Dec. 24–Flora Lacy, a housekeeper at the Four Seasons, was smoothing the duvet on a bed she had almost finished making when she caught a glimpse of the unacceptable: a tiny black smudge, likely from an iron, near the hem of the top sheet.
"Oh no," she muttered, and proceeded to strip and remake the bed again to rid it of the nearly imperceptible blemish. A guest, she told a visitor gravely, might mistake it for makeup and think the sheets hadn't been washed.
The Four Seasons, a luxury standby in Chicago's increasingly crowded hotel market, rests its reputation on its meticulous standards and high-level service. Behind the scenes are some 450 nonunion employees, like Lacy, whose livelihoods depend on making others happy — and who, General Manager Michele Grosso said, are the real reason guests return.
"The genuine care does that," said Grosso, who said he hires for "naturally caring" demeanors. "Otherwise a hotel is a building, and whoever's got the most money could build the best hotel. But that's not what makes it the best hotel."
The Tribune visited the Four Seasons to meet some of the workers who make it tick. Out of sight from the stately lobby, in crowded passageways filled with stacks of banquet chairs, gray carts stuffed with white towels and uniformed workers rushing by holding trays, a grand choreography takes place.
Gathered in a rather unluxurious room for a morning meeting, department heads run through the notable guests and requests for the day.
Room 4427: A couple celebrating their anniversary has requested special lighting, so the engineering team put in different light bulbs and brought in more lamps.
Room 4303: The guest complained of an overcooked omelet during his last stay, so please alert the kitchen.
Room 3904: A battery of requests, so housekeeping take note: blackout drapes, extra towels, the air conditioning off and New York Times there upon arrival. Flowers must not contain pollen or fragrance. Pellegrino is preferred to Perrier. The fruit basket must include bananas. Also: The guest wanted a piano, which was to be moved in that day.
The attention to detail is a mainstay of the brand, but Grosso said the hotel has ramped it up as other players pile into the city. Chicago added 10 new hotel properties and more than 2,000 rooms over the past year, according to hotel market tracker STR. Eight more projects with more than 1,600 rooms are slated for completion in 2016.
The 345-room Four Seasons hasn't suffered for it, particularly during busy seasons like the holidays, Grosso said. But when January rolls in and tourism drops sharply, "you feel it more," he said.
Service touches added in recent years, according to Grosso, include: putting bookmarks in books guests have left open; providing cloths for wiping smartphone and tablet screens; leaving an airport-friendly resealable plastic bag, for toiletries, by guests' suitcases the day before checkout.
"They say competition makes you better, and it does," Grosso said.
Here are four of the employees who make the Four Seasons tick:
Marius Smith, 39, door attendant
How long: 13 years
Duties: In the quiet early mornings, joggers go for their runs, and Smith has water and towels ready for them when they return. By midmorning, the door is busy, and Smith is transferring luggage in and out of cars, giving directions, offering breakfast recommendations, hailing cabs, trying to open every door for every guest and greet as many as he can using their last names.
Insider tip: "We do a lot of 'show me and know me,'" Smith said. That's when staff post pictures in work areas of regular guests so that everyone can recognize them. Another name-remembering trick: He looks at luggage tags as he pulls suitcases out of the trunk.
There was that time: A woman on her way to her daughter's wedding got kicked out of a cab because she had forgotten her wallet. So Smith hailed another and gave her $20 from his pocket. "She wrote a letter saying thank you," Smith said — though, he laughed, she never repaid the cash.
Favorite perk: He gets 20 free nights per year at any Four Seasons in the world, pending availability, a perk that kicks in after 10 years on the job. For his honeymoon, he and his wife stayed gratis at Four Seasons in France, Geneva and Milan.
When he's not working: Smith, who has a year-old son, takes classes one night a week at Columbia College as he works toward his bachelor's degree in cinema arts.
Flora Lacy, 65, housekeeper
How long: 14 years
Duties: Each housekeeper typically turns over 12 rooms in a shift, so they have about 30 minutes to spend on a standard room to ensure they meet the exacting standards. In addition to bed-changing and toilet-scrubbing, there are details: the bathroom amenities must be facing forward, guests' clothes should be folded and their shoes paired. While Lacy is at a level that supervisors don't check her rooms once she is finished, they do drop in unannounced monthly.
There was that time: Lacy found an elderly guest crying on the bed. She had recently had surgery and wasn't feeling well. Lacy ordered her soup, then learned the guest needed to buy some things but fretted about going alone. So after her shift ended that day, Lacy accompanied the guest to the mall in the building and helped her shop for pajamas, underwear and luggage.
On tips: Most people leave a few dollars a day, on the pillow or in the bathroom, Lacy said. One famous musician, whom the hotel asked not be named, left $100 daily.
What guests could do differently: "I wish they would use the cow," Lacy said, referring to the "go green" toy cow on the nightstand that lets guests signal they don't need to have their sheets washed daily.
Favorite perk: Being part of support teams that travel to the chain's other properties when they need extra hands. Lacy has traveled as support staff to Hawaii, the Bahamas, Philadelphia and Boston.
Trudy Corbbins, 60, room service coordinator
How long: 19 years
Duties: Take room service orders and coordinate amenities for special guests and occasions. For example, all kids get a free treat each day of the week (Monday is cookies, Tuesday is chocolate fondue, etc.). In addition, the hotel's food and beverage teams surprise guests with creative amenities, usually a pastry, themed around the reason they are in town.
Favorite part of the job: "I love to talk," Corbbins said with a hearty laugh. "And I get that opportunity on the phone every day."
There was that time: A guest in the hotel was mourning her father and had shut herself in the room. Corbbins said she called the room every day to check in, and sent up cookies, salads and fruit in hopes of getting her to eat. "I've been there, and I know how it feels not to have anyone to talk to," Corbbins said.
On bending rules: "We have our standards, but sometimes you break a few standards, you do a little extra. A guest is sick, so you send them tea, toast, soup, ginger ale. They don't ask for it, but sometimes when you talk to a guest you can hear it in their voice." Another example: "We're not supposed to send amenities to anyone over 16 but when you're in the room and your little brother got an amenity … well, we know they're going to fight about it so we just send it up."
Kristen Klus, 34, head concierge
How long: 8 years
Duties: Arranging transport to and from airports, crafting itineraries, making restaurant, salon, theater and other recommendations and reservations, and coming to the rescue when guests need just about anything. The team takes 175 to 250 requests a day on its six phone lines, email and two sides of the concierge desk that people can approach. "One of my old head concierges said, 'We're like swans,'" Klus said. Graceful on top, but underneath paddling furiously.
Greatest challenge: Technology has changed the concierge role from the keeper of knowledge to the distiller of knowledge, Klus said. Guiding people who think they know more about the city than you because of their Google search can require a delicate touch.
Coming to the rescue: Klus, who keeps eight pairs of shoes in her office to switch them out during long days of standing, lent a pair to the organizer of a gala who could not find her own. She has also done an updo on a wedding guest who couldn't get a salon appointment, swept a party guest into a bell closet to sew a rip in her dress, and taken a guest's credit card to a department store with instructions to buy a bracelet for no more than $1,200. Recently, her team was given less than a day's notice to plan an Avengers-themed birthday party for a guest's child. They went to Target and "streamered the heck out of the room," Klus said.
On getting that hard reservation: Klus, who closely watches bar and restaurant news, develops point people at the major players so she knows whom to call in a VIP emergency. "I think of it as a favor bank," she said. "I only will reach out to that person if it is great for their business, it's really important for the hotel, or when it's mutually beneficial. Then they know I will only use them occasionally. And we will keep sending them business in the dead of winter."
What makes you good at it: "I like being a know-it-all, and feeling like the city is my playground," Klus said. "I did a lot of acting and choir in high school, so I like being in front of people and having to think on my feet."
That big mistake: Long ago, she forgot to arrange an airport transport. To prevent it from happening again, she handwrites transport requests on a form that does not leave her hand until she makes the arrangement.