Over the course of Donte Johnson’s 14-year hospitality career, he’s only spent one year away from Kimpton Hotels. Founded in San Francisco in the early 1980s, the brand has carved a space for itself as a network of forward-thinking, one-of-a-kind boutique hotels with a common vision of personalized hospitality, high design and special attention to culinary offerings. Today, there are 60 Kimptons in 31 cities, and three of them happen to be in Miami, with the EPIC, Surfcomber and The Angler’s.
Johnson got his start at the Topaz Hotel in 2001 when it opened as the first Kimpton in Washington, DC. He cut his teeth there, as well as at the Monaco, Rouge and Hotel Helix (soon to become Mason & Rock) as they rolled out in DC. After trying his hand at everything from concierge, to front desk agent, sales, reservations and guest services, he became the youngest general manager in the company’s history at age 29 at the Topaz in 2008.
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It was his mentor from his days at the Rouge, Nick Gregory, now an executive with the brand, who called to gauge Johnson’s interest in a move to South Beach with a position as general manager at the Surfcomber. “It was a generally accepted and known fact that on my short list of places to work, Miami was close to the top of the list, if not at the top,” he says. “I had come down here to visit several times. There’s not a more competitive place I can think of as far as hotels go. If you can have success in Miami, you can take that and go to a number of places and be confident that you’ll do well.”
So in June 2014, Johnson made the move, taking up residence in the hotel during his first three months. “That’s about two and a half months too long,” he jokes.
Located on a stretch of Collins Avenue, where hotels are known for their ritzy exclusivity, Johnson explains that Kimpton’s model couldn’t be more counter. “We are a place where nobody doesn’t belong,” he says. “Everybody’s not gonna love everything, but we are a place where nobody’s going to walk in the front door and feel like, ‘I just don’t belong here. I feel out of place. I feel like the people who work here don’t want me here.’ That’s the space that we’ve carved out—or at least we’re occupying it in a big way—and that’s something I’m really proud of.”
We sat down with Johnson to learn more about the Surfcomber, Kimpton, his take on hospitality and what he does in Miami for fun.
What’s Kimpton’s approach to hospitality and how does that translate to the Surfcomber?
I just came from a meeting where I asked my staff, ‘Are we jumping through enough hoops often enough for our guests, that they feel it and understand at the end of the day that we’re trying to do everything we can to make sure they get taken care of?’ Whether we’re doing it is one thing, but whether they’re feeling it is something completely different.
The hallmark of a Kimpton experience is the way that you feel. Every hotel is different. No two are alike, but you walk in and you feel it, and that’s a pretty cool thing. We have hotels that are really big both in style and size, and hotels that are really small, cozy and intimate. But if you walk in and feel it and get that vibe, then it means we did it right.
What’s your favorite part of the hotel?
The back bar is where I would set up shop. If I’ve been in the office for eight hours straight, I’ll grab a laptop and go back there and just work. It gives me an opportunity to observe the pool service, see the dynamic between the beach and the hotel, and get a sense for who’s at the hotel and what they’re doing and what they’re into. It’s relaxing, but also bustling at the same time.
What do you like to do in Miami on your days off?
I love it all. Even the stuff that’s not so fancy, I still dig it. I think the novelty will never wear off. I’m a year in, so I think if it hasn’t gotten old right now, then it’s never going to get old. It just kind of depends on the mood I’m in. There’s times where I’ll just go grab a drink at the Clevelander. There’s times where I’ll go to LIV. Sometimes I walk around Ocean Drive. I don’t typically eat there, but I’ll walk around. I frequent all the places on this block, The Raleigh.
Where do you love to go when you travel?
I travel a couple of times a year. Scottsdale was super relaxing. Kimpton has Fire Sky Resorts there where we usually have our annual conferences. I love Jamaica. I love Puerto Rico. I love to hop in the car and drive sometimes. When I lived in DC, it was easy to drive to Philly or Boston. And we have hotels in those cities, so at the end of the day, I know the restaurant’s going to be good and the hotel’s going to be great.