ALARKO GROUP HEAD OF TOURISM EDİP İLKBAHAR, SHARES HIS VISIONS AND EXPERIENCES WITH THE “DÜNYA NEWSPAPER
You are one of the first to bring the notion of leisure to Turkey… There were significant projects you’ve been a pioneer to for. One of the most successful of that segment is Hillside, an institution that’s been subject to international management books. How did the process begin? What lies behind your success?
Actually we began with the sports center in Etiler. As a side activity, while establishing Alkent Etiler, Mr. Alaton and Mr. Garih had a vision and they set forth a concept that didn’t exist in Turkey then. There are several precedents nowadays. But back in the 90’s, for the first time, they offered the customers not just a flat, but a wholesome life style completed with a recreational center and sports activities. It was an indicative step they took. But that sports center did not perform as well as expected. I was the head of international commerce in Alarko, then. I thought we’d provide the targeted performance, if we visited twice or three times a week. But that wasn’t the case, and we had to put in a lot more effort. Since we did not establish the facility in cooperation with a business administrator, we had to alter its structure, too. We focused on preparing the grounds for people where they can form a community, something more than just joining the gym. Because those who like sports and turn this into a life style, also embrace some values, too. Then we combined the cinemas and the restaurants. You know, when we were kids we used to go out on lunches and dinners, all together and then go over to the cinema to see a movie. Now, there’s very little time, the traffic’s a mess and people are tired. It’s a problem to get from somewhere to the other. At that point, for the first time we put together a center that consists of sports activities, cinema and restaurants. Then we set up Pasha. We acted as a roof, various restaurants, brands came together. Pasha was a great opportunity for further activities. It helped us to figure out our target audience, observing them in their natural environment, understanding how they entertain themselves, what they eat and drink, what qualifies as good-quality and trendy and how they react.
How did transition at Hillside occur?
We began to build a grand holiday resort in 1992. We gave it to a foreign business administrator. But it didn’t perform as expected. We went to Mr. Alaton and Mr. Garih to evaluate. We said we could do it, but they said “What’s your knowledge of tourism, how will you make it work?” We had some advantages: As Alarko, we knew how to manage a business and we’ve already grasped the habit and expectations of guests through activities in Alkent and Pasha. They said “Ok” at that very meeting. To be honest, today, I can’t be as brave as they were then. They dropped it on us like hot potato. All around the world, leisure was a brand-new concept, yet… We did believe that it would improve in time and we decided to incorporate this as a segment among Alarko. Essentially, we entered this segment completely through intuition.
How did this intuition form?
For good management, to do a good job, you must follow the world. You should read a lot. But not only the news on business and economy, but also on politics, social life and fashion, too. Bestseller books, adverts on the paper, most popular TV shows are data for us to hold the mainstream pulse. And we analyze the dynamics behind that information. After grasping those dynamics, we design our strategy and our products.
What did you see after analyzing those dynamics?
Around the world, especially in countries above a certain limit, there are affluent communities and they want to utilize their free time in the best way possible, they’re looking for diversity. Because free time is very valuable. Although there’s an understanding of wholeness developing in the world, they prefer to live authentic and diverse experiences among that. We thought that we could produce a diversity. We saw that sports, cinema, hotels and tourism develop gradually. We made our decision and became the first company to approach leisure in a corporate manner.
What did you do after undertaking Fethiye’s management?
We worked like a business laboratory in Fethiye. Yes, we knew how to entertain guests, but we wanted to create a sustainable system, a system that would constantly upgrade. And we set a very high target, considering those years; to become the number one resort, not only in Turkey, but all around the Mediterranean. And we introduced that motto to our entire staff, because in the business world, no matter what you do, above all else, first you must make your staff believe in it, you have to convince them. To convince them, you should narrate your dream clearly. We set our minds into this business. Total quality was a rising trend back then. But it’s not memorizing the topics, you must think over the philosophies behind it. And so did we. We set up rather authentic systems regarding tourism, with the help and support of two industrial engineers. Our authenticity in management began way before than our authenticity in products, and it was way more superior, too.
How did you motivate your staff?
Naturally, these are systems that already existed in the kitchen. But I can tell you this much: Our motivational systems are exclusive. They’re systems not seen anywhere else in the world. We never chose to copy any precedent systems. We created a bunch of authentic systems regarding our relations with our staff. In fact, Prof. Mary H. Tabacchi of Cornell University -which is one of world’s most advanced universities on tourism- suggested that we collect our implementations as a written study. Along with management systems we also formed a value systematic, as well. We rather crystallized our already existing values, because if it’s meant to work well, at the end the whole system should stand on a platform of values.
What kind of a platform?
First of all, it should consist of the ideas and suggestions of your guests and your staff. So we run surveys often. Maybe now others do it, too. But what stands out about us is that there’s a platform of respect underneath that survey. I am talking about real respect. If your respect for your staff is beyond the socio-economic level, that’s when they feel what it’s about. But if you just give a pat at the back, merely to make them perform better, as they teach everywhere, that is felt, too. If you trust their opinions, if the survey is not just a fancy tool, if you reflect their ideas to the operation and management, if you put them in use, then a different type of relationship is formed.
Are the surveys that effective?
It holds light on our way a great deal. For instance, there’s this question: “Was your stay worth the value?” What do we study at the university? Supply and demand, determines the value. We never went for that. I’m not saying it’s not effective, but we don’t determine the value per ‘supply and demand’, but over ‘worth the value’ notion. If ‘yes’ answers to this question with 96 %, which is approximately the case with us, when it goes down one or two points we understand that we should lower that price. And when it goes one or two points up, then we understand that we are on the right track. Ours might be the resort considered to be the most expensive. But that’s not our criteria. We say, “our prices are high, but we are not expensive.”
What is the solid evidence that you are not expensive?
We are almost fully-booked/work almost full capacity. There are queues. But we do not see those queues as an opportunity. Those who’d like to come over would manage the next year, if not this one. We do not increase our prices to take advantage of those queues. On the contrary, we try to recompense the worth of the price we demand. You might be entertaining hundreds of guests, but your guest would expect an exclusive care. They would like to feel as a part of that community. They would like to be remembered by their names next time they visit. They would expect to get professional service, but not by a professional team, they’d prefer to be entertained as the guests in a household.
So, how do you provide that?
We believe in evaluating everything. I wouldn’t allow our close circle of friends to mislead us. We have a strict “feedback” system through surveys. Employees have a significant role in total quality. We work with people who knows to respect people for they’re people. Being a participant is very important, as well. We expect for each employee to produce ideas for the whole of resort, not only regarding their own tasks. Today, in our facility, any employee calls and says I have this idea, and they receive an elegant thank you letter signed by me. Whether the idea is put in practice or not. Motivation and cherishing people comes before training. Training can only be based over this. Because, first, you have to desire something, really want it.
On the other hand, although surveys are great way to point out/show which areas you should improve, they’re not the only factor/element that would enable you to differentiate and stretch out the competition. To go beyond, creativity and innovation takes the stage. Behind creativity there’s vision, and behind that there’s observation. We try to comprehend not only what the information is, but also the dynamics behind it. Just like economy, just like politics. There are people with knowledge, on one side. They can tell you about history day-by-day, hour-by-hour. But there are dynamics behind those circumstances, and comprehending that is what counts.
What do you do to remain as the leader?
First of all, we try to create authentic concepts. Look, nothing we do is ever similar to the other. They tell us, “Fethiye is a great product, why don’t you build 10 more of that…” Naturally, since there are all those queues, too… But we are not thrilled about that. For example, we were the first to have DJs play music in the gym, it’s been imitated a lot. But why did we do it for the first time. Because we saw a need there. Our aim is to create conceptual and administrative diversity. The techniques generated by us are a result of our dedicated work. Because being unique, being peerless is very important. Of course, primarily we are an institution of profit. At the end of all these brainstorming, our decisions should affect our profit in a positive way. There were times when we decided to put aside some of the ideas we liked very much, once calculating the numbers. Despite the ease seen from outside, there’s a serious tension behind-the-scenes to preserve the balance between quality and price. Because, even at our best facility we have this challenge: We will exceed expectations. We will be ahead of all qualities of that facility in our conversation to our guests. That difference is something you cannot copy easily. To get to that point, you must have both an idea and an intuition regarding what’s happening around the world, in your country, in your line of business. Intuition, is the product of accumulated observation and concentrated attention. Anybody can follow up to the trends. You open a magazine and see what’s happening; warm colors are in this year, or that’s the tendency this year… But that is of no use, not much. Well, once you start to think about these dynamics you start to repeat that at several levels among your work. It turns into information for your business and you become an institution that constantly learns. Essentially, what you call intuition is the product of the major accumulation of observation and a highly concentrated attention. Sometimes it’s making a prophecy, and I think, a large part of that intuition considered as instinct that is the result of an accumulation of reading a lot, to look around and observe while analyzing things thoroughly. Let’s assume there are 10 people at your business. You can’t say, let everything be as 7 out of that 10 people senses and feels. Because it’s not only intuition that counts. What matters is to be able to feel the dynamics behind incidents, to master the dynamics and have conscious to be able to feel ahead of time/the future. Now, production is very easy. They say marketing is everything. Now, marketing is very easy, too. You can do online marketing or through television. Every brand has a branch in every country. The profit margin has narrowed down. So, the diversity that would carry your business away from the profit margins, and save you from getting stuck there, is created by innovation. The trend is to be “glocal”. Being glocal means, to be both global and local. That’s what matters. It’s not about seeing in the American movies, and applying that to our business. There is a localization that appeals to the world. These are the parts of a wider dynamic. Why do these happen? Because people are looking for humanity past beyond hi-tech or a lot of money. The symbol of that high technology, power and prosperity used to be skyscrapers. It was the integrated urban life. But now you see, if that integration gets interrupted or abused then it’s a threat, as well. Those disturbed by this, turn towards more humane, warmer, livelier and more natural. After 9/11 everything got heated up: I am very interested in the future. There’s a publication called Futurist. I believe I am one of the closest pursuers. You have to make all the connections regarding your work. So, there’s 9/11. After that, it drew your attention, everything regarding human is growing warmer. In those years black and white were upfront, the technology and the individuality of people were upfront. Now, when you look at the magazines everything is warmer. The colors are vibrant. In fashion, being natural is important. The process is working against overly advanced. The duration from the 2000’s on brings forward humanity. I think this will keep improving.
The pressure of time over people increased immensely: Technology makes life easier for business, but creates that much tension over our lives. For example, at the beginning mobile phones brought many advantages, it was attractive. But after a while, it became normal. And even with the slightest problem, you cannot bare to wait for 3 seconds for an international call, the same person who perhaps waited for days for a similar call in the past. Time pressure over humans has increased. It creates an amazing tension and stress. And this is not the type of pressure that our anatomy is ready for. Our physiological reflexes cannot live the evolution of technology that fast. In other words, as well as technology makes us happy on one hand, it also increases the pressure over humans.
Trends keep swinging from one end to the other: We are living cycles from one end to the other. Having a taste of something and then moving on to the next, in my opinion, that’s bound to end, as well. There was fast food, now there’s the concept of slow food. Trend, is a cycle. There were skyscrapers suddenly, then everyone escaped out of town, now for other reasons there’s a trend of coming back to the city.
Similar to that, the effort of living several fun activities briefly, might become reversed. For example, if you have 2 hours, you can nourish your soul by passing those 2 hours in calm. You can do something more fulfilling. But doing something fulfilling doesn’t mean doing something fast.
The new trends around the world support leisure sector: If you noticed, only up until a few years ago, everybody was after tools that perform everything. Now, they demand simpler tools. Humans, in realization of how far away they are from nature, try to go back to nature. Time is of the essence, people say, I have time for my work, for my wife, for my kids, even for my dog, but where am I. There’s very little time for people to spare for themselves. That’s why they began to value that time. I believe, this trend will grow. Because people have respect for what they do, but they also have respect for themselves. And this tendency is a very lucky one for the leisure segment.
In 10 years, it is possible to provide 40 billion dollars of revenue out of 50 million tourists
Throughout 2005-2006, there are 800 million tourists travelling around the world: Approximately 2.5 - 3 % of this comes to Turkey, 22 million tourists are a great contribution to the country. But the potential is much higher. In 2015, it is assumed that there will be 1.5 billion tourists travelling around. If in 2015 Turkey gets 3 - 4 % of it, that dreamlike 50 million tourists, is most certainly possible. Turkey is a brilliant country. When the harvest is good and getting better, it’s just the time to tend to the seeds. Cause, this requires a deep breath. There was great effort lately, and the results are very good. Turkey has a major problem. Tourism is getting cheaper and cheaper. We need a master plan.
Prices go either up, or down: If you sell it for a good price, then you can invest more in your staff and the quality of your business. Then you increase the rates more, and appeal to a better lot of guests and you go higher with the rates. Better guests mean more acquisitions. You turn your job from physical investment into a quality investment. Or just the opposite happens. You lower the prices to appeal to more customers, the profit margin narrows down, and you would even lose money. Then you begin to cut down on things, and the next season comes lower quality of tourists. If it starts to go downwards, it means that it will go lower. Tourism supports the brand of Turkey, and the brand of Turkey supports tourism: It’s not enough only to say “Come to Turkey”. Every country says that. Somebody should say “Go to Turkey”. We should give tokens to foreign press. Because people have become lazy. They get an opinion through symbols and connotations. The people on the street watch movies, watch the TV, reads the paper. A Hollywood movies on Turkey that I suggested five years ago, is now worked on by stages. In addition to that, opinion leaders are substantial. Turkey owns a great economic success. We should sell this. You sell the consequences, and then foreign investors start to show up gradually. But it should be sold as a success, too. Because success brings together a positioning. Especially, the success over refined topics. The success of Turkish economy should be sold, just as the success of a Turkish architect, or an author, or a designer.
He Saw, Felt, Thought and Did It
Famous English Management Consultant Shaun Smith mentioned Hillside in her book published a shırt while ago - “See, Feel, Think, Do”. In her book co-authored with one of world’s leading brand managers Andy Milligan, Smith analysis how the successful leaders of business carry their companies to their targeted results by using their intuitions. Among 32 world renown brands like Ford, Sony, Amazon, Harley-Davidson and Virgin, there’s the Turkish brand Hillside. The book analyzes Hillside’s the management model as a case study. In the book, the success story of the institution is put forward in numbers: 95.5 % of the guests say what they get is “worth the value”, 97.5 % of them would like to “visit again” and 99 % indicates that they would “advice their friends to go to Hillside”. Such facts are also indicated in the book: The rate for a regular room is approximately 500 dollars, with 800 beds, Hillside Fethiye Beach Club holiday resort is almost full throughout the whole season.
“Alarko is a company that produces authentic concepts, markets and supports it the best possible way. We are the pursuers of the meticulous approach of Mr. Alaton and Mr. Garih towards service and production. A sequence of values that was manifested by them, and then owned and lead by Ayhan Yavrucu professionally. We grew up with these values at the core of everything I’ve been talking about lies Alarko culture, and there’s respect in the real sense behind it. It is that spirit, that philosophy what sells and what is preferred. On one scale of this norm there’s the honesty and respect towards employees, the shareholders and the state, and on the other scale there’s making the effort to offer more to the clientele, even if they settle with what we give. The approach of respect towards the business is the key to reputation.”
We Are Fit but We Should Exercise Every Day
Mr. Garih used to say, “The best form of admiration is imitation”. We used to get furious at the beginning. For they were copying what we put in a lot of effort in. Now we are not scared to be copied, on the contrary it helps us to stay fit. Being copied, forces us to create new things. That is basic reflex of our company. If we don’t develop continuously we’d lose our way. The second is, to imitate is not such an easy task. Look we have a magazine; Hillsider. It’s an authentic publication with its content and its size. Later, there were maybe 20 more magazines published in the same size. But it’s not enough to produce it only as figural. Without the existence of that concrete platform we call values, nothing goes forward in imitation.
The continuous search for the better, to be honest, exhausts the entire organization. Moreover, people get accustomed to it. Even seeing something different every time you come over makes people get accustomed to it. Briefly, you have to make effort to raise the bar. Let me give you an example; you feel great, you have a great body but you must go to the gym every day. At that point, your approach is very important. Some people enjoy the battle, some don’t. It’s a disadvantage for those who don’t. But I, frankly, like it. I am very lucky in terms of my team, because they enjoy it, too. There’s only one single price to pay when you’re a leader. And we are glad to pay that price. Because that’s a life style, too.
Biography / Edip İlkbahar
Edip İlkbahar was born in 1960 in İstanbul. He graduated from English High School in 1979, and later from University of Boğaziçi Faculty of Industrial Engineering in 1983. He started working in Alarko import trade department in 1984. He took over the management of the sports center in Alarko’s suburb town project in Etiler. And that’s when the formation of Hillside began, with its team consisting of almost 1200 people. Again, back in those days İlkbahar created a new concept among entertainment sector via Kuruçeşme-Pasha. In 1994 the holiday resort in Fethiye augmented to the chain as Hillside Beach Club and became a full segment among the holding. Edip İlkbahar, accelerated the development efforts as the Head of Alarko Tourism Group. Ilkbahar, as well as the rewards the products he managed received, he was chosen “the most successful young manager” by several economy publications. His brands were among “Turkish Brands We are Proud of” in 2002 Marketing Summit; also, he is a member of Tourism Investors Association, University of Boğaziçi Alumni Association and World Future Society. Ilkbahar is also interested in management sciences, cinema and sports.