Written by Leanne Clancey
IF THE POPULAR PARLANCE ‘IF YOU KNOW, YOU KNOW’ COULD BE CRAFTED INTO A BOUTIQUE HOTEL BRAND, JK PLACE WOULD BE IT. HERE, GROUP CO-FOUNDER ORI KAFRI DETAILS THE ORIGIN OF HIS EXTENDED HOSPITALITY AND THE DESIGN INGREDIENTS THAT SET HIS PROPERTIES APART.
View the exclusive interview below.
On speaking with Italian hotelier Ori Kafri, it’s immediately clear he is deeply passionate about many things, but in business there are two qualities that occupy his focus: considered design and wholehearted hospitality. Getting his first taste of the industry as a student while interning at a five-star hotel in the 1990s, the Florence native says he was immediately drawn by the allure of the luxury hotel world and the opportunity to play a meaningful role in his guests’ experience.
Today, as chief executive of JK Place—a collection of townhouse hotels with addresses in Capri, Rome, Paris, and soon Milan—Kafri has become a true master of the art of hospitality, but considers his role to be more akin to a tailor than a mogul. “I often say the big brands like Four Seasons, Ritz Carlton and Marriot are like the Gucci, Prada and Armani of the hotel world, whereas I JK Place is more like Savile Row,” he muses. “On Savile Row you get a one-on-one relationship and it’s personal. Everything is made-to-measure and fits you perfectly. This is also what JK Place stands for.” Renowned for their impressive locations, sophisticated interiors, low-key seclusion and meticulous attention to detail, JK Place hotels achieve an atmosphere that is at once opulent and welcoming. Intimate (with fewer than 40 rooms) and responsive to the cultural nuances of the surrounding locale, the properties feel like discreet private residences—complete with tasteful art, thoughtful home comforts and a band of amiable, genuinely hospitable staff.
When the first JK Place opened in Florence in 2003, Ori and his father Jonathan (to whom the ‘JK’ initials belong), together with longtime business partner Eduardo Safdie, called upon the talent of celebrated local architect and interior designer Michele Bönan. Fast-forward two decades and the creative partnership has proven both fruitful and enduring, with the pair currently in the throes of designing the 38-room JK Place Milano, which is set to open in the heart of the city’s fashion district in 2024. Here, Kafri discusses the design philosophy that has driven the success of JK Place for more than 20 years while establishing a global benchmark for personalised hotel experiences.
LC What inspired you to approach business and the guest experience the way you do?
OK My first pivotal experience was in the summer of 1998, when I did my internship at a hotel in Florence. I don’t want to be dramatic, but what I experienced for the first time was really something very special: to welcome and engage with people from all over the world; to connect with them, to open your heart and be their guide. As a concierge, you become your guest’s main point of reference. You give them the keys to open all the doors of the city. To see their gratitude, their happiness, was extremely rewarding. Still today, I find it very special to make guests happy and be part of their journey. This was what drove me to be into this business—the human connection.
LC And how did that translate to starting your own chain?
OK Before we opened our first hotel in 2003, a hotel in Amsterdam had really caught my attention. It was an exclusive private guesthouse on the canal with just seven rooms called Hotel 717. I had some free time before a flight so decided to visit. I rang the bell and this very nice gentleman welcomed me in. I had no reservation, no appointment, I just wanted to have a look around, out of curiosity. This gentleman made me feel like I was King Charles coming from London, like he was expecting me. He gave me a tour of the hotel, sat me down, gave me a map of Amsterdam, and then served me tea and cookies. As I was leaving, it was raining outside, so he gave me an umbrella. Then, when I asked for the cheque he said, “Oh, no, no, you’re my guest.” I said, “But why?” He replied: “Because we are a small house with no budget for advertising but we are happy to offer a coffee or tea for visitors like you to give you a sense of our hospitality so that maybe next time you will be our guest.” The gentleman, who has sadly since passed away, was named Henk de Lugt and when I opened my first hotel in Florence I called him and said, “Please, you have to come to Florence to teach me and my staff how to be so hospitable.” He helped us establish the culture of service that JK Place is now known for.
LC Many hotel brands talk about personalised service but don’t always deliver. What powers your approach?
OK I read a quote recently: “Service is black and white, hospitality is colour.” It’s a very simple analogy but precisely what I’m trying to do every day. There are protocols and there are standards; this is service, it’s black and white. But hospitality is something different. It’s something which needs to come from your heart, it’s something that comes from appreciating that each person in front of you is different, with different needs, a different life story, a different culture. You cannot really standardise this and make it into a protocol, but in hotels, this is where things really start to become a point of difference, and that’s what people love about our hotels, I would say.
LC What’s an example of how JK Place does things differently?
OK We really like to nurture a one-on-one relation with our guests. For example, we don’t have electric key cards—we have only physical keys. This means that each time you enter and leave the hotel you’re ‘forced’ to go through reception to pick up and leave your key. If there is interaction, I can talk, I can ask questions, I can find ways to look after the guest and make their stay special. If they can walk in and out without passing by, there is no service. Because of our size and having a comparatively small number of guests in our hotels, this kind of service is manageable.
LC Can you tell us about your long-term collaborative relationship with architect and interior designer Michele Bönan?
OK What is unique about working with Michele is that he puts himself in the position of the guests and truly understands the lifestyle. He knows exactly what a guest who is sophisticated and well-travelled—like him—is looking for and expecting. He knows what the necessities and priorities are, whether you are staying in the mountains or by the beach in Saint-Tropez, or in the Maldives or on a boat. He’s not just a designer with good taste, his expertise goes so much deeper than that. He’s gifted like few people around the world.
LC How do you work together to achieve your creative vision for each hotel?
OK When we find a location and start planning a new hotel, it’s like writing the script of a movie. We love to explore the idea of telling a story for each place, to understand what the guest experience will look like—from when they first arrive in the city, to arriving at the front door of the hotel, to where they will sit when they arrive, every tiny detail. The brand is built around the idea of creating spaces that feel like the private residence of a well-travelled gentleman, ‘Mr JK’. Michele will ask me to explain all my needs in terms of practicalities and technicalities, back-of-house spaces, breakfast rooms, things like this. We talk about layout to understand how functional it will be for delivering service. Then it’s a puzzle putting together this brainstorm of ideas. Everything should link back to the imagined design scenery or atmosphere.
LC What’s next for JK Place?
OK Our next hotel will open in Milan some time in the next 18-24 months. It’s in a beautiful location in the former offices of Versace, kind of hidden and quiet but close to everything, similar to our hotels in Rome and Paris. You’re in the centre of the city but you don’t have to be seen. It feels like it’s for locals, very understated. Other cities are always a possibility but nothing certain just yet. The other exciting news is that we are celebrating 20 years of JK Place in 2023. To mark this occasion, we are publishing a book about our story this June.