|By John Gallagher, Detroit Free Press|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Sep. 1, 2004 - For many new hotels, opening day means offering coffee and muffins to guests. For the Royal Park Hotel in Rochester, today's opening means the Italian chandeliers are hung with care, and the croquet and bocce courts are groomed to perfection.
Welcome to that rarity, a hotel that claims to offer luxury service and appears ready to actually deliver it. Built for $48 million, the 143-room, full-service hotel is bidding to become only the third true luxury hotel in metropolitan Detroit, along with the Ritz-Carlton in Dearborn and the Townsend Hotel in Birmingham.
The prices can be steep: Standard rooms start around $250 a night, and suites can go for $400 and up. But the rewards include elegant décor, fine dining and service that rises to the level of pampering.
"This hotel is going to be a home away from home for our clientele," said Tony Torbati, managing director of the Royal Park. "There's no 'no' in our vocabulary. What you say goes. We will find a way to please you, as long as it's legal."
On Tuesday, crews were finishing last-minute cleaning, and staffers who have been trained off-site for the past few weeks were getting used to the new building. The hotel plans a quiet opening today but a more formal opening party in mid-October. The hotel is owned by a group of local investors that includes Frank and Roy Rewold, whose Rochester-based construction firm, Frank Rewold & Son, built it.
If there's little doubt the Royal Park offers genuine luxury, some hotel industry experts question whether the market in northern Oakland County is deep enough to support it. The Ritz-Carlton in Dearborn benefits from the presence nearby of Ford Motor Co.'s world headquarters. And the Townsend gains because many guests need to meet with executives who live in Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills. But some believe Rochester lacks similar advantages.
"To go out to Rochester and build that kind of luxury, I hope they have awfully deep pockets," said one industry insider who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Torbati said market studies show that economic development in northern Oakland County and in Macomb County to the east has swelled to a point that it will support such a hotel. The hotel hopes to draw business both from DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group's U.S. headquarters in Auburn Hills and nearby auto suppliers, as well as the sports and show- business trade connected with the Palace of Auburn Hills.
Preliminary signs are good. The Royal Park is already booked for the Ryder Cup golf tournament later this month, and it is talking with Detroit's Super Bowl Host Committee about hosting corporate events when Super Bowl XL is played at Ford Field in 2006. Greg DeSandy, director of sales, said the Royal Park so far has booked 35 weddings ranging from 150 to 500 guests, and a cigars-and-cognac party during the Ryder Cup has sold out.
Just in case, though, Torbati said the hotel will open with 225 staffers and ramp up to its goal of more than 300 only when the volume of bookings becomes clearer.
Chuck Skelton, an industry consultant with Hospitality Advisers Inc. in Ann Arbor, said staffing is one indicator of a true luxury property. An ordinary hotel or motel without a restaurant or conference facilities might employ one worker for every four rooms. A typical full-service Marriott or Westin might increase that ratio to one employee for each room. But luxury hotels typically staff two or more employees per room. The Royal Park eventually plans to have about 2.5 per room.
"They certainly have to have significantly higher staffing levels because a luxury property by definition pampers the guest," Skelton said.
Architectural elegance is another standard. If a highway motel is done in wallboard and carpeting, the Royal Park offers marble floors, Italian chandeliers, walnut and mahogany, copper roofing, leather, imported rugs, plush fabrics and many other fine touches. A library off the lobby is stocked with high-priced books on art, architecture and photography. The largest of the suites has no less than four balconies.
"It's very elegant and comfortable, like an old manor house would have it," said Victor Saroki, an architect whose Birmingham firm, Victor Saroki and Associates, designed the Royal Park.
One of the biggest selling points is the Conservatory, a glass-framed room crafted in Belgium and then assembled on site. With a hand-blown chandelier from the Venice, Italy, area, the Conservatory bids to become the centerpiece of many a wedding celebration.
But, in the end, the Royal Park's success will come down to how it treats its guests. Pitched to a mix of experienced corporate travelers, demanding sports and show business celebrities, and local folks celebrating anniversaries and other special occasions, the Royal Park staff hopes to make each guest's stay memorable.
That means having a staff that recognizes guests by name, knows in advance which guest likes which pillow, and keeps track of special requests, like who wants a bucket of ice waiting in a room. Surprisingly, about two-thirds of the Royal Park's staffers have not worked in the hotel industry before. But Torbati said the right attitude is more important than experience. He described it as "very strongly positive, very upbeat personality, doing what it takes to please the customer. " Or, as DeSandy put it, they need "bright eyes."
That attitude is key to true luxury service, said Peter Wilde , managing director of the Townsend Hotel in Birmingham, which is rated among the best hotels in the nation. The Townsend and other luxury hotels try to empower those employees closest to the customers -- doormen, desk clerks, waiters and waitresses -- to do whatever it takes to anticipate and fulfill customer needs.
"You have to create a culture where your staff is looking to be better every day," Wilde said. "It's every single telephone call, it's every single question, how well did we handle that. Did they escort the person instead of just 'turn left' or 'turn right.' It's every single e-mail that comes in, it's every single wake-up call, it is given with warmth and sincerity. It's all those things that have to be worked on every single day."
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