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Hotelier's note to self: For best ratings, empower employees

The highest marks go to luxury chains that train staffers to take charge, anticipate client needs.

February 02, 2003|Jane Engle | Times Staff Writer

Cressida Roth was smitten last Valentine's Day.

By a hotel.

Like many modern love stories, this one began in bed.

It was 2 a.m., and the Valencia attorney couldn't sleep because creaky bedsprings woke her at every turn.

"I thought, 'Here I am at the Four Seasons Hotel Las Vegas, paying a pretty penny for a junior suite. I shouldn't have to put up with this.' "

So she dialed housekeeping, which assured her it would take care of the problem.

In less than five minutes, the housekeeping manager, in suit and tie, materialized at her door with two assistants, carting a brand new bed still wrapped in plastic. Apologizing profusely, they instantly made the switch.

"It was awesome," Roth recalls. "I was stunned. I kept thinking: 'I love this hotel.' "

Already a frequent Four Seasons guest, she wouldn't think of staying anywhere else when she visits Las Vegas.

Good service at a hotel makes a lasting impression.

So do service glitches, especially on a memorable occasion.

Take Mitchell Fine and his wife, Alexi.

When the Tarzana couple arrived at the Bacara Resort & Spa near Santa Barbara last August to celebrate their 20th anniversary, they were greeted by "a most unfriendly young lady" at the front desk, Mitchell says. Blaming a crush of departing guests, she said their room was not ready for the early check-in they had requested a month before.

The couple returned about three hours later, then waited and waited to be shown to their room while the hotel searched for their paperwork. When Mitchell complained, an employee "snapped at me and said he got my packet just five minutes ago." The couple canceled their stay on the spot.

In a letter, General Manager Katharine Monahan apologized to the Fines and offered them an upgrade on a future visit. (Bacara officials declined further comment for this article.) But the Fines are still angry.

"They came as close as they could to ruining a very important weekend," Mitchell says.

There's some disagreement about whether service in the U.S. hotel industry overall is improving or getting worse. But experts agree that service is the No. 1 reason guests like or dislike hotels and that good service has certain key features. Also, with some notable exceptions, the more expensive the hotel, the better the service.

"The key is treating every guest as if they're the only guest," says Linda Hirneise, partner and executive director of hotel practice at J.D. Power and Associates, a marketing firm based in Westlake Village.

Another key is "taking ownership of a problem," says Peter Ostrowski, vice president of NFO Plog Research, a New Brunswick, N.J.-based market research firm that conducts an annual travel survey of 9,000 U.S. households. Ownership involves following through and keeping guests informed.

"It's never 'It's not my area' or 'It's not my job,' " says Jonathan Barsky, partner in Market Metrix, a market research company in San Rafael, Calif., that does a quarterly survey of 30,000 U.S. hotel guests.

Consistency, anticipating needs and handling the basics well, especially the mechanics of checking in and checking out, are also critical.

First and last impressions count.

In the latest Market Metrix survey, Ritz-Carlton gets the highest service ratings of any hotel chain, followed by Walt Disney World Resorts, Outrigger Hotels and Four Seasons. Individual Las Vegas hotels, such as the Mirage and Bellagio, are also near the top.

Service ratings generally follow price in lock-step: highest for luxury chains ($206 average room rate), lowest for economy ones and in between for the rest.

But there are some over- achievers that Barsky dubs "diamonds in the rough." These modestly priced chains, which near or exceed the average score for luxury hotels, include Homewood Suites, Candlewood Suites, Drury Inns, Country Inns & Suites by Carlson and Wingate Inns.

The Market Metrix survey breaks service into seven aspects, such as friendliness and efficient check-in. Luxury hotels beat the average on all seven, but where they soar is in employees' can-do attitude and knowledge of the hotel and its facilities.

Different surveys get different results.

In the latest annual one by J.D. Power and Associates, which covers 13,000 North American hotel guests, Four Seasons, not Ritz-Carlton, received the highest service ratings among luxury chains. Four Seasons also had the lowest rate, 7% versus 14% for luxury hotels overall, of guests who said they experienced significant problems during their stay, Hirneise says.

I asked Debbie Brown, Four Seasons' vice president for human resources in North America, how the chain trains its employees to deliver service. The key, she says, is hiring the right people in the first place.

"We tend to hire people for how they think -- if they are passionate about the business and love to serve others," she explains.

Each applicant undergoes four interviews focused on behavior. People who are structured or rigid are rejected.

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