TBY talks to Pınar Kartal Timer, General Manager of Pera Palace Hotel, on the hotel’s inception, its unique restoration, and its role in civil society.
TBY What was Pera Palace’s original connection with the Orient Express?
PINAR KARTAL TIMER When the Orient Express extended its route to Istanbul as the last stop in the East, the city didn’t have much in the way of accommodation possibilities, especially at the level of luxury that travelers of that age were accustomed to. The owners of the Orient Express started to look for their own hotel. This building was under construction at that time, and they took over the building. Construction started in 1892, and our history books indicate that the grand opening was held in 1895 with a grand ball. This hotel was very unique in the city because it was the meeting point of East and West. Even when you look at the architecture, elements of Art Nouveau, Oriental, and Neo-Classicism can be seen.
The architect was Alexander Vallaury, who designed many buildings in Istanbul. This was the first modern building in Istanbul, with iron and steel used in its construction. We worked with academics during the recent restoration of the building. It was the first building, aside from the Ottoman palaces and the American Hospital, to have electricity. The hotel boasted the first electric elevator in the country, which was installed only three years after the first elevator was installed in Europe at the Eiffel Tower.
With all of this history, what were the challenges of undertaking such a major restoration project?
When this hotel was built 120 years ago, there was no need for air conditioning or systems that provide Wi-Fi and internet. Nothing was in place. Installing this 21st century infrastructure without damaging the aesthetic and nostalgia was the biggest challenge of the restoration. As an example, in the grand ballroom, we couldn’t touch the ceiling or the walls, so we installed ventilation through the floors. It was extremely challenging. Another challenge was the original stone exterior. We brought in 17 stone workers from Anatolia, and they worked manually without any electrical devices for 15 months. It was, however, both challenging and exciting as the hotel had never undergone a major restoration, and so we were able to see traces of the original building—some parts covered by seven or eight layers of paint. This was significant as we have thus been able to restore the building to exactly how it was. Pera Palace isn’t an ordinary hotel. There are so many people in Istanbul who feel they have a strong connection with this property and have many memories. For this reason, while the four-year restoration project was underway, we attracted a lot of attention, and that resulted in a fantastic opening.
How has your occupancy rate been since your reopening in September 2010?
For the first four months, we closed with 50%. This was achieved despite the usual downturn in occupancy rates seen over November and December. We even surpassed growth operating profit projections by 25%. As a newly opened hotel, this is a considerable amount. We have a team of 175 for 115 rooms. In the summer, we will increase staffing to 200. This allows us to deliver a high-end service that reflects the grandiose nature of the building. Our first full operational year will be 2011, and we are in line with our budget. We’re planning to finish 2011 with an occupancy rate of 72% and a €250 average room rate.
In terms of your guests by country, what are your primary markets?
Our primary market is the UK at the moment, as well as the US and other European countries such as France, the Netherlands, and Spain. We have also had a lot of business from Japan, and a documentary was broadcast there in May 2011. A French TV crew filmed another documentary for TV3, and they were here for a month making a film called, “Legendary Cities, Legendary Hotels,” in which legendary hotels from Marrakech, Venice, and Paris were also featured.
Have you made a concerted effort to get your name out in the international market?
We worked with a PR company in London to polish our image and create awareness that the hotel had been renovated. A lot of people were following the renovation keenly, and this put a lot of responsibility on our shoulders.
You also attract a lot of events. Most recently the author Paulo Cuelho hosted an annual event here. How are events like this important for your vision of the hotel?
I love Paulo Coelho personally, so it was great to have him here and also great publicity for the hotel. As well as other iconic names, every month on the third Thursday we have Pera Palace cultural get-togethers, and we host very important Turkish writers—big names whose books are translated into many languages. We opened in 2010 when Istanbul was the European Capital of Culture. We feel it is our responsibility to give some culture back to the city. To that aim, we have created a permanent exhibition in the hotel where we exhibit all the materials that were used in the early days of the hotel. We also have the Atatürk Museum room, which gives a special touch to the hotel. It is open for one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon to the public free of charge. In addition, the Yeşilçam Film Festival and İKSV Istanbul Film Festival were announced here. Recently, we also welcomed world renowned film star Kirsten Dunst, Terry Gilliam—director of Fisher King, 12 Monkeys and so on—and Michael Stipe, the soloist from REM for a cocktail they attended in the Pera Palace Hotel within the framework of the Istancool culture festival. We are really becoming the place to hold the most prestigious events in the city. The grand ballroom isn’t big, but it’s unique. As more events are held here the participation increases as people want to see the Pera Palace. It’s in the middle of the city. The location is great. The Old City is only 10 minutes away, and when you leave the hotel, you find yourself in the middle of Istanbul’s nightlife, and close to shopping centers, museums, and conferences halls.
What distinguishes your cuisine offering?
Agatha Restaurant opened alongside the hotel. We have a very talented German chef who has lived in Turkey for 18 years, which is a great asset for us. Turkish people have very specific taste preferences. Knowing this and applying it to international foods really makes a difference. When Agatha opened we decided to have a concept here that would take diners on an Orient Express taste journey through Paris, Venice, and Istanbul, with a fusion of French, Italian, and Turkish cuisine. The restaurant has received very positive reviews, and has become popular for business lunches and evening celebrations. We also opened the 300-square-meter Orient terrace in May 2011, and our guests are able to enjoy the sunset while dining. We turned the area into a garden, with plants, shutters, and music in the evening. We are also redecorating the Orient Bar, which used to be a gathering point for intellectuals in the evening. Additionally, we have a patisserie, which was once the only French patisserie in the city back then. In the lobby we also run an English tea service with butlers and live piano music. All of these aspects bring a certain liveliness to the hotel.
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