By Michael Humphrey
Fifty years ago, Beverly Pistilli went to a downtown Kansas City business to interview for a job. She and her husband, Phil, had just moved from New York and she needed to find work. Phil had a job at the prestigious Muehlbach Hotel, owned by the legendary hotelier Barney Allis, but the wages were meager. He was starting at the very bottom.
The interview was going well until the would-be boss asked Beverly where her husband had found work.
“The Muehlbach Hotel,” Beverly says.
Suddenly the interviewer went cold and said, “I’m sorry, we can’t offer you a job here.”
“Why not?” Beverly asked.
The man replied, “No one ever lasts with Barney Allis.”
He sure was wrong. Phil Pistilli did stay at the Muehlbach, working his way to general manager and then going on to establish his own legend in Kansas City.
When Phil died in March 2003, it was nowhere near the end of the Pistilli story in Kansas City. Thanks to son Kevin and daughter Cynthia, that legacy is alive and well.
It is a legacy of leadership, but not iron-fisted leadership. By all accounts, the Pistilli family, which now operates the Raphael Hotel Group, leads by example and by loyalty.
“Leadership is defined in teaching, mentoring, building consensus,” says Kevin Pistilli, president of the Raphael Hotel Group. “Most importantly, it is making a stand for what you believe is right.”
A Loyal Leader
What the Pistillis believe in has defined their time in Kansas City: loyalty to their customers and staff, the highest quality of service, and commitment to their community.
“My father was a role model for us,” says Cynthia Pistilli-Savage, general manger of the Raphael Hotel. “He was very passionate about the hotel business and the community. He taught us that those who stay here have to give back to the community.”
Giving back has taken the form of leadership in the community. Need proof?
Phil Pistilli served as president, director, chairman of the board, and chairman of governmental affairs of the American Hotel and Motel Association (now the American Hotel and Lodging Association), as well as local hospitality organizations and the Kansas City Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Kevin followed suit, serving as past president of the Hotel and Motel Association of Greater Kansas City, as well as past chair of the Missouri Hotel and Motel Association and a member of the board of directors of the Convention & Visitors Bureau of Greater Kansas City.
Cynthia answered the call too, currently serving as chair of the Hotel and Lodging Association of Greater Kansas City. She is a board member of the American Hotel and Lodging Association, a member of B.O.T.A.R. (Belles of the American Royal) and 2004 vice president of American Royal activities.
“It’s an industry where a lot of people come and go,” says Tom Holden, executive director of the Hotel and Lodging Association of Kansas City. “The Pistillis have provided real stability in the community. They are part of a very select group of hoteliers who are an integral part of the community.”
But Phil Pistilli didn’t believe that community service had to happen solely outside of the business. Especially in hospitality, one’s work can do a great deal to benefit the community’s image and substance.
So it should be no surprise that some of the city’s most prestigious hotels have Pistilli fingerprints on them.
Barney Allis died in 1962, but Pistilli stayed on as general manager of the Muehlbach until 1968.
“Dad really loved Mr. Allis,” says Cynthia, whose middle name is Allis. “He was very loyal to him, because Mr. Allis was loyal to him. They were very different managers, but dad always said he learned everything from Mr. Allis.”
When Pistilli left the Muehlbach, it was to help plan the next great hotel in Kansas City. He would once again work with a Kansas City legend, Miller Nichols. Nichols, whose father, J.C. Nichols, developed Country Club Plaza, had dreams of building a world-class hotel on the Plaza. He recruited Phil to see the project from beginning to operation.
“(Restaurateurs) Joe Gilbert and John Robinson, who were legends in their own right, were part of the project,” Kevin says. “It was full of great people.”
The result was the Alameda Hotel (now the Fairmont), which, when it opened in 1972, was Kansas City’s only AAA Five-Star Hotel. The Alameda received the American Automobile Association’s highest rating for fourteen consecutive years, one of only nine hotels in North America to pull that off.
“The goal was to create the premier hotel in Kansas City,” Kevin says. “They did that.”
During the development stage, Phil went to San Francisco for research and came across an abandoned apartment building in the downtown area. He had an idea to create a small boutique hotel of suites, an idea that was generally derided as silly in an age when behemoth hotels ruled the land. But in 1971, Alameda Inc. opened the Raphael. By 1975, Kansas City had its own Raphael right next to the Alameda. In 1979, Chicago had a Raphael as well.
“It was the forerunner of the boutique concept that has taken off around the country,” Kevin says.
The Chicago and San Francisco properties were eventually sold, but the Raphael Hotel Group, which Phil and Kevin founded in 1989, owns the Kansas City property.
The group also manages the Kansas City Marriott Downtown, which Alameda Inc. bought when it was the Vista International in 1987. Times were bad for downtown then, and few wanted to take on a 573-room hotel, but the Pistillis saw potential.
“It needed a different direction,” Kevin says, “but it was a perfect property in terms of location near the convention center.”
They renamed it the Allis Hotel, again connecting with Phil’s humble beginnings. In 1989 the Nichols Co. decided to get out of the hotel business. The Alameda was sold to Ritz-Carlton Hotels, and the Pistillis formed the Raphael Hotel Group to buy boutique hotels and manage what is now the Marriott.
The connections continued, when in 1997 the Marriott decided to buy and rebuild the defunct Muehlbach Hotel. Part of the construction included tearing down a 1950s addition to the original Muehlbach. It was an addition Phil oversaw.
“He had the rare opportunity to watch it go up and watch it go down,” Kevin says.
In 2002, the Pistillis showed their faith in another downtown that few believed could prosper–Kansas City, Kan. As part of a renovation project for the Reardon Civic Center, the Raphael Hotel Group manages and co-owns the attached Hilton Garden Inn.
Now it appears that the downtowns of Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas City, Kan., are both headed upward. Businesses of all kinds are poised to reap the benefits. They can thank those downtowners, like the Pistillis, who fought to keep the urban hub alive.
“Every city needs drivers who push for a successful downtown,” Holden says. “The Pistillis provided a balance to other businesses, by ensuring grandeur and style along with that drive.”
In the spring of 2004, a year after Phil died, the first-ever Pistilli Service Excellence Award was presented during a “No Borders, No Boundaries” luncheon. It was an appropriate event for the unveiling of the award, for two reasons.
First was that Phil Pistilli would have supported the event enthusiastically.
“He believed in this community,” Cynthia says. “He believed it was a great place to raise children and to work. He passed that love on to us. If we break down all the barriers in this community, we can get so much done.”
He also would have concurred on the award’s first recipient–Joyce Spencer, director of catering at the Kansas City Marriott Downtown.
“I worked for him for 32 years in all,” Spencer says of Phil. “But that’s not rare. Most of the department heads around here have worked for the Pistillis for decades. They breed loyalty by being loyal.”
Spencer, who started in the accounting department at the Muehlbach and worked her way to head of catering, says the legacy of Phil Pistilli was his care for people.
“He never went through a dining room and failed to call people by name,” she says. “Often, he would be able to call their family members by name also. He certainly cared about your life.”
Spencer says his legacy does not have to be considered only in the past tense. She says it is living in Kevin and Cynthia.
“I love them both,” she says. “I have seen firsthand that Kevin’s staff has stayed on, because they respect him and feel a loyalty to him. I know it’s true with Cynthia too. There are dishwashers who have been there since the day we opened the doors at the Raphael. If I go into the Raphael, I will always run into a housekeeper I’ve known for 30 years. It’s just different.”
Kevin always knew he would be part of this legacy. Both of the kids grew up around the business, and both worked for their father as teenagers. But Kevin knew it would go on.
Like his father, Kevin attended the prestigious hospitality management program at Cornell University. After two years, he left Cornell to get started in business.
“I knew what I was going to do,” he says.
Cynthia’s path was a little more circuitous.
“Dad never pressured us to come into the business,” she says. “He encouraged us to try different things. And I did that.”
She attended Kansas University, where she received her journalism degree. She went to work for a local photographer, hoping to become an advertising photographer. But it didn’t take long before she started to miss the excitement of the hotel community.
“I would go home and suddenly realize I wasn’t part of the action anymore,” she says. “So I called Kevin and said we needed to talk.”
She went to Chicago as a manager trainee at the Raphael there. She took turns working every shift, in every department, until she understood the business inside and out. When she returned to Kansas City, it was as front office manager. In 1996, after four years as assistant general manager, Cynthia took the reins at the Raphael.
“To me being a leader is being a good role model,” she says, “and having big ears.”
Put your ear to the ground and you can hear the rumblings of a city on the move. Kansas City is becoming the place the Pistillis always believed it was—and they are right in the heart of the action.
“It is an incredibly exciting time,” Kevin says. “But we still have to do the work.”
(Michael Humphrey is the contributing editor from Kansas City, Mo.)