A discussion of American ultra-luxury

What defines a 5-star resort? Traveling more than most, I have enjoyed (quite often endured) hundreds of hotels and resorts. For the purposes of this comparative study, I’ve restricted my choices to North American properties. This naturally led me to two year-round, vacation-destination states: California and Florida.

Without alienating any other luxury operator, my discussion is with two general managers at resorts I’ve visited recently to recognize differences in their approaches in delivering an ultra-luxury experience. Those two GMs are Todd Orlich from Montage Laguna Beach and Marco Selva from St. Regis Bal Harbour, who was recently selected as a nominee for Hotelier of the Year by Virtuoso Life magazine.

Larry Mogelonsky: What do you do here to merit the 5-star badge and earn the admiration of your guests?

Todd Orlich
Todd Orlich

Todd 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. 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. 

Marco Selva
Marco Selva

Marco Selva: We take our service culture extremely seriously. First and foremost, we are very focused on selecting the best talent and 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.

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

TO: Our guest relations team 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.

MS: 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.

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.

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

TO: 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, creating a culture that blends a passion for personalized service with an incredible attention to detail. I have had the privilege of serving as the director of food and beverage at Montage Laguna Beach and hotel manager at Montage Beverly Hills before taking on my current role. I feel this experience has allowed me to truly empathize with those around me and effectively offer advice and solutions to management.

MS: Totally agree! I just want to add that a great GM has the uncanny ability to promote 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. It is also 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.

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

TO: 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.

MS: One aspect we are focused on at the resort is the concept of wellness. We have recently launched programming around that concept that has been incredibly well received. We believe 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 guests’ preferences, so while we offer a complete wellness getaway — which includes a consultation with a nutritionist, cutting-edge personal fitness instruction and a wellness minibar and menus — we also offer guests a less intense wellness experience that might be more focused on keeping them on track during their vacation.