|By Erika D. Smith, The Indianapolis Star
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Mar. 19, 2006 - When the world-renowned Conrad Hotel swaggers into Indianapolis this week, opening its doors Downtown for the first time, it will have quite a reputation to live up to.
One of luxury. One of prestige. One that, until now, only belonged to fellow Conrads in crème de la crème cities like Tokyo, Miami, Bangkok, New York, London, Cairo and Istanbul.
A five-star reputation.
Not that the Hoosier luxury hotel already has earned the coveted rating. But other hotels carrying the Conrad name have, and Conrad Indianapolis doesn't intend to be the black sheep of the family.
Conrad officials have made no secret of their desire to be the first five-star hotel in the city.
So when guests stride into Conrad Indianapolis in coming weeks, they will expect luxury. They will expect to be pampered. And they probably will expect something far and away better than what the city's four-star hotels have to offer.
Conrad officials say they are certain they can deliver.
"What we'll be providing will far exceed what's in this city," said Laura L. Hamilton, director of human resources for the Conrad.
In the end, she said, it all comes down to service: How many employees there are to wait on you hand and foot; how kind they are; how helpful they are; how knowledgeable and intuitive they are.
Hamilton, who handles hiring for the hotel, says she has assembled a team of about 210 employees. That number eventually will reach 270, about 40 of them managers. Hundreds of people have applied and are still applying, but Hamilton said she prides herself on being selective.
"I'm looking for a positive, happy, upbeat person," she said.
The rest can be taught, so the company's motto goes. And the Conrad has a fairly elaborate training program.
All employees, from the door person to the front-desk manager, receive at least two weeks of general and specialized training.
They start out in a multi-department group session, like the one conducted last week at the offices of Kite Realty Group Trust, which is building the Conrad.
It was a lively session, complete with markers for coloring and marching orders to come up with a Conrad Hotel cheer.
There, Lena Cutter learned that what a guest says isn't always what a guest means. Therefore, body language and tone of voice often are more important than words. For example, a guest who says dessert was tasty, but has a pained expression on his face, probably doesn't really mean it.
"I never had this level of training before," Cutter said.
Cutter, who has worked in the hospitality industry in Indianapolis and New York, will be a hostess at the Conrad.
Katrina Gibson, who moved from Chicago for a housekeeping position, said she was struck by the attention to detail. The Conrad demands it.
The result, hotel officials say, is that a staff that learns to meet guests' needs before they know they even have a need.
A guest of the Conrad, for instance, will get help with his luggage whether he asks for it or not.
A guest who asks where the lobby's restroom is will get an escort, not just oral directions and a pointing finger.
A guest who checks in will get the room key handed to her, not pushed across the front-desk counter.
"These are not lessons that we teach and never bring up again," said Kendall Glavash, director of training for the Conrad.
The hotel has a policy of constant and consistent training, said Conrad General Manager Jan Chovanec. The lessons aren't groundbreaking, just reinforced.
"We're not trying to reinvent the hotel business or training," he said.
But in some ways, the Conrad is doing exactly that.
Indianapolis is a city without a five-star hotel. And while there's no lack of locals who want to work at the five-star-gazing Conrad, there's definitely a learning curve, Hamilton said.
In many cases, grooming standards and professional etiquette have been new concepts to applicants and employees, the HR director said. She has had to address things like hair color, fingernails with decals, tongue rings, nose rings and piercings in other odd places.
Hamilton said she even has fielded a few ugly phone calls and e-mails from applicants who didn't get jobs. She said that's a first in her career, which has included opening five-star hotels around the world, but never in a city that didn't already have one.
"This is very new," she said. "We knew that, and we accepted that."
In the end, the Conrad chose to hire a lot of people who weren't so new to the hospitality industry, people who worked at other Indianapolis hotels. And even though those employees weren't recruited, Chovanec said he is beginning to feel like a wanted man.
The Conrad name and its reputation enticed people to apply, he said. It's like being a software developer and hearing Google is coming to town.
"I'm not a very popular person because I was accused of taking people from other hotels," the general manager said. "I say it's a free country."
Such movement is pretty typical when a new hotel blows into town, especially if it has a reputation like the Conrad does, said John Livengood, president and chief executive of the Indiana Hotel & Lodging Association, a trade group.
"I haven't heard a lot of complaints about it," he said.
Some of the Conrad employees at last week's training session said they worked at other Indianapolis hotels. But they declined to name names.
Phil Ray, general manager of the Omni Severin, said his Downtown hotel hasn't lost any employees "directly." But a few "former associates" now work for the Conrad.
Jeff Sweet, hotel manager of the Downtown Hilton Indianapolis, said he has seen no mass exodus of employees.
"There's always going to be interest when a new property opens in town," said Sweet, whose hotel is part of Hilton Hotels Corp., as is the Conrad.
But five-star hype doesn't equal five-star fact, Sweet and Ray maintain. They say their four-star hotels can go toe-to-toe with the Conrad on customer service, if not amenities.
Neither the Omni nor the Hilton can provide flat-panel televisions in every room. But Sweet says his Hilton provides most of the same guest services the Conrad will provide. And Ray says his Omni Severin trains employees on five-star, not four-star, standards.
"I don't mean to sound condescending," Sweet said, "but I don't really lose a lot of sleep about what they're going to be doing with their guests."
Overall, Livengood said the Conrad will become a boon for a hospitality industry already accomplished in handling major events such as the NCAA Final Four.
"I think having a property like the Conrad will put Indianapolis on the map a little bit more," he said.
Indianapolis isn't exactly the Wild Midwest. And the Conrad Hotel isn't exactly a cowboy taming it.
But by introducing five-star service and luxury standards to the city, the hotel's senior staff feels like pioneers anyway.
"And I say that in a good way," Hamilton said.
STAR RATINGS: WHAT DO THEY MEAN?
*Establishment provides essential, no-frills accommodations to the budget-minded traveler.
**Establishment offers more than the basic accommodations, usually modest physical enhancements such as design elements and amenities at a moderate price.
***Establishment has a distinguished style, including marked upgrades in the quality of amenities and level of comfort.
****Establishment is upscale in all areas with more refined and stylish accommodations and a high degree of hospitality, service and attention to detail.
*****Establishment offers accommodations that are the ultimate in sophistication and luxury. Many personalized services and amenities are offered, and the goal is to serve meticulously and exceed all guest expectations.
4 VS. 5 STARS: Comparing four- and five-star (or -diamond) hotels:
-- Accepted 24 hours, either at hotel or through a central reservation system: 4 and 5.
-- Reservationist addresses guest by name; hotel sends written confirmation: 5 only.
-- Uniformed attendant promptly opens the car door and provides a warm and sincere welcome: 4 and 5.
-- Valet parking is automatic: 5 only.
-- Turndown service available upon request: 4 only.
-- Folds back or removes bedspread, turns up pillows: 4 and 5.
-- Full evening housekeeping service is automatic: 5 only.
-- Automated, personal call received within 5 minutes of requested time: 4 only.
-- Live, personal call received within 5 minutes of requested time: 5 only.
-- Service is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week: 4 and 5.
-- Special express services are available for breakfast orders: 4 and 5.
-- Service is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week: 5 only.
CONCIERGE & MISCELLANEOUS SERVICES
-- Overnight valet and laundry available: 4 and 5.
-- Butler services are available: 5 only.
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