Reminiscing about Sedona

Towering red rock mesas glimmering under a beating desert sun, a silence only pierced by the squawk of far-off falcons and the scrunch of tumbleweed, crystal-clear air that soothes any sinus and more than 372 mi (600 km) of mountainous trails. The location? Sedona, Arizona, a short drive north of Phoenix and the perfect vacation hotspot to escape the winds of winter.

From an accommodations standpoint, Enchantment is perhaps the most recognized destination spa, situated a few miles out of the hustle and bustle of this resort conclave. But search TripAdvisor, and a 16-room property, the Adobe Grand Villas, stands proud at number one. My visit with Michael Merilli, general manager and executive chef (a rare and interesting combination), provided some insight behind this online triumph.

First to mind, the property redefines décor. The doubters and cost accountants among readers might deem it kitsch, but, alas, it works. Each 825-sq-ft (77-sq-m) room is completely different in its look, feel and theme.

Our suite was called “Wagon Wheel” and included a covered wagon as a bed, saloon doors to the bathroom, old hand water pumps as faucets and more western doodads than a movie set. 

Walking into the suite, beyond a decorated vault-weight door, your sense of sight is overwhelmed by the smell of fresh bread baking in an in-room bread maker. The layout and large floor pad allows these items to form a cohesive environment without the guest stumbling for space.

As Michael explains, “We want our guests to feel at home. Home means the smell of fresh bread, free snacks, free bottled water and a western-style breakfast. The cost of a bread maker is a small one-time capital investment; the ingredients for a high quality loaf are still less than a dollar. Given all this, the value created for our guests is incredible.“

Effusive comments in the guest book left in our suite reinforced this methodology. They were long and detailed with thoughts ranging from constructive to outright appreciation, surprisingly with many from younger guests.

Discussing online travel agencies, Michael added, “It is clearly a love-hate relationship. We allocate one room to the channel and when sold we consider adding another room. The advantage that we have is that each of our guestrooms is unique. As all 16 rooms are identically priced, we can allocate any room décor to the OTA buyer. Our repeat customers (approaching 60% of total sales) know what room they want, either to repeat a past experience or select a new one. To get exactly what’s sought, they can only make that selection by booking through our site or by calling us. We’ve only been open for half a dozen years, and two of our suites were only completed in the past year. Long term, our goal is to sever ourselves from the OTAs completely, and the best strategy for this is loyalty/repeat customers, word of mouth and public relations.”

Specifically in regard to TripAdvisor, Michael said, “When we started, our scores were clearly less than perfect. But we learned from our mistakes. Each rating provided us with timely feedback from our guests. We used this information to perfect our service and help manage/train our staffing. The key is that you have to act immediately upon a posting. Now, our minimum standard is five out of five stars. Nevertheless, we still monitor our customer feedback with the same overzealous analysis. When it comes to providing exceptional service, you can never let your guard down.”

Regarding the future, Michael was optimistic: “We’ve experienced some of the worst of times for the resort business. Buffered somewhat by the perennial business in the Sedona area, our rate growth was stalled and occupancies limited to the mid-60s. As we look forward, we see healthy signs of strengthening. As a small player in the market, but among the rate leaders, our unique product offering and the number one rating puts us in a great position. It’s all a matter of continuing to evolve our product to meet vacillating guest needs.”

That’s the report from the field for my too-brief winter break. What’s yours?