GMs chat about ultra-luxury experiences

What defines a 5-star resort? What creates that superlative experience, both in terms of physical amenities as well as service offerings? These sorts of questions are always on my mind, and with each new property visited, I get a little bit closer to reaching a definitive answer.

A resort starts with its location. Being on the ocean is a natural first step. So, logically, my idea was to compare the best of the West Coast with that of the East Coast. This led me to two year-round, vacation-destination states: California and Florida. Sifting through the wide variety of available product was a daunting task. I have not stayed at every luxury property but have visited many in both of these sun-laden states.

I spoke with two GMs at resorts I’ve recently visited to discover differences in their approaches when delivering an ultra-luxury experience: Todd Orlich from Montage Laguna Beach in California and Marco Selva from St. Regis Bal Harbour in Miami Beach, Florida. Before we dive into a group confab, let’s review some of the specifications of both properties:

Chatting with the GMs
Mogelonsky: Be honest, California versus Florida, is there a difference?

Orlich: “There are many similarities between Florida and California. The few differences come from the feeder markets frequenting Florida versus California, in regard to East Coast-driven customers versus West Coast-driven customers.”

Selva: “Miami has a heartbeat all its own; it’s like no other place on earth. That alone means the surrounding region attracts those seeking Miami in its own right, not necessary those thinking of East Coast versus West Coast.”

Mogelonsky: What do you do to merit the empyrean 5-star or 5-diamond badge and earn the admiration of your guests?

Orlich: “It starts with great people. Our hotel is centered on our associates, and they make us great. The hiring process at Montage consists of interviews with human resources, department heads and later a panel interview with members from the executive committee. Once hired, we train our associates extremely well. Their careers with us consist of ongoing educational and developmental opportunities starting with MORES, a two-day orientation process that lays a foundation of everything they will need to know.

“Listening and (participating in) ‘wow’ class teaches associates customer-service-oriented practices and how to use information about guests to make their visits truly spectacular. Through the practice of creating wows, whether welcoming Angels fans with sugar ‘halo’ cookies or having guests who are celebrating their anniversary walk into the guestroom with their wedding song playing, associates make a lasting connection with our guests and are expected to continually wow them in ways that are surprising and meaningful.”

Selva: “We take our service culture extremely seriously. First and foremost, we are very focused on selecting the best talent and in casting them for the right fit. Our goal has been very clear from the beginning; we set out to create a modern day flagship for the St. Regis brand.

“This execution is evident from the moment you book your stay to long after your departure. Whether it be through our partners, such as the Shops at Bal Harbour across the street; our iconic butler service; our culinary offering; or talented staff within every department in the hotel, the service at the resort is truly what elevates it and what I believe sets us apart from our competition.”

Mogelonsky: What special touches does your staff bring in to augment a guest’s experience?

Orlich: “The first special touch is our guest-relations team. This group of four contacts all guests a week prior, or with some guests months prior, to their visit to Laguna Beach. They make sure all transportation, arrival times, special requests, amenities, room preferences, activities, dining and spa reservations are taken care of. They happily shop for guests at the grocery store on request or visit local Orange County shopping havens, like South Coast Plaza and Fashion Island, if asked by guests to secure a particular item they may need, had forgotten or accidentally dropped in the pool during the stay. They cater to our guests’ every whim which may range from delivering their favorite cupcakes on arrival to ordering a mermaid to swim in the pool for a birthday party.

“The other is Paintbox. Guests who are 5 to 12 years of age love the blend of adventure and creativity they experience in Paintbox, our activities-based children’s program. Our younger guests are invited to enjoy thematically planned days that tie together arts and crafts, games and creative activities both indoors and out at the pool, beach, tide pool and events lawns.”

Selva: “One of our most recognized service elements is our team of international butlers. The butlers symbolize the superlative service of the hotel, truly acting as personal assistants to our guests and anticipating all of their needs in advance. Butlers are universal across the St. Regis brand and a hallmark that distinguishes us from all other luxury brands. It’s really about them providing a bespoke service for our guests in addition to all the other exceptional nuances of the St. Regis brand, like the champagne and sabering ritual every evening at the lobby bar.

“Another great feature is our Neiman Marcus Closet. The unique service allows guests to work with Neiman Marcus personal shoppers before their arrival at the resort to fill their closet with the latest fashions based on their style and preferences. Guests arrive to a fully stocked closet, and can purchase any pieces they love or return what they don’t want. The best part is that this service is offered free of charge and is available to each and every guest of the resort.”

Mogelonsky: What do you believe are the key characteristics that make a great hotel GM at the ultra-luxury level?

Orlich: “The success of a general manager is always marked by those people with whom he works. The vision of Alan Fuerstman, our founder and CEO, has inspired all of us in the company. It was his dream to create ultra-luxury experiences for guests based on a culture of gracious, humble service with an authentic human touch, a culture that blends a passion for personalized service with an incredible attention to detail.”

Selva: “Totally agree! I just want to add that a great GM has the uncanny ability to excel at innovation and is driven to excellence at a level they believe has not yet been achieved. A great GM must be very focused on recruiting the best talent and casting them for the right role. As well, it is imperative for a GM to be incredibly familiar with the competition. I make it a point to travel to hotels in the area to keep up-to-date on best practices and better judge what we are doing well versus what other hotels are doing well.”

Mogelonsky: What level of integration does your hotel have with the brand at large?

Orlich: “Montage Laguna Beach is the flagship property. In many ways, we have set the standard across all three current properties and all future properties. Laguna Beach’s associates and managers are role models to our sister and developing resorts. Alan Fuerstman actually named the company ‘Montage’ as an homage to each location’s artistic beauty, spirit and authentic locale. Each of our hotels embraces the region’s culture, allowing our guests to experience each destination in a unique way, blending comfortable and approachable luxury with visual arts, musical arts and culinary arts.”

Selva: “We work very closely with the St. Regis brand team. The St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort was imagined as a pillar for the brand, which represents the modern, 21st century vision for St. Regis brand.”

Mogelonsky: How do you see the ultra-luxury travel market evolving over the next decade?

Orlich: “I think there will be a greater emphasis on authenticity. We are a beach hotel and will remain true to that by offering a luxurious experience within an elegant yet comfortable beach home. On that note, guests will continue to want a connection to an actual person versus a digital application or device. We have placed a great emphasis on the connection between our associates and guests, cultivating relationships by developing ‘wow’ moments that are both thoughtful and imaginative.”

Selva: “One aspect we are focused on at the resort is the concept of wellness. We have recently launched programming around that concept which has been incredibly well received. We believe that just as spas were at the forefront of cutting edge amenities decades ago, wellness will only become more important to travelers in the coming decades. Our approach is customized to our guest’s preferences and desires, so while we offer a complete wellness getaway, which includes a consultant with a nutritionist, cutting-edge personal fitness instruction, a wellness minibar and menus, we also offer guests a less intense wellness experience which might be more focused on keeping them on track during their vacation.”

Visit both properties when you get an opportunity and compare their unique service approaches. I guarantee you’ll learn something you can take back and apply to your own operation.

(Article published by Larry Mogelonsky on Hotel News Now on October 14, 2013)

Larry MogelonskyGMs chat about ultra-luxury experiences