A Tale of Two Ritz’s

I have often criticized the Ritz Carlton hotel chain for being too consistent.  While I love the service, the luxury and quality, I have in the past, complained that you can enter a Ritz anywhere in the world and be in any other.  The look and feel is all the same.  Case in point, the Ritz in Cancun boasts a beautiful, ornate French restaurant as its signature, high end dining option.  The only indication in the entire hotel that one is in Mexico is the random decorations in the casual dining restaurant that were hung amidst the standard issue tables and chairs.

After my last couple weekend getaways, I have a renewed respect for the sameness.  I found myself bookending at two Ritz hotels recently.  First at the Ritz Carlton, Reynolds Plantation in Greensboro, GA and ending at the Ritz Carlton South Beach.

On the plus side, the two hotels could not have been more different architecturally.  Arriving at Reynolds Plantation, I rode up a long, winding, tree lined road that lead up to a sprawling estate.  Approaching the circular drive, I was greeted by bellhops donning knickers and tweed caps.  Take away the humming engines and cell phones and I could just as easily have been arriving in my carriage to visit my uncle’s plantation 100 years ago.  The foyer was decorated in an arts and crafts style with dark, heavy woods and furniture.  The wall of windows looked out onto the heavily forested lake area.

Alternatively, arriving in South Beach Miami, I was deposited into a dark, cool, flirty space.  Club music playing in the background and low cushioned chairs provided places to gather, unnoticed.

I found these distinctions welcomed, I like having a sense of place when I travel. But that is where the benefit of distinction ended.  My stay at the Ritz Carlton SoBe could be likened to a newly opened boutique hotel that hasn’t exactly gotten everything right yet (an argument I will make next month when I return to South Beach to stay at The Sanctuary, a small, boutique hotel).

As our cab pulled up, no one was interested in greeting us, they were there, but we were more of an annoyance than a welcomed guest.  I couldn’t help but wonder had we had arrived in a Mercedes convertible instead of our airport taxi if we would have received a different welcome.  We were met with equal indifference at the front desk.  Hospitality 101: a guest’s experience at check in lays the foundation for their perception of the entire stay.  People make up their minds, argues Malcolm Gladwell in the first seven seconds of an encounter.  A line, too few clerks and a long wait made being rushed through our check in process even more frustrating.

Once settled in our room, we made our way out to the beach to catch some much needed sun and a few fruity cocktails.  Getting a drink proved to be as challenging as check in.  Once we were able to wrestle down a waiter, and he discovered we drank for sport, I must say service did improve.

From the twenty minutes I spent on the phone getting a wireless connection (and paying an additional $10/day for the privilege) or finding our room being cleaned at the end of the day (precisely when we needed to change for an appointment) or the fact that we weren’t offered the house car for a one mile journey, the weekend was the worst experience I have ever had at a Ritz Carlton.

Made even worse, I believe, by the contrast of Reynolds Plantation.  The staff did a phenomenal job of anticipating every need.  Even when things went wrong, they were made right.  When the maid curiously tucked my straightening iron away somewhere in the bathroom, resulting in my leaving it behind, they immediately fedexed it to my home, no problem.  When the fire at our lakeside barbecue wouldn’t light, the staff didn’t rest until it was roaring.  With thirty minutes left before departure, I needed lunch before the two hour ride back to Atlanta, I was led to the beautiful lakeside restaurant where the waitress went out of her way to serve me the Brunswick Stew (a southern specialty) quickly and sent me on my way.

Marriott consistently rates high in overall satisfaction in hospitality surveys.  They do so, respondent say, not because they love the Marriott, but they know what they’re going to get.  That’s why we stop at McDonald’s off the highway, why we go to Starbucks and pay more for our coffee.  Above all else, we like consistent service.

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