|By Douglas Hanks, The Miami
HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Business News
Nov. 10, 2006 - The country's pickiest hotel guests say they still cannot find five-star service in Miami.
Mobil Travel Guide inspectors have once again relegated the Miami area's fanciest hotels to four stars, blaming service shortcomings for withholding the top-tier ranking.
"It's challenging on a day-to-day basis for a hotelier to deliver that sense of anticipatory service," Mobil spokesman Shane O'Flaherty said.
Four stars do not come easily: Only eight hotels in South Florida made the cut in the 2007 Mobil rankings released Thursday, and none are in Broward County or the Florida Keys.
But the continued lack of a five-star hotel denies South Florida a milestone in its push for more affluent travelers -- and touches on the Miami area's reputation for subpar service.
The Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau plans to spend $225,000 over two years on a new customer-service initiative that will include television spots urging residents to be more hospitable to visitors. Hotel managers say a tight labor market and a heavy concentration of non-English speakers make customer service an uphill fight.
"There are just not enough bodies," said Marco Selva, general manager of the Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne. "You're always constantly short on staff everywhere."
For sure, Mobil's five-star list offers a limited yardstick for measuring service. Only 53 hotels across the country won the top ranking this year, out of 8,000 in the annual guide.
Mobil's hotel lists mostly illuminate a privileged corner of the travel industry, where four-star properties lose points for shortcomings most hotel guests wouldn't even contemplate.
In last year's otherwise glowing review of the Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne, a Mobil inspector complained a daytime maid hadn't noticed a light bulb was out in the room's desk lamp. A write-up of the Loews Miami Beach knocked a clerk for not thinking to send mouthwash when an inspector called the front desk for a toothbrush.
Both hotels landed on the four-star list again this year, along with six others from Sunny Isles Beach to Coconut Grove.
O'Flaherty said some Miami-area hotels meet Mobil's standards for rooms and other physical qualities, but their service offerings didn't match top-tier standards.
"Miami itself has some five-star facilities," he said.
Mobil inspectors spend two nights a year in each hotel in the guide and rate them on 750 criteria. At the hotel bar, a guest should be offered a second round within one minute of finishing a drink. Bathrooms should have separate showers and tubs. And room service must arrive within 30 minutes.
Even though it hoped for five stars, the Mandrin Oriental Miami likely took comfort from its second-place finish in the new Mobil guide.
The Brickell Key hotel, which often bests its rivals in magazine travel rankings, dropped down to four diamonds two weeks ago in AAA's hotel ratings. The auto club is less discriminating than Mobil, giving the Miami Four Seasons and the Ritz-Carltons in Coconut Grove and Key Biscayne its highest rating.
Even without clearing the five-star bar, South Florida's top hotels have helped remake the area into a much pricier destination. All but one of the four-diamond hotels opened before 2000, and their arrival helped boost room rates 30 percent in Miami-Dade over the last six years.
"They are creating demand for the market by the fact that they are part of a luxury brand of hotels," said PricewaterhouseCoopers lodging analyst Scott Berman.
Mobil hasn't awarded five stars in South Florida since downgrading Coconut Grove's Wyndham Grand Bay nine years ago. The snub hasn't helped Miami's reputation in some corners for aloof, beautiful people who rarely make hospitality a priority.
"Miami having this whole kind of attitude -- I think it was hip 10 years ago. It's not hip anymore," said Guy Hensley, a Miami executive with the Sol Melia chain, which hopes to open a South Florida hotel next year.
But others see Mobil's rigid five-star criteria as out of step for Miami's appeal as a tropical party spot -- a place where the Ritz-Carlton South Beach boasts of a resident DJ and until recently the Mandarin converted its beach into an open-air nightclub each week.
"If there's one rap against hotels like the Mandarin, it's that in the evening times it can get hectic at the bar and in the public places," said Andrew Harper, editor of Andrew Harper's Hideaway Report on luxury travel. "But that's Miami . . . That's why you're going there."
Copyright (c) 2006, The Miami Herald
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