|By Douglas Hanks III, The Miami Herald|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Nov. 9, 2004 - Those seeking five-star accommodations in Florida still need not look south of Palm Beach.
That was the ruling announced Monday by Mobil travel inspectors, the leading arbiters of luxury lodging and annual bane of Miami-Dade County's new crop of top-tier hotels.
Five new pricey hotels -- the Four Seasons Miami, Brickell Key's Mandarin Oriental, and Ritz-Carltons in Coconut Grove, Key Biscayne and South Beach -- are racing to win the coveted fifth star in the yearly Mobil rankings.
But while the new properties are fancy, a Mobil executive says service hiccups continue to keep the top ranking out of reach.
"We had some great scores coming back on the facilities side," Shane O'Flaherty, head of Mobil rankings, said of the region's four-star finishers. "That's what keeps hotels from a five. The service."
The Ritz-Carlton South Beach opened this spring, too late to be eligible for the 2005 Mobil list of the country's best hotels. But the other contenders remain stuck on four stars in the new list -- not only frustrating their marketing plans, but also setting back efforts to retire Miami's reputation for subpar service.
"Miami is looked upon a little differently," lamented Alexandra Wensley, communications director for the Mandarin Oriental Miami. "Sometimes with our reputation, it's hard to get beyond that."
Industry watchers hailed the Mandarin's opening in 2000 as marking Miami's arrival into the upper echelon of the hotel market. Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton soon followed, despite concerns that the region's transient and largely immigrant workforce could not support the demanding standards of a $400-a-night hotel.
"South Florida has had a perception of poor service," said former Miami hotel executive Julio Stieffel, who now works as a consultant. "I think we've gotten better, tremendously, since the boom began with these new operators. This is all new to us."
Each year Mobil dispatches undercover inspectors to score hotels across the country, and this year's list contained few changes. Nationally, only one hotel was added to the five-star roster: the Four Seasons in Maui, which became eligible when Mobil added Hawaii and Alaska to its purview.
This year, 31 hotels earned five stars, and 117 won four. Florida had three five-star finishers: the Ritz-Carlton in Naples, and the Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton in Palm Beach.
Two exclusive area resorts dropped from four stars to three: the Inn at Fisher Island and Little Palm Island on Little Torch Key. The same fate befell the Boca Raton Resort Club last year, and it remains downgraded to three stars this year.
Mobil's lists are considered the industry standard, though hotels also tout AAA's less discriminating diamond rankings. The Mandarin and Ritz-Carlton Grove currently hold five diamonds on that list, and the new AAA scores are expected later this month.
Scott Berman, an industry analyst for PricewaterhouseCoopers, said there's a fine line between a four- and five-star hotel.
Ask 10 hotel general managers to define a five-star and a four-star hotel, Berman said. "I'm telling you, you would get nine different answers. It all depends on the day of the week they're inspected."
Marco Selva, new general manager at the Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne, describes himself as a "driven, passion person" when it comes to a five-star rating. At his first staff meeting, he declared five Mobil stars as a top priority, as it was at his previous posting at the Ritz-Carlton Coconut Grove.
Selva was food and beverage director at the Grand Bay, which held Miami's only five-star ranking until Mobil downgraded the Coconut Grove hotel seven years ago. Selva described the fifth star as helpful in charging top rates, as well as attracting conferences by Fortune 500 companies.
"Some of them tend to like to say we're taking you to a five-star Mobil-rated resort or hotel," he said.
What can be done? Both Selva and Wensley (Four Seasons executives did not respond to requests for comment) offered no specifics on how to achieve that fifth star.
"We feel like we're there," Wensley said. "We'll just continue working hard every day."
TIED FOR SECOND PLACE: Mobil declined to bestow five stars on any Florida restaurants this year, but eight South Florida establishments finished second place with four stars. They are:
--Blue Door, Miami Beach
--Cafe Boulud, Palm Beach
--La Palme d'Or, Coral Gables
--L'Escalier at the Florentine, Palm Beach
--Norman's, Coral Gables
--The Restaurant, Palm Beach
--Wish, Miami Beach
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