News for the Hospitality Executive
|By Kyle Stock, The Post and Courier, Charleston, S.C.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Dec. 8, 2003 - In March, a 255-room hotel dubbed "The Sanctuary" will open on Kiawah Island. Those who own and manage the $125 million property promise that it will win over high-rolling customers from the country's finest hotels.
But first it needs to earn its stripes ... or rather, its stars.
There are 29 lodgings in the country that won Mobil Travel Guide's Five-Star Award this year. If Kiawah's new project can make it on to the list, it will draw the country's fattest wallets and bring in up to 20 percent more revenue than it would without the fifth star, according to analysts' estimates.
But if it doesn't garner the top rating, it might take a lot longer for Bill Goodwin -- a Virginia billionaire who is the hotel's main financial backer -- to recoup his relatively monstrous investment.
"On a midsized, 250-room hotel, the difference in the cost of operating a three-star and a five-star easily could be $1 million a year, and that's why a five-star, five-diamond property needs to achieve an average (room) rate that is significantly higher," said Prem Devadas, Kiawah's managing director.
There are a lot of things a hotel needs to garner a five-star rating from the objective and sometimes incognito publishing outfit that crowns the select leaders of the U.S. lodging industry every October.
An aspirant needs fresh flowers in guest rooms, 24-hour room service and at least two different free newspapers.
It also helps to have a Raymond Bukhofzer.
Raymond -- he's on a first-name basis with his regulars -- is one of the world's most famous bartenders and one of the major reasons his employer, the Ritz-Carlton South Central Park in New York, got its fifth star pinned back on a little more than a year after it reopened in a new location.
Raymond is a whiz with a cocktail, but more importantly, he'll remember your name even if you've never been to New York before and you only told it to him once, said Vivian Deuschl, Ritz-Carlton's vice president of public relations. He'll remember even if Cher (one of his regulars) is sitting at the end of the bar.
"He's half-irreverent, half-charming, but always respectful," she said. "He probably epitomizes the service standards we have."
At the very top of the hotel heap, the differences are slight, intangible. Often it is the service -- a friendly smile, getting your favorite drink without having to order it -- that makes the difference between a five-star hotel and a four, according to Mobil.
The Sanctuary is nearing completion. Dozens of live oak trees -- dug up and transplanted -- now line the entrance. Most of the marble bathtubs are carefully set in place so the bather can look out the window. And the heated towel racks are shining.
But the hard work is just beginning for Kiawah management. In the next few weeks the super hotel must place its human assets. A staff of about 440, including 40 new managers, must be hired and trained at significant expense, with the hope that there is a Raymond in the making.
"The more you anticipate the guests' needs, the more you are aligned with five-star service, and it really is a function of training," said Sean O'Flaherty, a Mobil vice president who oversees the inspection process. "We would hope that hotels would spend considerably more money on the training of the staff at a level of five-star service."
Harry Gorstayn, general manager of the Four Seasons Resort Palm Beach, knows the game well. He won his property a fifth star as soon as he got there six years ago.
"It's usually training, training, training," he said. "Buildings are buildings, gyms are gyms, but a great staff is what makes the difference."
Every employee Gorstayn hires -- from room cleaners to managers -- goes through three interviews and 90 days of training.
Ritz-Carlton hotels hire one out of every 100 applicants, according to Deuschl.
When a new Ritz-Carlton is opening, corporate management brings in a "pre-opening team," a roster of top performers hand-picked from the company's properties worldwide to groom the newcomers in their respective jobs. Raymond, for instance, gets the bartenders.
"We always say that we invite employees to join us, we don't hire them," Deuschl said. "The only people that are going to fit are ones that really get a sense of satisfaction out of serving guests."
Kiawah management is confident that The Sanctuary can make the grade and play in the biggest of hotel big leagues, and they have the track record to prove it. The team, led by Devadas, turned around the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Va., taking it from three stars to five in just two years.
The Kiawah investors bought the Hermitage Hotel, a three-star hotel in Nashville, in 2000 and closed it in 2002 to give it a major overhaul. The hotel reopened in February and won a Five Diamond Award (the American Automobile Association's equivalent of Mobil's top rating) this October, an extremely quick ascent in the hotel world.
For The Sanctuary, Kiawah has already let go of some longtime managers to make room for a dream team of industry veterans. The foundation of the new squad rests on Vijay Singh, the new food and beverage director, who was with Ritz-Carlton for 13 years, and Vikram Sood, the new hotel manager/rooms executive, who built his career at Four Seasons' properties.
Kiawah also has enlisted West Paces Hotel Group, an Atlanta-based outfit that has handled the opening of about 40 Ritz-Carltons over the past two decades. West Paces is helping to sign top talent and has provided a year's timeline, a daily and sometimes hourly to-do list for a hotel shooting for the top.
All of this is to make sure that The Sanctuary does not falter in its all-important inaugural year, the proving ground on which rankings, repeat business and rates depend.
Mobil doesn't even send one of its four incognito inspectors until a hotel has been open six months, and it's extremely rare for a property to win five stars before it's a few years old. It takes time for a property to "click on all cylinders" and iron the wrinkles out of its service departments, according to O'Flaherty.
The Sanctuary is already making waves in the travel industry and booking some of the big-group meetings that are the bread-and-butter of the most opulent resorts. But a lot of those bookings were rolled over from the Kiawah Island Inn, a less expensive lodging that is shutting its doors for good this month.
Also, introductory rates for new hotels are relatively low. Whether the groups and inspectors like what they see ultimately will determine how much management will be able to increase room rates.
The Market Pavilion Hotel, a 66-room luxury lodging downtown, has been able to double its rates since it opened in July 2002, according to Elaina Palassis, director of sales and marketing for the hotel.
And five stars or not, The Sanctuary is jumping into a crowded pool. Southeastern states from Virginia to Florida boast nine of the nation's 29 five-star lodgings.
The Lodge at Sea Island won the annual meeting of the South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance this spring. And President Bush picked Sea Island for the world's most powerful group meeting, the annual G-8 summit in June.
"If The Sanctuary wins the fifth star, it would steal market share from anything comparable in the Southeast," Deuschl said. "Any time a hotel suddenly gets that kind of attention, people are going to try it. That gets them in the door, but it better live up to its reputation."
Devadas doesn't presume to have a fifth star in the bag, but if his team is "fortunate enough" to garner the top ratings, he thinks The Sanctuary has a combination of pluses that will win and keep market share.
He lists the hotel's proximity to Charleston, ocean views from all of the rooms, restaurants, bars and meeting spaces and world-class golf courses as distinct competitive advantages over many of the country's five-star properties.
"You take all of that and it adds up to a luxury experience that will be unsurpassed," he promised.
-----To see more of The Post and Courier, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.charleston.net
(c) 2003, The Post and Courier, Charleston, S.C. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. XOM, MAR, FS,