Luxury hotels don’t earn “five-star” status because of cleanliness — any hotel must be spic and span to garner even a one-star rating. What differentiates a luxury hotel from others is one thing: quality of service.

“We’re in the business of creating memories and experiences, explains Derek Flint, senior corporate director of rooms for The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company. “You can’t be a four- or five-star property if service isn’t there.”

Granted, happy-go-lucky vacationers may be more responsive than tenants and employees who take the daily grind for granted, but with a little creativity, it is possible to grow a “four-star housekeeping department” in any industry.

Hire and empower talent
The Ritz-Carlton’s employee interview process identifies core predictors of success, including caring, empathy and persuasive ability

“Not everyone that interviews with us has this sort of talent index,” says Flint. “It’s a unique combination needed to be successful in our industry. A smile comes very easily to their lips. They like to be of service.”

Guests who have not stayed in luxury lodgings may be a bit unnerved at first because housekeepers take an active interest in guests’ habits in order to customize services. For instance, if a housekeeper notices that a guest prefers one side of the bed over another, it is that side that she turns down every night. A caring, responsive presence makes guests feel pampered and adds to their sense of well being.

In stark contrast to Edwardian days, when proper etiquette included freezing and avoiding direct eye contact when the employer came near, today’s housekeepers are empowered to make decisions and given every opportunity to grow in their jobs and self-esteem.

Role-playing exercises help employees build confidence as well as understanding of what constitutes appropriate etiquette at the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress Orlando. Laurie Guida, executive housekeeper, recalls how a guest’s positive reaction to a housekeeper who addressed him by his name caused the employee’s enthusiasm to skyrocket. For the right housekeeper, a direct “reward” like that is the best incentive and motivator of all.

Walking the walk and talking the talk with all stakeholders —staff, suppliers, investors, guests, community, media and the public at large — is key to delivering consistent, quality service.

Brand the department
In fact, quality service can be a part of an organization’s corporate “brand.” Luxury hotel executives are savvy brand managers, capable of identifying employee and customer touch points and doing whatever they can to ensure every interaction will reinforce a brand’s identity and increase its value.

All personnel at The Ritz-Carlton participate in departmental visioning processes. They determine the functional and emotional benefits of their department, what they aspire to and what they want to become known for. To get the ball rolling, words and short phrases that personify these qualities are voiced by members. Then the group collectively edits and creates a mission statement.

The resulting mission statement is signed by all participants and displayed prominently near the employee entrance. But it’s not gathering dust. Every newcomer has the opportunity to add value to it. “New insights equal healthy change,” Flint says.

The initial process may take up to three days, but the hotel insists that the return on investment is worth every penny. “It strongly correlates to working harder, being friendlier and directly translates into happier guests,” Flint says, adding that most staff members can recite the mission statement and speak volumes about what it means to them.

Embrace ideas
An open mind enhances innovation and facilitates continuous improvement — a best practice of any world-class operation. “Make sure you’re constantly questioning how you do things within your departments and divisions,” he says. “If you’re not doing it, you’re not moving your hotel forward. If I heard an executive housekeeper wasn’t listening to new employees I would question whether they were a real leader or not.”

Flint says when operational challenges arise, the housekeeping staff — who are closest to the action — usually comes up with a perfect solution. “Years back, general managers always thought they knew what was best for the guest: That’s not the thinking anymore. Now it’s: ‘I need to get the information from the stakeholders!’”

Conduct daily inspections
Clean, fitted and maintained uniforms reflect a first-class property, says Stephanie Haefner, director of housekeeping at The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay (Calif.). Housekeeping staffers are reviewed for grooming during the morning lineup, and turn their tailored and fitted uniforms in daily for cleaning and any necessary repairs.

Supervisors and managers at hotels conduct daily room inspections. At the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress, total inspection scores are averaged for the month, and must fall within a certain range. Internal acknowledgements and incentives sweeten high achievement.

Improve with frequent feedback
The customer knows more than anyone what level of service is being provided. Semi-annual polls can help refine services, continuously elevate the level of service and provide motivational feedback for housekeeping.

Flint is currently working on creating a computerized inspection module that will “slice and dice” feedback from guests and internal measures in detail, so training and refreshers can be tailored to individuals.

Guida posts a monthly guest survey report that is broken down by hotel, division and area within the Hyatt. Employees use it to gauge how they are doing compared to their peers in specific areas such as overall room, bathroom, bedroom and freshness. Guida says it makes for fun competition and the scores help her set goals so the department can compete against itself using the previous year and year-to-date scores. “It gets them motivated and feeling good about all the hard work,” she says. “We’re always hoping for a perfect score across the board.”

Maintain service, increase success
Criteria for ranking hotels varies depending on what organization conducts the research. “One factor is constant,” says Michael Bie, spokesperson for AAA [American Automobile Association] Wisconsin: “Service and cleanliness are the hallmark and common denominator.”

Janie Graziani, manager of public relations for AAA National, adds that according to AAA poll results, “cleanliness” is followed in importance by “price; location; room amenities; and professional, friendly service.”

In Flint’s experience, however, impeccable service precedes amenities. He says many critics and reviewers will overlook what he refers to as “bells and whistles” — when service is truly exceptional.

“A personal level of service is key,” agrees Guida. “There are many nice hotels, but it spoils it if the service isn’t there.”

Lori Veit is a free-lance writer based in Madison, Wis.