News for the Hospitality Executive
|By Bill Osinski, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Apr. 7--GREENSBORO, Ga.--The new luxury lodge could also be called the Hotel of High Hopes.
The developer of the $125 million Ritz-Carlton Lodge at Reynolds Plantation on Lake Oconee hopes to leave a legacy for his boyhood summer home.
The operators, the Atlanta-based Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co., hope to create
a singular new tourist destination resort.
Starting Thursday, which is opening day, Ritz officials expect the lodge to welcome some of the world's most discerning travelers. Guests will expect amenities rivaling the finest hotels of Paris, Hong Kong, or London --- and they will be charged accordingly. Starting price on the lodge's 250 rooms is $275 a night, and the four-bedroom Presidential House near the main lodge will go for $6,000 a night.
This is the only lodge in the group of 41 Ritz-Carlton properties in 13 countries. By design, it is different from the marble and glass motif of most Ritzes. It fits into a hill sloping down to the lake, and its wood and stone decor and Native American-themed spa perhaps suggest the Canadian Rockies more than Middle Georgia.
But the staff will have a decidedly Middle Georgia flavor. About 90 percent of the lodge's 400 employees come from nearby counties.
Few have worked in the hospitality industry. Now, a laid-off sock maker can aspire to become a sommelier or maybe even a hotel general manager. The entry-level jobs pay roughly $8 to $10 an hour, while salaries for department heads range from $30,000 to $80,000 a year.
"Before this hotel came here, all I could think about is when I could leave Greene County," said Jacqueline Harris of Greensboro, who will supervise the employee dining room.
Harris had worked all kinds of jobs --- rural mail carrier, secretary, factory worker, gift shop operator, limousine driver. But none seemed to offer much financial stability for her, her two children and disabled husband.
"I had nowhere to go," Harris said. "Now, I'm able to stay here in my hometown and work in a place like this."
Marke Baker was working on a modular home assembly line in Milledgeville when he went to a Ritz-Carlton job fair. "I wanted to find out about 'Puttin' on the Ritz,' " he said.
He accepted a position as a butcher in the lodge's kitchen, even though he'd never worked in a hotel or restaurant, he said.
"When I came in the first day [of orientation], a manager told me, 'Thank you for coming to work today,' " Baker said. "I never had anything like that happen to me before." On his second day, Baker was scheduled to go in at 7:45 a.m.; he got there at 6:30.
Pearly Jernigan had spent 20 years making socks at a textile plant in Union Point, which was Greene County's major private employer until it shut down last year.
Larry Jackson of Greensboro had a good-paying, stable job at a fiber-optics plant in Athens, but he left it to become a Ritz doorman.
"It's a pay cut, but it's also doing something I really enjoy," Jackson said. "Everybody here has a smile on their face. You wear it just like your uniform."
D.J. Bos-Burgener, a native of Holland who has lived in Greensboro for about 11 years, said the lodge will broaden the horizons of area residents who get hired.
"I have seen some of these people desperately looking for jobs," she said. "Now, people who thought they'd never get out of Greene County will be able to go all over the world," she said in noting the company's policies of hiring from within and of offering steep discounts in room rates to company employees.
University of Georgia demographer Douglas C. Bachtel said the project promises to be a boon to the area, most of which lies in the Black Belt, a part of the South that has not shared in the overall region's economic growth.
"Historically, this has been a problematic area," he said, with high rates of poverty and teenaged motherhood and low rates of educational attainment.
"But this project is more than just a glimmer of hope," Bachtel said. "It offers stable employment opportunities and training. It's important for these people and their children."
Simon Cooper, president and CEO of Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co., said the high percentage of staff members with little or no experience in the hospitality field is both a challenge and a strength.
"Ninety percent of our ladies and gentlemen" --- the words the company's motto (Ladies and Gentlemen Serving Ladies and Gentlemen) uses for both workers and guests --- "don't have a context" for accommodating travelers who expect the best, Cooper said. "They've never seen the competition."
That also means the workers haven't brought "bad habits" with them from other hotels, he said.
More importantly, he added, the new hires bring something his company prizes, an innate sense of Southern hospitality.
"We're in an environment where people are warm, genuine and caring, and that's a great strength," Cooper said. "The other 75 percent, we can teach."
Cooper acknowledged that the Lake Oconee area is relatively unknown to many of the travelers the lodge seeks to attract.
"Greene County is not exactly where everybody is going to turn their cars off the road looking for a luxury hotel," Cooper said.
The primary market for the lodge will be metro Atlanta, including its residents and the business and leisure travelers who visit, said Patricia Lescoe, director of sales and marketing.
Her department is promoting the lodge as a weekend getaway for Atlanta area residents, as a site for executive gatherings or for excursions for convention groups and as a place for corporate retreats and incentive rewards. So far, the lodge is sold out for opening day, and advance bookings are running ahead of projections, she said.
Steven Freund, the lodge's general manager, said the project's developer, Mercer Reynolds, wanted to leave a legacy.
Reynolds, now the U.S. ambassador to Switzerland, spent most of his boyhood summers with relatives in Greene County, often exploring the woods and creeks of the area.
After Lake Oconee was created in the early 1980s, Reynolds developed an upscale residential and golf course community called Reynolds Plantation. The new lodge is on a promontory not far from the earlier development.
Freund said he expects significant "spillover activity" from the lodge to benefit the region that Reynolds was so fond of.
He estimated that 90,000 people will visit the lodge every year.
"That's 90,000 people coming here that would probably never had a reason to come here before," he said. If only 1 percent of those visitors decided they might want to move to or invest in the region, the impact would be dramatic, he said.
W. Rabun Neal, chairman of the Greene County Economic Development Authority, said the lodge is projected to generate about $2.5 million a year in sales tax revenues for Greene County. Currently, the county government takes in about $5 million annually in taxes, he said.
And for Union Point, the town where the textile mill closed, its share of the tax revenues from the lodge will offset what it lost due to the shutdown, he said.
The lodge has already generated a surge for area construction-related businesses, Neal said. It paid for the road construction it needed, and it will provide jobs with good pay and benefits, he added.
Plus, there is an intangible bonus.
"It adds a sense of pride, bringing quality growth to our community," Neal said. A sense of pride --- and of possibility --- was one of the first things the hotel trainers tried to instill in its new employees.
They were told that their jobs were as important as any manager's --- that any of them, from a housekeeper to a banquet waiter, not only had the permission but the responsibility of taking the initiative to solve a guest's problem or anticipate a guest's need.
They were told that there was very likely a hotel general manager among them.
That was a new concept for people like Marke Baker.
"I don't just have a job," Baker said. "Now, I have a career."
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(c) 2002, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. MAR,