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How Pelican Hill Resort reaches for its stars

Look behind the scenes how how a resort maintains its five-star rating

The restaurant staff prepares the dining room at The Resort at Pelican Hill. The resort prides itself on exemplary service and accommodations.

Even at peak times, when more than 1,000 guests fill the Tuscan-style villas and bungalows strung across the undulating Newport Coast, the Resort at Pelican Hill seems to operate with tranquil, clock-like efficiency. Guests lounge poolside, overlooking the ocean, or chit-chat beside the hearth in the splendor of the Great Room, scarcely aware of the employees who whisk luggage, drinks and hors d’oeuvres here and there. Cocktail napkins are carefully positioned so the Pelican logo is always right side up. Mercedes-Benz vans run an endless circuit of the 504-acre grounds, delivering travelers to the resort’s posh Italian eatery Andrea, for mushroom risotto and tiramisu, and to two Tom Fazio-designed golf courses. Butlers draw baths and lay out slippers and pajamas.

Seeking perfection is a mantra of Giuseppe Lama, the genial, Italian-born managing director, who opened the resort more than six years ago after running a long list of top-end properties, including the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego. Mistakes creep in, however. A guest wants a firm pillow but gets a soft one instead. A van runs late. Room service is expected at 8 but the specially designed food wagon, which costs as much as a BMW, shows up at 8:07.

Such snafus are no small matter to Lama and his team. The flubs are logged in a “glitch report,” a list printed daily in the Pelican Brief, an employee newsletter, and in the Pelican Pocket, an abbreviated newsletter that hotel staff members always carry with them.
A guest who has experienced a glitch is an object of special attention. If he or she is staying another night, creating a risk that a second incident could befall the same person, the individual’s name is printed in the report in capital letters; that guest is now known as a “hot glitch.”

“We’ve really got to make sure that nothing happens ever again to this person,” Lama says.
Glitches occur for any number of reasons. A natural clash occurs between guests requesting a late, 4 p.m. check-out and others wishing to check in at 4. Rooms need to be cleaned, so some guests may encounter a delay. Certain types of glitches do not affect an individual but rather mar the overall feel and look of the resort. Music may be too loud; Lama records a glitch so the engineering team will make adjustments. He might notice fraying of a carpet or other signs of wear and tear. “Under the bar, the lightbulb, third from the right, is burned out. It’s a glitch,” Lama says. “I glitch it.”

Identifying and fixing problems is part of Pelican Hill’s effort to maintain its elite, five-star status, as judged by Forbes Travel Guide. The influential book (and website), founded as Mobil Travel Guide in 1958, employs a cadre of more than 50 incognito inspectors who do nothing but roam the globe. They make two-night stops at top hotels and secretly evaluate the service and accommodations based on a checklist of more than 500 measuring points.
Some criteria are specific: A phone should be answered within three rings. A waiter should ask for cocktail orders within one minute of a party sitting down. Other standards are more subjective, requiring ready smiles and “a genuine sense of interest and concern for the guest,” in the words of Amanda Frasier, Forbes senior vice president of ratings.

“These inspectors do not reveal themselves at all,” Frasier says. “Sometimes they come as a family, sometimes they come as a couple, and sometimes as a single traveler. They send a report to us, and we feed it into a proprietary algorithm, which is heavily weighted toward service.”

Top resorts are rated anew every year, and the results are critically important. Though many factors, including views and architectural features, go into determining what a hotel can charge for rooms, five-star properties generally can command more. Pelican Hill first achieved a five-star rating in 2013 and has maintained it since. Basic rooms start at $500 to $700 a night; the largest villas go for upwards of $1,900 a night. By contrast, the four-star Ritz-Carlton, perched atop a spectacular ocean bluff in Laguna Niguel, averages $400 to $700 per room.

Four-star resorts represent the very best in a region, if not the world, Frasier says. Five-star status is even rarer. “We look at the five stars as almost the untouchables,” she says. “They’re performing at a particularly extraordinary level.”

Orange County has three five-star hotels – Montage in Laguna Beach and The St. Regis Monarch Beach in Dana Point are the others – but nationwide there are just 70. At least 19 states, including Michigan, Pennsylvania and Texas, have no five-star resorts.

“The benchmark is a Forbes five-star rating,” says Lama, who talks as though he expects to look over his shoulder and see a Forbes inspector skulking around a corner. “No one knows when the stranger will come. You find out later, when a phone call or letter informs you of the visit. That’s when a chill goes down your spine.”

The 55-year-old Lama, who once managed what is now the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza, places a strong emphasis on intangibles – the way an employee makes eye contact, the nuances of service that occur on the periphery of awareness. Knowing names is crucial. Valets at Pelican Hill ask for a guest’s name the moment a car pulls up. They write the name on a claim ticket and radio it ahead to the front desk. An agent there is able to start the check-in process and greet the guest by name as soon as he or she walks up. Names are also discreetly passed along to restaurants or the spa, creating an impression that the guest is important enough to be known throughout the grounds. Mindfulness of a guest’s name
is a “chain that cannot be broken,” Lama says.

Luggage should reach a suite within 10 minutes of a traveler arriving there. A follow-up call soon afterward confirms whether the accommodations are satisfactory. “Three times during the conversation we need to say your name,” Lama says. The same applies when a guest dials room service: “Hello, Mrs. Smith. Mrs. Smith, can I review the order with you? Thank you, Mrs. Smith.”

From the instant a food order comes in, the clock is ticking. Forbes expects a resort to prepare and deliver room service within 40 minutes. Hot food should arrive hot; ice cream should be firm to the touch. The standards are challenging due to the vastness of the grounds. Pelican Hill developed motorized wagons, somewhat larger than golf carts, with heated and refrigerated compartments – and everything spill-proof, says resort spokeswoman Kate Starr. “These things have been designed specifically for this property to meet those particular five-star standards,” she says. “They enable us to be on time even to the very farthest accommodations.”

Servers place the silverware and pour beverages. Guests need only sit down at the table.
Rooms are almost sacred sanctuaries. “The way you put your toothpaste, the way you put your brush, the way you put your slippers” – all those details matter, Lama says. “We’ll take all this stuff that you’ve laid out and put it all very neatly on a specially designed cloth, with everything organized.” Pajamas get folded. The pricier villas – the resort has 128 of them – come with butlers. They will unpack your bags, hang up your clothes and see to it that the outfit you’re wearing that evening gets properly pressed.

Lama plans ahead. Since 40-watt bulbs have a limited lifespan, and thousands were installed at once when the resort was built, he ordered a wholesale change-out a while back, replacing 65,000 old bulbs with new LED bulbs in the same week. The same proactivity applies to guests: The resort collects key information long before arrival. Does Mrs. Smith have any food allergies? Does she prefer firm pillows or soft? Is there a favorite snack that should await her in the refrigerator?

Glitches call for swift apologies and a little something extra – a free appetizer, a glass of wine, a room-service breakfast – as part of what Lama calls a guest pacification program. Godley Varghese, a 42-year-old director of an insurance brokerage from New York, was part of a large group of financial-services specialists who stayed at Pelican Hill in February. He recalls one “oops moment” when a couple’s luggage was picked up by mistake and “sent out on a private jet – to Kansas City or somewhere.”

Resort officials immediately took the couple shopping and paid for replacement clothing so nice that his friends “felt they were being over-compensated,” Varghese says.

Jessica Antes, a 34-year-old police dispatcher from Long Beach, attended a wedding on the grounds in March. Service at the reception, in an ocean-view ballroom, was exceptional – “it seemed like all 200 people were served simultaneously” – but the day was hot and most in the party suffered through a long cocktail hour outdoors without enough umbrellas. When Antes posted her comments on the review site Yelp.com, a hotel executive contacted her and promised that the feedback would be taken to heart.

“There are challenging situations,” acknowledges Santosh Kuruvilla, who, as the resort’s director of rooms, oversees all the spaces where guests come and go. “To quote Mr. Lama, one of the things he says consistently: ‘Treat the guests like your mother. Show that love, show the kindness. Go that extra mile.’ ”

The culture works only because of the people involved, Lama says. When Pelican Hill opened, 6½ years ago, “we interviewed 21,000 people to hire 1,000.” Lama’s top lieutenants brought with them, from other resorts and cultures, ideas that are bound to impress a Forbes evaluator. Kuruvilla, 38, who was born in southern India, trained at high-end properties in Nashville, Atlantic City, Dubai, Singapore and Vietnam. He instituted a service he saw in Dubai: cleaning sunglasses. If you are relaxing on the pool deck, an attendant comes by with a lens cloth and spray and gives you a better view.

Until recently, the resort’s director of guest experience was Justin Vaughn, a 35-year-old art-history graduate who performed improv comedy at Yale. “You’re not allowed to say no in improv comedy,” Vaughn says. It cuts off the creative exchange, immediately ending a skit. Vaughn incorporated the concept of a “yes, and … ” mentality into a training program for Pelican Hill employees. “Whatever the guest asks you, you think, ‘How do I provide that experience?’ ” he says. “You figure out the underlying need and deliver on that.”

Some visitors want a yacht anchored in Newport Harbor, says Starr, the resort spokeswoman. Or they want a Ferrari awaiting them at the airport so they can tool around on Pacific Coast Highway. The right response is, “Yes, and what else do you need? Do you have a child? Maybe you need a car seat. Maybe you need navigation because you don’t know the area.” That Ferrari might have a navigation system “pre-programmed to take you to Pelican Hill,” Starr says.

International travel is booming. In the past decade, Forbes Travel Guide has gone global, with further expansion of the rating network due early next year, Frasier says. Similarly, Pelican Hill is reaching out toward wealthy patrons from abroad. This past spring, Lama spent a week in London and Dubai, then another week in Hong Kong and Shanghai, gaining a deeper grasp of other cultures. A Mandarin-speaking staff member works at night, communicating with tourism officials in China. Pelican Hill bought high-energy teakettles and Chinese teas.

To accommodate guests from the Middle East, the resort made special arrangements for Ramadan, the Muslim holy time of fasting and prayer. Copies of the Quran were available, as well as prayer rugs and directions toward Mecca. Guests were transported by van to the Islamic Center of Irvine.

The goal goes beyond even a five-star rating. “We want to be an international icon,” Lama says. Go anywhere in the world and discerning people know the quality of names such as Gucci, Christian Dior and Patek Philippe. “OK, how about us?” Lama says, his voice rising. “How about us?”

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