See How They Glow

By staff March 1, 2002

Service? What service? Not from that clueless clerk behind the counter talking on her personal cell phone. Not from the harried airline ticket agent who won't take the extra minute to find you another flight so you don't have to spend the night in a strange city. Not from the indifferent receptionists and customer service reps who put you on hold and never remember your name. And what about that snippy waiter, the messy workman and the perennially late hair stylist? Do any of these people ever apologize when they realize you're unhappy with their service? More importantly, how many go out of their way to make it all better, even if you're the one being the jerk?

But don't despair, because it's my pleasure to report that service is alive and well at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota. The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, L.L.C. was founded on the theory that while a glamorous hotel is nice, service keeps guests coming back. And that makes sense. Ritz guests are in the top five percent of the traveling public. The minimum bill for a one-night stay-room, food and beverage-runs about $600. The Ritz-Carlton Suite on the ninth floor at the Sarasota Ritz can run up to $2,500 a night. Ritz guests have money, big houses and lots of nice, expensive things. They aren't bowled over by the hotel's marble floors and enormous chandeliers when their own palatial homes are overflowing with luxuries. "A Ritz-Carlton room will never be as spacious as your own home," says Patrick Mene, the company's vice president of quality. "But one thing we have that your home doesn't have is service. It's a home without hassles."

Industry analysts say the Ritz has just about written the book on service, and it has the awards to prove it. Ritz employees undergo a battery of tests and intensive training-more than 120 hours a year, including being lined up every day and reminded they are "ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen." More than 4,000 people applied for the 250 spots available at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota. Each one of them had to go through the Ritz orientation and training on service, part of which is called "GLOW"-an acronym that stands for Guest Loyalty Opportunity Workshop. In layman's terms that means, "Don't ever lose a guest!"

It's important, since losing one guest means $100,000 in lost revenue, says GiGi Gray, the director of quality at the Sarasota Ritz, and the bottom line is that the Ritz-a hotel management company owned by Marriott-is in business to make money.

But while the guest is the central focus, Ritz trainers tell new employees they are the company's greatest asset. "You've taken a huge risk on us," they tell employees. "You've left good jobs to be with us." The company estimates it spends $6,000 training each employee during the first year and a half. "You're the best. That's why you're here," trainers stress.

"There's an emotional buy-in," says Gene Ference of HVS/The Ference Group in Weston, Conn., a consulting company for the hospitality industry. "They focus on feeling," explains Ference, who helped set up the Ritz's training in the '80s. "It's very important to the culture. They're big on group dynamics and communication."

Just how good is this training? Very good, according to one Sarasota Ritz employee who has worked and traveled around the world. After his week-long, emotional, pep-rally-style initiation, he admits, "Even I was standing up saying, 'Yes, oh, yes! I believe. I am proud to serve at the Ritz!' And I'm just a valet."

But can the Ritz take a cynical journalist and turn her into a-well- "happiness maker," as they call themselves?

I decided to put myself-and the Ritz-to the test, and enrolled in a Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, employee orientation. The training was on a Monday and Tuesday just after the grand opening last November. There had already been five trainings prior to mine, and with the 18-hour days that staff and managers had been putting in, everyone was beat.

The seven new recruits sitting around the table, however, looked fresh and eager. Three of the new employees had been hired to work in the engineering department, two worked in Boutique Chocolat, one was a front desk employee and one was in housekeeping.

The eight of us gathered in an immense ballroom with thick, richly colored carpet, paisley wallpaper and gigantic chandeliers. We sat at long tables covered with white linens and laid with the cobalt-blue Ritz water goblets and Ritz logo coffee cups. In the corner a breakfast table offered an array of pastries, fruit, juices and coffee.

Perky Valeri Borland is the Sarasota Ritz's director of training. A former cheerleader and class president-and a 13 1/2-year veteran of the Ritz-she loosened everyone up with her energy and down-to-earth manner. Borland has been giving trainings non-stop for months, and it's clear she knows the entire training manual by heart. Other upbeat department managers-including the hotel's general manager, Carter Donovan-filtered in over the next two days and discussed in detail the Ritz rules of service.

About the rules . let's just say there are a lot of them. In addition to the Ritz's three-paragraph credo (yes, I actually memorized it for homework), the hotel lives by 20 "basics (rules of service and behavior)," a Gold Standard, a motto and an encyclopedic dress code, too.

Here's what I learned about the secrets of Ritz success-and about my future as a happiness maker.

Selection, selection, selection.

Some believe that the Ritz is a cult that indoctrinates its employees to think and feel in a certain way-an idea Carter Donovan addresses immediately. "This is not a cult," she says. "We believe in having manners." But I have another theory. Ritz people are born, not made. Yes, the Ritz can come across as one of those est-like, life-transforming movements with its own vocabulary and secret rules. All those constantly smiling employees running around saying, "My pleasure." "Certainly." "I'll be happy to." And as in many secret societies, there's even a special language, a "Ritzspeak": Ritz people call problems, "opportunities"; management, "the guidance team"; and employees, "ladies and gentlemen," for example. Staff members are also prohibited from uttering certain phrases, such as "Hi there," "OK" or "Bye-bye."

Employees even have to memorize "credo and basic" cards and carry them in their uniforms at all times. Every day, they review one of the 20 basic rules at the daily lineup. For example, Monday might be Basic No. 14, which begins with "Smile." On that Monday, at all 42 Ritz hotels around the world, 20,000 Ritz employees are studying this rule and smiling.

While some would argue such indoctrination just produces people who look and sound plastic, I'm convinced it only reveals the true nature of the Ritz employee, who really is most fulfilled when serving others. The people in my training group were anxious to please, but not in the unctuous Eddie Haskell of "Leave it to Beaver" way. They were genuinely concerned about others' welfare. They not only like, but need to help people, and the hospitality industry is a great fit for this sort.

How does the Ritz pick these people out of the crowd? If you've ever applied to a highly selective college and gone through its interview process, you'll understand. Prospective Ritz employees must have at least three interviews-one man in my group went through six. If you pass the eight-minute "Pre-screening," you go on to step two, the "Quality Selection Process." Usually this is a 30-minute interview purposely conducted over the phone so that the applicant's body language and personal appearance don't interfere with the interviewer's objectivity. Doing it by phone also helps the applicant to relax.

The Ritz has done extensive research about employee selection, and the interview is strictly formatted-interviewers never deviate from the setup. But some questions are unorthodox. For example, one question is: "Are you a habitual smiler?" It seems so obvious. "All the time," you'll enthuse, even if you really walk around with a perpetual scowl. But be careful-the interview is laced with certain other questions that measure a respondent's truthfulness. Your answers to those may tip off the interviewer that you're not the person you're pretending to be.

Once the interview is over, your responses are graphed. Then your graphs are compared to graphs of a stellar Ritz employee in the department in which you are applying and to graphs of an employee in another hotel chain. Ritz human resource people look at all the graphs, says Borland, and they find the patterns.

If you have the right patterns, you'll get to the third interview, a "listening" interview where you do most of the talking. The questions are similar to those you have been asked before, to check for consistency of responses, but reworded to encourage you to respond spontaneously. The person who wins the job at the end of this process is usually a good match for the hospitality industry in general, and for the Ritz in particular. Borland says the company's low turnover rate-only 30 percent compared to the industry's 65 percent nationally-bears out its selection process.

Their pleasure is your pleasure.

Never forget that. For every person who walks into the hotel, "You are Santa Claus 365 days a year," says Timea Monar, guest recognition manager. The person who doesn't spend a dime-like the Sarasota resident who just wants to poke around-is as important as the person spending thousands, insist Ritz trainers. Anyone could become a key customer and should be treated like one.

The Sarasota Ritz's food and beverage director Patrick Bellanger, a charming Frenchman with an irresistible accent, says it's all based on our desire to return to our mother's womb where everything is warm and no needs go unanswered. The Ritz employee is supposed to replicate that environment.

The Ritz believes in this so much that it gives every employee the discretion to "move heaven and earth" to fix a guest's problem or improve a guest's stay. (The company used to keep a $2,000 cap on such efforts, but they recently replaced that policy with "to move heaven and earth." Did they make the change because employees were overzealous in their spending? "It's because there should be no limit," replies Alisa Bennett, the director of public relations for the Sarasota hotel.

Ference says the Ritz does indeed bend over backwards. He remembers a CEO who flew to Hawaii for a meeting only to discover he'd left some important papers in his hotel room on the mainland. The CEO called the hotel, and an employee immediately took the next flight to Hawaii to personally hand him the papers and then took the next flight home. While that trip cost the Ritz thousands of dollars, it was worth it, says Ference. The CEO decided that all business hotel stays and every company seminar would thereafter be at the Ritz.

Employees are required to carry "guest preference cards" as part of their uniform. Every time an employee notices that a guest likes or dislikes something-say she only drinks Perrier or is allergic to down pillows-the employee is supposed to discreetly jot it down on a card, and the information eventually gets entered into a Ritz databank worldwide. Maybe your housekeeper notices you have a lot of Snickers wrappers in the trash, Borland hypothesizes. The next time you check into a Ritz anywhere in the world, you might have a box of Snickers on your bed. Ritz trainers call this the "wow factor." One Sarasota Ritz employee in reservations noted that a guest mentioned he was crazy about flannel sheets from a special store in Maine. The hotel had them Fed Ex'd to Sarasota the next day so the guest's room could be made up with them before he checked in. Wow! Now that's service. "As long as it's legal and moral, do it," says Carter Donovan.

Maintain the mystique.

The Ritz is all about understated elegance and taste. For that reason, Ritz employees are not allowed to have "personal moments" inside the hotel. Ever. Ritz employees are taught to check their problems, their cell phones and pagers at the door. "We're paying you," says GiGi Gray, the Sarasota Ritz's statuesque director of quality. "We want you to be 100 percent. If you need to make a quick phone call, ask your manager."

Gossip is forbidden, and Ritz employees are also warned about complaining, either to co-workers or guests. No talking about the fight they had with their wife. They can't mention the hangover they have from partying the night before or even the surgery scheduled the next week. The guest should never suffer the consequences of discovering that a Ritz employee has a complicated life full of human problems and triumphs. "They aren't paying to hear those things and they can't really do anything about them, anyway," says Borland. This mystique should also be maintained outside the hotel. Employees should never whine about working late or the nasty guest in room 201 as they stand in a checkout line at Publix.

No personal phone calls? Then how do you get your husband to pick up something for dinner? Or make sure the kids get home from school safely? "Everyone gets breaks," says Alisa Bennett. "But I really don't know of anyone who's complained about it. In this business, people understand the expectations we have, especially in the front of the house. It's just part of the job. Think about it. If you were eating at Fred's and the waiter pulled out a cell phone, wouldn't you freak out?"

Be compulsively clean and conservative.

Ritz hotels are known for their immaculate appearance and the refined grooming and dress of their employees. And with almost two employees for every room, there are plenty of people to pick up that stray piece of paper on the floor or to make sure that smudge on the window is removed. Employees are taught that they are all responsible for the look of the hotel. It's not just a housekeeping or engineering function. And if a Ritz employee notices a co-worker walking past a scrap of paper without picking it up, he can gently remind the offender, "Oh, you must have missed that."

Personal appearance is just as crucial. Not only must employees be scrupulously clean-and in training they do talk about using deodorant-they must also dress the part of an elegant lady or gentleman. Except for the directors, all employees wear uniforms that are fitted for them and laundered every single night. The color of nail polish, the style of hair barrettes, the length of earrings and the number of rings are all defined. "When in doubt about the look of something, don't wear it," says Borland.

Apologize, apologize, apologize.

Everyone makes mistakes, and when a Ritz employee makes one, he or she "owns" it. The proper verbiage for this is "I apologize. Please forgive me." The word "I" is crucial here, says Borland. It makes the apology personal, and that tends to soothe most guests' ruffled feathers. "We apologize better than anyone else out there," she says. Even if the employee didn't make the mistake, he or she must still apologize. (When a Ritz manager who had promised to supply some examples of employee apologies was unable to find any, she called me and left this message: "I apologize for not finding any anecdotes about our apologies.")

The second step in every Ritz apology is correcting the mistake in any way possible, which gets us back to "Their pleasure is your pleasure." It may seem extreme, but it makes economic sense, points out Brendan Carlin, executive assistant manager of rooms. "It costs eight times as much to get a new customer as to retain a loyal one," he says.

The Sarasota Ritz will be hiring perhaps 250 more employees in the months ahead as the condos above the hotel (The Residences at the Ritz Carlton), the spa, the Ritz beach club on Lido and the second tower of condos (the Tower Residences) adjacent to the hotel open. But I don't think I'll be one of those new hires.

It's not that I don't have what it takes to make happiness, you understand. I do like to please people, and I'm not sorry to say that I'm great at apologizing, too. And I actually look the part as well. My dresses are all understated, and I never wear big earrings or red nail polish. I also love the idea of someone else doing my laundry. Then, too, I memorize quickly (I was, after all, the only one in my training group who could reel off the entire credo on the second day of class) and I'm always emptying wastebaskets and straightening up the bathroom at work. I think I'd enjoy the Ritz's glamorous surroundings as well.

But go without my cell phone or gossip? Please forgive me, but that's certainly not my pleasure.

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