who we partner with—that remains our focus and those words capture the essence of our brand.”

 

 

 

 

Perry Garfinkel

Perry Garfinkel

Perry Garfinkel, who has been covering cutting-edge health and psychology trends for almost 40 years, is the author of the national bestseller "Buddha or Bust." A longtime contributor to The New York Times, currently regularly to the Vocations column in Sunday Business, he has also written for the National Geographic Magazine, the AARP magazine, the L.A. Times mind/body section, and many others. The author of "Travel Writing for Profit and Pleasure," he leads writing workshops around the world, at hotels and other venues.