Born and raised in Istanbul, Ayşe Zeynep Sezerel was exposed to hospitality early––her father was a restauranteur her mother ran a real estate agency. When you combine those two influences with an Italian education, her choice to become a hotelier feels almost inevitable! Ayşe worked in exhibition management and expat relocation, before shifting into hospitality in 2013, transforming No11, into a serviced apartment hotel, and later into a fully operational hotel. The profound impact of a 2019 environmental exhibit led her to implement strict sustainability policies at No11, making it the first Greenkey and GSTC hotel in Istanbul. We chat with Ayse about owning and running her own hotel! Here's herstory...
How did you get into hospitality?
Growing up in my father's restaurant, I cultivated a strong instinct for hosting and hospitality. My enthusiasm for tourism and travel was nurtured by studying at the Italian High School of Istanbul, followed by moving to Italy for college at the University of Florence. My professional journey began modestly, serving as a part-time stand hostess for Turkish brands at Italian fairs during my student years. In 2005, two years before obtaining my degree, I launched my formal career at the Fairs & International Relations Department of the Istanbul Chamber of Jewelers. My role involved orchestrating the participation of Turkish jewelers in esteemed European exhibitions like VicenzaOro, Inhorgenta in Munich, and Watch & Jewellery Basel.
You were enterprising as a student, how did you transition from jewelry trade shows to real estate?
In 2010, recognizing a demand from international companies establishing branches in Istanbul, I decided to initiate a relocation department within my mother's local real estate agency. We catered to a diverse clientele, assisting expatriates from multinational corporations such as Colgate Palmolive, Unicredit, and various embassies like the British, Australian, and Belgian. Our role in relocation extended beyond housing, encompassing a complete lifestyle setup including schooling, gym memberships, property maintenance, and more. We also arranged temporary accommodation in serviced apartments and apartment hotels for those in transition.
A few years later, acting as a broker, my mother sold the No11 property to one of her investors who embarked on extensive renovations. During the search for temporary housing for an intern from Bank Austria, we ended up renting and managing the newly revamped No11 as a serviced apartment building. The intern became our inaugural resident, occupying room number 11 of No11 on January 6, 2013.
I continued in the relocation business for two more years. However, I noticed a rising demand for a blend of short-term stays with the home-like feel of long-term accommodation. This gap in the market offered an opportunity for a solution I was eager and equipped to provide. Investing in a chic lobby decoration and initiating breakfast service, we transformed No11 into a hotel, while still catering to long-term business travelers with a few rooms equipped with kitchenettes.
Great origin story! Tell us more about what No11 Hotel is like today.
Our company, No11 Hotel, is a distinctive blend of hospitality and environmental commitment located in Istanbul. Our unique selling proposition is our commitment to sustainability.
A transformative moment for me occurred in 2019, during my visit to the Istanbul Biennial named "The 7th Continent." I was deeply affected by a video that revealed 1.6 million square meters of plastic waste floating in the Pacific Ocean. This propelled me to commit No11 to environmental sustainability.
Since then, no single-use items have been used at the hotel, we do urban gardening and composts. We have also embraced the Greenkey Criteria, becoming Istanbul's first small independent hotel to receive an international environmental award for four consecutive years. Additionally, since February 2023, we've been proud to hold the GSTC sustainability certification, another first for small hotels in Turkey.
What has been the hardest thing about starting your own business?
One of the most challenging aspects of starting my own business was the sheer commitment it required, particularly in the initial stages. Owning a small hotel, like No11, is akin to motherhood. It demands constant attention, round-the-clock responsibility, and dedication that doesn't end when a regular business day does.
For the first three years, I kept the hotel's phone line redirected to my mobile, receiving and managing reservations 24/7. The relentless pace and the necessity to always be 'on' were undoubtedly taxing.
While there are definitely ups and downs, particularly in Turkey, we have had some challenges in tourism to the country. Despite this, the satisfaction of providing a unique, sustainable hospitality experience to our guests made all the hard work worthwhile. It's been an incredibly rewarding journey, with each hurdle only serving to strengthen my resolve and commitment to No11 Hotel.
What is the best part of being an entrepreneur?
The best part has been the ability to bring my vision to life - from crafting unique experiences for guests at No11 Hotel to making a positive environmental impact through sustainable practices. The joy I get from building relationships with guests and receiving their appreciative feedback is incredibly rewarding. Lastly, the opportunity to balance my professional pursuits with precious moments spent with my son adds a beautiful dimension to my entrepreneurial journey.
What is next for you and (company)?
As our story continues, we are eager to expand my brand of hospitality and my environmental consciousness beyond the bounds of our original location. The vision is to create a 'sister' hotel, a “No12” Hotel, in a location closer to the sea and nature.
What does success mean to you?
For me, success is a holistic concept––it's about being the head of the best and most sustainable small hotel in Istanbul within its own price range, contributing positively to the environment, having repeating and happy guests, and having a trustworthy team who become a family. Also, being able to demonstrate resilience and adaptability in the face of national crises, and continually learn and grow along the way. These are all parts of success.
What advice would you share with other women who are just getting started?
Hospitality, at its heart, is inherently feminine. It’s about nurturing relationships, creating a warm and welcoming environment, and taking care of others’ needs - traits often associated with women. Embrace your intrinsic aptitude for hospitality.
Take pride and joy in the compliments you receive, and let any criticism be a catalyst for growth and improvement.
Be confident and don't shy away from bringing the qualities traditionally associated with femininity to your business. This includes empathy, intuition, and care, which are invaluable in creating a nurturing, comfortable, and memorable experience for your guests. This authenticity and passion will resonate with your guests, and it will be the heart and soul of your success in the hospitality industry.
Quickfire with Ayşe
What is your morning routine?
I wake up before everyone else to relish the early morning tranquility. I start my day with a cup of black coffee and a bowl of yogurt with honey in the bed. I organize my daily agenda and contemplate future plans, setting the tone for a productive day ahead.
What do you do for self-care?
For self-care, I believe in the healing power of walks. Whether it's to clear my mind, make decisions, or recover emotionally, I find solace in changing my surroundings and viewing things from a different perspective. Walks are my sanctuary for introspection and rejuvenation.
How do you shut off work when you work for yourself?
My business is my life and I accept it with all its struggles. The only time that I shut it off in my brain is the time I spend with my husband and son.
What is the best advice you ever got?
If you have to battle for something, you can't fight on multiple fronts simultaneously. Instead, prioritize and conquer one challenge at a time.
What is the worst advice you ever took?
“Never trust anyone” In business and in life, trust is fundamental. Over time, I've realized that building relationships based on trust is key to success, despite occasional disappointments.
Which businesswomen inspire you?
My mother, Nilgun Soyseckin, has inspired me my whole life. She has always been a working woman, running her own real estate business. Another inspiration is the investor of No11’s building, my landlady of more than ten years, Hatice Gunaydın. They are my #sheroes daily!