Success on a grand scale at Montage Laguna Beach

The moniker “best resort in America” is not taken lightly. There are many contenders for this title, and among them is Montage Laguna Beach. It’s an awe-inspiring property located less than an hour south of LAX, in an enclave worlds away from the hustle of Hollywood and the surrounding suburban sprawl. Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, the property holds the much-coveted Forbes Five Star rating for hotel, restaurant and spa as well as the five-diamond rating from AAA. Both are well-deserved accolades.

Within the 30-acre (12-hectare) compound, Montage Laguna Beach comprises 248 rooms including 60 suites, three villas, a full-featured spa, three restaurants, two pools, private residences, an extensive meeting/conference/event area and probably enough marble, brass, fine carpet and exotic hardwood to tailor a small cruise liner. Carved into the side of a cliff, every room faces the ocean. While this often means walking long, somewhat confusing corridors to get to your room, the journey is worth the effort.

Some 700 team members share the responsibility of upholding the impeccable guest service standards. On my most recent stay, I could not find a single service fault among my numerous staff interactions. And, while no property is absolutely perfect every time, this hotel comes pretty darn close!

It is with this backdrop that I spoke with Todd Orlich, Montage Laguna Beach’s general manager, for several hours while enjoying a delightful breakfast at The Loft, one of the property’s many excellent dining options.

Larry Mogelonsky: This is one incredible hotel. Please tell us the secret to this success.

Todd Orlich: The Montage story, while only 10 years young, continues to unfold. It is a story that starts with our CEO and founder, Alan Fuerstman, and reflects a deep commitment to searching for the absolute best team to be a part of the Montage experience. Our desire for finding the right staff is all-encompassing. It starts from the moment an individual completes their application form, through the hiring process, through the early stages of their position here and continues as their Montage career unfolds.

LM: So that means you, as general manager, personally interview everyone for all staff positions?

TO: No one slips through the system. And yes, my signature appears on every authorization to hire in this organization. Getting the right team is so essential to our guest-service mantra that the hiring of every line staff member, from housekeeper to waitstaff to culinary, deserves executive overview.

Let me take you through the process. Once the application is completed, a member of our management team will conduct a detailed telephone interview. Those candidates who successfully complete this first step are brought in to meet in person with a member of our human resources team. Individuals asked to continue to the third phase of the process are invited back to spend a day with current Montage associates working in the department in which the applicant has expressed interest.

The most impressive individuals then interview with the department head who would oversee the applicant if hired. The fifth and final step in the hiring process is a panel interview with members of our senior staff, which includes me. Panel interviews take place every Friday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. to ensure these meetings can be effectively coordinated with the senior staff.

An individual’s hiring is only the first step in their journey to being a successful member of our team. The first few weeks, depending on the position, include intense training and hands-on supervision. We strive for a cohesive, guest-focused team driving towards a common goal of service delivery.

LM: This approach seems to favor group tasks over individual performance.

TO: Guest service is a symphony of small individual one-on-one success stories. Take us, for example. We just arrived in The Loft for breakfast and were greeted by the hostess who showed us to our table. From the moment a guest is seated, we rely on the kitchen and waitstaff, line and pastry chefs along with the bus staff to deliver impeccable service that leaves each of our guests completely satisfied with a memorable dining experience. 

Our collective success extends beyond The Loft hostess or pastry chef, however, and also includes the IT, purchasing and accounting departments. These individuals ensure that each guest’s bill is accurate, processed in a timely manner and effective in utilizing metrics recordings that supplement our ongoing efforts to refine and perfect our menu.

Any mistake along the way, and the “wow” on the guest’s face is gone. Remember, our guests are well-traveled. They have stayed at some of the finest resorts on earth. They know quality. They have very high expectations and standards — standards that we have to exceed each and every day. It’s more a collection of individual efforts working in cohesive harmony than a group task.

LM: We talked about “Mores” and the recognition that an individual’s habits and manners form a critical component to the team members.

TO: It actually is a little deeper than that. We have named our orientation training Mores and also conduct an annual Mores examination which everyone takes — including me! Every associate must achieve a 90%+ score. There are additional bonus questions, so associates can actually receive a better-than-perfect score of 110%.

(At this point, Todd asked our waiter what he got on his last Mores test. A proud response of 104%, then with a sigh, down from 107% the last time he was tested.)

TO: We are fully committed to ensuring that the Montage culture is infused amongst all of our team members. It is a culture that embraces the need for utmost guest service. It is this culture that provides a high degree of quality control in a field where there are so many variables, which can put guest service at risk.

LM: Montage opened the Beverly Hills property about five years ago and more recently the property in Deer Valley (Utah). I also understand another property is slated to open just over a year from now. Are the same steps being taken in all properties?

TO: Each of our hotels and resorts follows the same success formula: the finest location within the area; the best construction with particular attention to fine details; a respect for the local community; and the application of our values and Mores. 

With each new property launch, we take a group of managers from the already established Montage properties to lead the way. For Beverly Hills, our second property, about 25 managers, including myself, moved to the new property to ensure that the Montage method could be safely encoded into the DNA of the new property. Deer Valley was easier on the existing properties with only a dozen or so coming from each of Beverly Hills and Laguna. As we launch other hotels, the strain on the three other Montage properties will be lessened.

LM: So that means there will be more Montage properties on the horizon?

TO: There are no immediate plans, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t reviewing opportunities, provided of course that they can meet our core development criteria.

LM: How does technology play a role in the Montage program?

TO: We could not be where we are today without the systemic application of systems to guide us and improve efficiencies. We have an extensive IT team that continuously evaluates everything from guest TVs and Internet to POS terminals and forecasting programs. This resort is 10 years old, and as such, some of the technology is not as state of the art as a property that just opened. Life expectancies for technology are short; our plans identify needs and respond accordingly. One element that will not be replaced, however, is the need for direct personal communication between the guest and our staff.

Guest service is not about just filling the need, but more importantly, filling it in a way that makes the guest feel great about the experience. It’s delivering those magical memories that make our guests want to return again and again.