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Derra Lee Edwards Nurtures Culture of Excellence for the
 575 Employees at the Montage Resort & Spa;
Hardest Concept to Teach? Grooming
By Michele Himmelberg, The Orange County Register, Calif.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Dec. 1, 2004 - LAGUNA BEACH, Calif. -- When Alan Fuerstman formed his management team at the $200 million Montage Resort & Spa, he told them they were creating more than an upscale hotel. This would become a brand for a string of properties. A new name in the resort world.

At the core of the brand would be the company's culture: Passionately pursue excellence. Deliver highly personalized service with grace and humility. Create lifelong memories. Serve the community.

The management team defined it, then it was up to Derra Lee Edwards to teach that culture to the staff, now 575 full-time employees.

Edwards, who goes by the title of "learning director," works from an office in the Learning Center surrounded by books and resources.

More than a trainer who conducts orientation, or a human resources officer who tracks career progress and development, she coaches and challenges the staff to embrace the company's standards and deliver high-quality service.

Edwards' role at the 21-month-old resort becomes more important now that Montage is expanding its brand. Montage Hotels & Resorts bought the Aliso Creek Inn and Golf Course and plans to meet with the county in January to discuss a potential expansion. The company also will seek voter approval in March to build a hotel in Beverly Hills, another property that would incorporate the Montage culture.

The Montage requires each employee to attend two days of training and a 4 1/2-hour class on listening and language. But learning continues beyond that. Courses include computer programs, sommelier training and the history of Laguna Beach.

Each employee gets a handbook with sections on values and etiquette along with thousands of details about the resort. It has eight pages of definitions, from bell cart to voucher, and employees are tested on what they know.

They're studying now for next month's exam -- 100 questions with 10 bonus points and the top eight scores win free massages. It's a take-home exam and employees can share answers, but it still creates a bit of anxiety as they cram to remember what time lunch is served in The Loft on Sunday or the names of Laguna Beach artisans who created pieces for the hotel.

"The test is the one thing that connects everyone in the resort," Edwards said. "They're all in it together."

Taking a break from training, she talked recently about her job and why it's important to connect with the employees she coaches.

QUESTION: How is this job different than any other you've had?

ANSWER: I've worked at many hotels but had never opened one. Trying to create a culture once everything is established is much more difficult than creating one at the start.

Q: What personal qualities do you have that make you ideal for this position?

A: I have credibility with the staff because I've worked in hotel operations (at Four Seasons, Carefree Resorts, other corporations). I grew up in food and beverage, so I've been there. ... I always have an idea. It's all about the possibilities. If something comes up, I say, "What about ...?" And I'm tenacious. If a thing is really important, I'm like a pit bull and I'm not going to give up. Other things, I know to let go.

Q: How do you know when an employee truly understands the Montage "culture?"

A: I watch how they interact with each other. Do they show concern? -- "Oh I know where to go. I'll help you." That's really a good sign. But it starts in the hiring process. A person innately must have skills to interact with someone and take care of them. You can teach them to answer the phone, but can we teach them to be kind and gracious? To recognize, "I need to take responsibility."

In the two days that we teach mores, you can tell if they get it. And to be honest, it's not for everyone. I've made the suggestion just a few times that they might be more successful somewhere else. My success depends on theirs.

Q: What's the first thing you notice about a potential employee?

A: Here's an example. I was helping to do interviews, and I saw a girl walking up the path. She doesn't know who I am, but she smiles. There's a cigarette butt on the floor. I start to pick it up, but she's one step ahead of me and she grabs it. Then she asks me where human resources is. The fact that she smiled and wasn't hesitant to pick up the trash shows me how she interacts.

Q: What's the main thing an employee must know before putting on a uniform?

A: The values. This is how we make decisions. We want to do the right thing, be part of a team, be humble, apologize if we're wrong. We're going to be a learning environment. And the leadership must demonstrate (the culture) to get people to buy in. The minute they don't do it, it's all for naught.

Q: What is the hardest concept to teach?

Grooming, because it's so personal. Some teens have never worn a pair of pants that went around their waist and now they are in a uniform. They think it doesn't fit. Appearance is very important.

Q: Many resorts emphasize personal service. What's unique about your training?

A: More than anything, I don't want it to be boring. I try to keep it upbeat and fun and still have it be accountable. One of the questions I ask is: Do you know how powerful you are? You can make or break a guest experience in a moment. You are so incredibly powerful, and never lose sight of that with the guest. Each of the managers gives a talk on their own area, and it has a common thread: that the guest experience all depends on them.

Q: Is there a typical day?

A: Not really, but I'm always trying to make a connection. I saw a woman in the kitchen wearing braids and said, "How are you, Annie?" She said, "Don't you know my name is Wendy?" I pointed to her braids and said I meant Annie Oakley. She didn't know who that was. So I got a photo and the story of Annie Oakley to show her. That's what we mean by the personal connection and following up. It could be as simple as asking, "How did that work out for you?" Or, "How was your vacation?" With that foundation, they're much more willing to accept the knowledge (we offer).

DERRA LEE EDWARDS

Title: Learning Director

Where: Montage Resort & Spa, Laguna Beach

Education: University of Idaho, B.A., Parks and Recreation; studied hotel and restaurant management at Washington State University

Hardest thing to teach: Grooming, because there are so many perceptions of what's appropriate

Best teacher she ever had: Mrs. Chase in junior high, because she took a personal interest in students and made it comfortable to learn

Favorite books: "You are the Message" by Roger Ailes; "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" by Stephen Covey (these and many books are in the Learning Center library at the Montage)

-----To see more of The Orange County Register, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.ocregister.com.

(c) 2004, The Orange County Register, Calif. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. For information on republishing this content, contact us at (800) 661-2511 (U.S.), (213) 237-4914 (worldwide), fax (213) 237-6515, or e-mail reprints@krtinfo.com.

 
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