|By Peter J. Howe, The Boston Globe
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Jun. 18, 2006 - For the past two weeks, Shawn Black has been pulling double-duty: midlevel hotel executive by day, finicky guest by night.
Black is one of about 120 managers who work around the country for Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. This month, the managers have been on special assignment preparing for Wednesday's opening of the new Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel, the Hub's biggest in 22 years.
Their job: Sleep in all 790 rooms and make sure everything's perfect, from the 32-inch televisions to the jumbo showerheads. They are also eating nearly all their meals in the hotel, working their way through the hotel's Sauciety restaurant menu, checking to see whether such dishes as the pan-roasted yellowfin tuna with lemon artichoke sauce are tasty.
"We're kind of the guinea pigs," said Black, who normally works as a senior manager at the St. Regis Resort in Fort Lauderdale and is among an elite group of Starwood executives who qualify to volunteer as "pre-opening assistants," sleeping in a different room every night for the last two weeks of preparations.
"It's better that they have a chance to work out their kinks on us than on our guests," Black said.
During the day, Black trains new hotel hires on how to interact with guests, joining a small army of hotel executives, carpenters, masons, painters, and chambermaids racing to finish thousands of tasks before Wednesday's 2 p.m. ribbon-cutting.
At night, Black and colleagues run through the 33-item "punch list" for each room. Along with making sure every pillow and towel and coat hanger is in place, and the in-room safe and minibar unlock properly, the executives also check what Starwood dubs "the hockey puck" -- the black device on the desk that holds the Internet cable.
One problem Black discovered was that on two floors, crews had put the room phones in the wrong place. Under Starwood policy, the cordless phone goes on the nightstand, the regular corded phone on the desk. In about 150 rooms, those were reversed, and that is a glitch hotel general manager David Connor won't let slide.
All hotel chains have huge point-by-point checklists for opening new sites. But it's rare they get tested on the scale of the $204 million Westin, which has banquet facilities to serve 1,700 diners, plus the full-service Sauciety restaurant. (The name comes from the 15 special sauces available with all fish, chicken, and meat dishes.)
The Westin, attached to the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, is the biggest hotel to open in Boston since the 1,147-room Marriott Copley Place and 803-room Westin Copley Place opened in 1984. It's part of a Hub hotel construction boomlet. Eight hotels with 1,140 rooms have opened since June 2003, Boston Redevelopment Authority data show. Five more with over 1,400 rooms are under construction and will open over the next two years.
Across the United States this year, 847 new hotels are scheduled to open, with 89,269 total rooms, according to Lodging Econometrics, a Portsmouth, N.H., industry-consulting firm. With the whole travel market enjoying a brisk recovery from the chill after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Lodging Econometrics predicts 1,084 hotels with 119,665 rooms will open next year. But of all the hotels now in some stage of development, 94 percent are 200 rooms or fewer.
Mega-openings like the Westin "are few and far between," with only a handful of hotels of similar size underway in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Washington, said Joe McInerney , president of the American Hotel & Lodging Association, a Washington trade group.
Bringing in far-flung executives for the final shakedown before opening is fairly common hotel-industry practice, McInerney said, but "it's sort of an honor to be picked to go on a pre-opening team. It means you have a real commitment, and you're good. And when you're done, you've helped create something."
For the Westin opening staff, though, life over the past few weeks has had a lot more in common with boot camp than summer camp. Roseann Grippo, who is here to help open her 16th Westin Hotel -- and seventh in 18 months -- jokes that she doesn't need to bring an alarm clock because she is awakened every day as early as 5 a.m. when the fire alarms start getting tested.
Grippo, a regional food and beverage procurement manager for the chain in Florida, spends her days focusing on a long list called "the critical path" that spells out exactly what she needs to do every day of the 18 she will spend in Boston, down to unloading, counting, and washing each of the 3,200 wine glasses, 4,332 forks, and 6,152 spoons the hotel has ordered. There are also 400 new hotel staff workers to train.
Sixteen- or 18-hour workdays are common. Last week, Grippo said, she and her team were so immersed in their work they had to go online to find out what day of the week it was. And just when Grippo and colleagues are ready to go to bed -- in a new room almost every night -- they have to check off hundreds of items on the room-readiness spreadsheet, from trash cans to shower curtains to light bulbs.
Even if nature isn't calling, executives testing the rooms make a point of sitting on the toilet to make sure that, from that vantage point, everything in the bathroom is properly installed and lined up.
But there are perks, too: Ordering room service is mandatory when training the dining staff.
"We're very good first guests, because we're so critical," said Monica Rafter, a 30-year Starwood veteran and conference planning specialist who came from Tucson.
The "real" guests begin moving in Wednesday, and the first month will be extraordinarily busy, with more than 83 percent of rooms booked.
Despite the long days, the live-in hotel employees call it an energy rush, and a chance to reunite with other preopening squad veterans who have become good friends. "People get this in their blood, and then they want to know, 'When can I go to the next opening?' " said Donna Stanton , a Starwood restaurant-training specialist from Florida.
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