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Inn Uses Maid-to-Order Builders

Ojai hotel, closed for renovation, keeps its workers on the job by retraining them.

December 22, 2003|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Yolanda from the salad bar is installing Internet cabling. The kitchen staff is painting walls.

And Hector, the room service guy?

He is swinging a hammer instead of doing his usual job -- discreetly delivering iced champagne to guests at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa.

A major 16-month renovation begun in May forced the luxury resort to shut down two-thirds of its rooms and raised the specter of layoffs for half of its 600 employees. But the hotel's manager decided instead to retrain willing workers as carpenters, painters, electricians, tile setters and drywall installers, saving about 150 jobs.

The training was mainly performed at the inn by in-house staff members, and all the trainees were state-certified in safety procedures. Manager Thad Hyland said the $1-million retraining program benefited the hotel as well as the workers.

Some inn employees have been on the job 40 years; the average tenure is eight years, unusually high for the hospitality industry, Hyland said. Preserving that experience and loyalty was important, he said.

"There are lots of marble towers that people can go to on vacation, but they come here because of our employees," Hyland said. "Employees are the most important part of a hotel, because this really is a people business."

Every employee was given a chance to take part, said Merrill Williams, a hotel spokeswoman. But they had to agree to be flexible about the new skills to be learned and where they would be posted, she said.

A wedding planner opted to take a job with another resort. Others decided it was the right time to seek a long-delayed college degree, Williams said. But many stayed.

"No one who wanted to do it was turned away," she said.

Labor economist Alec Levenson said retraining is unusual, particularly for the hotel business. But managers probably will see a payoff in the long run, said Levenson, because employees will have a stronger commitment to the hotel, a four-star resort where people expect to shell out extra dollars for top-quality service.

"This helps build on that mutual employee contract," said Levenson, a professor at USC's Center for Effective Organizations. "Companies that provide higher-quality products often pay more expenses than they would if they were following simple economic values. This was a solution to keep their best workers on the payroll without being a total financial drain on the hotel."

The inn was built in 1923, initially luring wealthy East Coast residents with the area's mild winters and restorative dry air. It has been renovated several times, but the $70-million project underway is the most extensive in years.

Plans call for the addition of 100 rooms, four restaurants and a clubhouse for the inn's 18-hole golf course. Ballroom and conference hall space is also doubling, Williams said.

With the inn being Ojai's biggest employer, the renovation has meant a temporary lag in bed taxes for the city, with a population of 8,000. Also, many residents who would normally turn to the 200-room hotel for employment have had to look elsewhere, Williams said.

"Ojai is a small community and it's hard to just jump to another job," she said. "This program has allowed us to keep some local residents employed."

Ruthie Dimmick, a 10-year waitress, was able to hang onto her position by learning how to paint like a professional. Now, instead of taking orders in the posh Maravilla dining room, she leads a crew of 10 putting fresh paint on dated guest rooms.

"I really wanted to stay here," said Dimmick, 36. "And it was important to me to keep my benefits."

Georgia Deutsch landed her job as the hotel's floral designer just two years ago. The 53-year-old artist had just bought a fixer-upper in nearby Oak View. So when the retraining offer came, Deutsch put aside her fear of electricity and plunged in. In the past few months, she has tiled floors, drafted blueprints and laid miles of electrical wire.

On a recent day, she clutched a smoke alarm that needed rewiring while wearing a heavy tool bag around her waist.

"I think it's really cool," she said. "I can fix my house on my own now. I wanted to learn as much as I could so I could apply it at home."

She likes her new work so much, in fact, that Deutsch is considering transferring to the engineering staff after the hotel reopens late next summer.

"If they need me to do a flower arrangement, I'll just run over and do that, too," she said.

The retrained workers are being used only for renovation work, such as spackling thick adobe-style plaster on guest room walls and tearing out old sinks and toilets. A contractor with his own crew of carpenters is handling the new construction, including several "village" clusters that will house new guest rooms, Williams said.

But that hasn't meant that the retrained workers feel like a lower class of laborers. On a recent day, the refurbishing crew showed esprit de corps by wearing matching T-shirts proclaiming, "Building a Better Shangri-La."

Dimmick said she has discovered a pride in her work that was less apparent before. Her painting technique has improved -- at least for someone who was previously an amateur, she said.

"I've done it for friends before," she said. "But I'm getting paid for it now."

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