International experience and a dedication to the people around him—both employees and guests—is what energizes this San Francisco GM.
SAN FRANCISCO—“When in doubt, go to Paris.”
That’s the advice that led Antoine Berberi, GM of San Francisco’s Hotel Vitale, to his career in the hotel industry, a job path that has taken him not only to Paris, but to Los Angeles; Toronto; New Orleans; Miami; Bali, Indonesia; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; New York City and more.
Those experiences living and working around the world helped him see the importance of building a culture at a hotel, and the value of interacting with people from all over the world—two things he enjoys most about his current position.
“It’s the people that keep me going every day,” he said. “It’s all about service—making guests happy, and transforming (employees) into their better selves.”
In addition to being GM of Hotel Vitale, Berberi also serves in the larger role of regional director of operations for Commune Hotels & Resorts, overseeing 13 hotels in the Commune portfolio. However, it’s his GM role that he said keeps him in touch, and a better leader at the end of the day.
Path to independents
Back to the Paris story: A native of Lebanon, Berberi studied marketing in college but wasn’t quite sure of his career steps after that.
“‘When in doubt, go to Paris,’ I told myself,” he said. During a visit there, he learned about a Cornell University and ESSEC School of Business joint program. He enrolled and earned an MBA in hotel management.
Like many veteran hoteliers, Berberi learned the ropes by doing every job in the hotel. His first hotel position was in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles at a Holiday Inn.
“I was the PBX operator, which still today is probably the worst job I’ve ever had,” he said. “Then I graduated to reservations, then front desk. I was a bellman. I even drove the hotel bus to UCLA. But it was on the overnight shift that I learned everything.”
Following other hotel jobs around the world while he finished his degree, Berberi joined the corporate training program for what was then Hilton International. He progressed through the ranks with Hilton, spending time in Washington, D.C., and Canada, where he spent a lot of time learning and practicing revenue and yield management.
His real tour around the world started when he moved from Hilton to InterContinental Hotels Group, working as front office manager of the InterContinental New Orleans, then director of front office operations at the InterContinental Miami. From there he went to Bali, Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
When he left IHG, he began the transition into the world of lifestyle hotels via a position with what is now the Westin Governor Morris, in Morristown, New Jersey.
“This was during the relaunch of the Westin brand, and it was great to be part of all of those elements—the scent, the signature drinks, all those ideas that became a big part of Starwood (Hotels & Resorts Worldwide),” he said. “I was there for three years, through the closing, renovations to a Westin, and re-opening. We did a lot of new things at that property, and I’m very proud of my work at that hotel.”
His experience there is what led Berberi to seek out a new path with independent, lifestyle hotels.
“The world was changing, and these traditional places were starting to look and feel the same,” he said.
Finding a culture
The transition from what Berberi described as “a really huge company to a really small company” was an important time for him. He joined Thompson Hotels in New York City at a time when the company had three properties.
“You really had to think like an entrepreneur in those days,” he said. “Often we forget the business side of things. When you go to a small company without a lot of structure, you have to do everything.”
Getting back to the basics of a small company helped him hone his management and operations skills—and reminded him of why small, boutique properties were his favorite fit.
“Running a small hotel is so much more challenging than a large one,” he said. “You can’t hide if you don’t know what you’re doing. You have to know every piece of the business. You get better at revenue management and at selling. I thought, ‘This is my place.’”
When Thompson expanded to the West Coast, Berberi moved to San Francisco to join the Hotel Vitale, where he has been GM for more than two years.
The hotel opened in 2005, purpose-built for its spot along San Francisco’s busy Embarcadero. The location lends Hotel Vitale its guest mix, which is largely transient corporate during the week and leisure on weekends.
“We’re here because of this neighborhood,” Berberi said. “We’re called Vitale because we revitalized the neighborhood—we bring people together.”
As the city changes, Berberi’s next goals are around improving what he thinks is already special. Since he came to the hotel, he has worked to elevate the service up, with plans for a renovation in the near future.
“We took our service a notch up and we’re charging more,” he said, noting that San Francisco in particular has seen a boom in guests willing to pay for luxury. “Our next goal is to give this hotel a new energy to set it up for the next 10 years, but we want to do it in a way that our guests can continue to enjoy it. We don’t need to fix anything that’s not broken.”
While changes in public spaces and guestrooms are part of those goals, Berberi said the goal to develop his team never changes.
“The more I improve their capacity and bring out the best in them, the more new ideas come out and the better we will be,” he said. “I don’t measure my success by the dollar amount, but more how well every person who works around me and how every guest who stays here becomes a better person or gets to a better place.”