The Resort at Pelican Hill in Newport Beach, shown in 2008, made this year's… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)
It may not come as a surprise that California — a sun-splashed magnet for celebrities and big-spending tourists — leads the nation in the number of hotels winning five-star ratings from Forbes Travel Guide.
But winning the coveted rating is no easy feat. Only 58 hotels in the U.S. — with 12 in California — were awarded the recognition this year, including, for the first time, the Resort at Pelican Hill in Newport Beach.
The resort, having fallen short in the past, launched a campaign to earn the distinction that included such measures as increasing training among its workers and executing internal audits.
"From the top down, we all have one vision and that is to offer hospitality at its finest," said the resort's manager, Giuseppe Lama.
The Forbes five-star rating is considered more difficult to land than the five-diamond rating from AAA, which awarded its top ranking to 101 hotels in the U.S. this year.
Hotel owners vie for the Forbes distinction because it enables them to draw much higher rates. For example, the four-star rated Beverly Hilton recently posted average daily rates of $245 to $325, while the five-star rated Beverly Hills Hotel posted rates of $510 to $540.
With Forbes, that one-star difference is primarily the level of service offered by the staff.
"Graciousness, courtesy and thoughtfulness — it's much harder to get that right," said Mike Cascone, president and chief executive of Forbes Travel Guide, formerly known as the Mobil Travel Guide.
Forbes dispatches inspectors to stay at the hotels incognito for at least two nights and three days, using all the services, such as ordering room service and exercising at the gym. The inspectors rate the hotels on 500 standards, including accommodations and attitude.
Other guidelines for Forbes five-star hotels include:
• Arriving guests are greeted and assisted curbside within 60 seconds of arriving;
• Wake-up calls are delivered within two minutes of the requested time;
• Refills at restaurants are offered within 30 seconds of the guest's beverage being empty;
•No telephone call is left on hold longer than 30 seconds without being offered a call-back.
Delta, United add passenger services
Delta Air Lines Inc. recently began testing a program that personally greets, by name, its corporate clients when they check in at an airport kiosk or use the Delta mobile app.
Meanwhile, UAL Corp.'s United Airlines last week introduced its first planes with revamped cabins for transcontinental "premium service" customers. The new interiors have Wi-Fi service, on-demand entertainment and seats that convert to 180-degree flat beds.
The efforts by airlines to court first- and business-class travelers make sense. Such fliers typically buy the most expensive seat and book at the last minute, incurring the highest fares.
First-class and business-class passengers make up only 8% of international travelers but account for 27% of revenue, according to the International Air Transport Assn. American Airlines said 25% of its passengers generate 70% of its revenue.
Delta spokeswoman Lindsay McDuff called its new corporate greeting program "an effort to differentiate ourselves for our high-value customers."
Wi-Fi battle at 35,000 feet
Most major airlines offer wireless Internet access on some or all of their aircraft.
But now airlines are battling over who has the fastest Wi-Fi speeds at 35,000 feet in the air.
New York carrier JetBlue Airways Corp. announced last week that it plans this year to offer passengers a satellite-based Wi-Fi service that will be "significantly faster" than other onboard Wi-Fi.
Airline executives showed investors a demonstration last week that suggested its new Internet service, powered by Excede, was more than twice as fast as three other Wi-Fi competitors.
Robin Hayes, the airline's chief commercial officer, said the airline may offer the service for free for most fliers but charge passengers who want to stream movies and other entertainment.
"We are going to find a way, if we can, of keeping it free for the long term and we have some ideas of trying to make that happen," Hayes said.
One idea, Hayes said, is to require passengers to join the airline's frequent flier program to be allowed to use the Wi-Fi.