Six-time Forbes Five Star-winning hotelier shares his guest service secrets and passions
It’s excruciatingly hard for a hotel, spa, or restaurant to earn even a single Five Star rating from the notoriously particular Forbes Travel Guide. Forbes has been awarding –and withholding – these stars since 1958, when the star system was pioneered by its predecessor, Mobil Travel Guide. And there’s no indication that, 65 years on, they have any intention of relaxing these standards.
Daniel Hostettler, the Swiss-trained, Florida-based hotelier who may be his generation’s most prominent entrée into the iconography of hospitality leadership, has embraced the Five Star challenge with gusto. Hostettler and his teams have earned Forbes’ highest award in a staggering six separate instances to date. First came three simultaneous awards (for lodging, food, and spa) at Ocean House, the majestic Victorian-style resort in southern New England that Hostettler helmed until recently. (Only seven other hotels in the world attained three at one property, at that time.) A little later, Ocean House’s nearby sister property, The Weekapaug Inn, added another Five Star award under Hostettler, for a total of four independent Forbes Five Star awards within the greater Ocean House world.
And now, right out of the gate after Hostettler’s move to Florida, come more Five Star awards – one for The Boca Raton, the renovated and rebranded South Florida resort owned by Michael Dell (MSD Partners) and managed by Hostettler in his role of president and CEO, one for The Beach Club (one of the five hotels within The Boca Raton’s compound) and another five stars for the resort’s 50,000-square-foot Spa Palmera. According to Hostettler, this puts The Boca Raton “well on the way to our team goal here. Our much-repeated, admittedly ambitious, mantra is, ‘Five [Five-Star ratings] by 2025!’”
Even if you have no intention of submitting to the rigors of the Forbes starring process at your own hotel, or you’ve decided to pursue a more accomplishable four stars, there’s much to learn from Hostettler’s approach. And his enthusiasm for sharing is palpable.
“YOU NEED SYSTEMS AS WELL AS SMILES”
Five-Star service needs to be “achingly” personal and personable, Hostettler said. This requires an element beyond well-selected, trained, and managed employees (though, he hastens to add, that’s certainly the place to start). “It needs to rest on a solid technological backbone, especially at a property our size.” All told, the Boca Raton includes 950 keys.
“We use well-thought-out technology, ideally concealed from the guest’s view, to aid this personalization,” he said. This includes facial recognition and opt-in technology on guests’ phones. And, coming soon, The Boca Raton will be deploying location-based beacons. “As a guest approaches one of our restaurants’ host or hostess station, they’ll be prompted with the approaching guest’s name and other information that’s unique to that guest, including whether they’re a first-time or a returning guest,” Hostettler added. Based on that last item, the host/ess can offer a greeting of either, “Welcome, Mr. Solomon,” or “Welcome back, Mr. Solomon.”
“Perhaps this seems like a small thing,” he continued, “but extraordinary, personalized service is truly our unique selling proposition.”
Beyond personalization, Hostettler added, “we use technology to solve myriad problems and pursue opportunities.” To wit, he has uniquely solved an age-old, stomach-turning problem – the half-eaten remains of last night’s room service that inevitably linger in the hallways. “I put trackers on our room service carts – yes, pretty much like on Breaking Bad – and a sensor on each guestroom door. When the cart passes that barrier, the butler gets a ring – a very insistent ring – until they make it a priority to whisk that detritus away.”
“DEVELOP YOUR HUMANS. THEN DEPLOY THEM.”
Hostettler is quick to point out that there would be no hope of achieving a Five-Star goal without the efforts and buy-in of his “wonderful” front-line employees and leadership teams, some of whom have worked side by side with Hostettler for more than a decade at his various properties. “I couldn’t possibly run a location of this size – or even, truth be told, a smaller one – without completely delegating much of the leadership to people who have grown with me and whom I implicitly trust in everything.”
HIRE FOR PERSONALITY. TRAIN FOR SKILLS.
According to Hostettler, he preaches, and practices, “’hire for personality, train for skills.’ I feel this is one of the ways we can keep extraordinary service happening with every guest via every employee.
“When leading a large property like ours, you have some ability to systematize the training, but you have to be cognizant of what an employee brings with them to that training. Five-Star service depends on something beyond what can be trained into an employee and, in a sense, beyond what can be paid for. It depends on something inside each employee that is either there or not.”
Of course, he adds, this isn’t cut and dried; the most by-and-large personable employee can have a bad day, and someone who isn’t by nature particularly cut out for service can rise to the occasion. But, he elaborates, “seeking out potential employees with the right personality traits makes your odds much better.”
KEEP THE PLATES SPINNING
“Look at someone like Danny Meyer, whose establishments range from white tablecloth to paper plates, yet are all acclaimed for service,” Hostettler said. “We certainly don’t have anything here [in the Boca Raton’s stable of hotels and restaurants] that’s less than luxurious, but each of our properties and restaurants has its own vibe, its own level of formality; we even have a lazy river traversing one of them.
“My feeling is you can have different service styles – less formal, more formal, etc. – but never a lower service standard. At least not where I’m in charge.”
THE IMPORTANCE OF GOOD OWNERSHIP
If you want to pursue a Five-Star level of service, it helps to have the right owners, Hostettler said. “MSD Partners [Michael Dell’s investment entity] has the long-term vision that’s needed. Because, without an eye kept on a far horizon, there will always come a new, short-term priority that gets in the way of the relentless, sustained dedication that achieving Five-Star service depends on.”
Micah Solomon is a customer/guest service consultant, trainer, eLearning creator, and keynote speaker. He’s the author of multiple landmark books including “The Heart of Hospitality: Great Hotel and Restaurant Leaders Share Their Secrets.”