Personal service propels Ritz-Carlton Chicago to top ranking

The instant a cab pulls up to The Ritz-Carlton Chicago, Mark Farrell lunges to open the taxi door, takes charge of an overnight bag and welcomes this unannounced guest by name.

How did he know it?

"I peeked at your luggage tag," the doorman says with a grin.

Later, when a search for Marshall Field's department store to buy a quintessential Chicago souvenir — a box of Frango mints — proves futile, lobby attendant Rhonda Stacks comes to the rescue. Noticing this guest's confusion, she explains that the landmark is no more and insists on leading the way to the Macy's next door, where the minty chocolates now are sold.

Such non-random acts of hospitality occur daily at the Chicago Ritz, the only hotel in the USA to top Condé Nast Traveler magazine's Readers' Choice Awards seven times. The Ritz, actually run by the Four Seasons chain, doesn't have as high a profile as many other U.S. luxury hotels and often is confused with a Four Seasons a few blocks away.

"You might think (the readers' top hotel) would be in New York," says Condé Nast Traveler public relations manager Megan Montenaro. But, in fact, the No. 2 Readers' Choice hotel of 2007 (The Peninsula Chicago) also is here, underscoring what Traveler calls "a renaissance of sorts for the nation's second city."

In this convention and shopping mecca with no shortage of luxury hotels, why does the Ritz stand out?

The Ritz-Carlton Chicago (A Four Seasons Hotel) is not the city's most cutting-edge luxurious lodging. (The Peninsula, with impressive public spaces and spa/health club with glassed-in pool overlooking the city, might win that honor. A pricey Trump International Hotel & Tower is due to open next week.)

It's not the hippest (the Park Hyatt, Sofitel and Hotel Monaco emit a cooler vibe). Though it garnered five AAA diamonds and five Mobil stars for 2007, so did its sister Four Seasons Hotel Chicago and The Peninsula. It scored below The Peninsula and the other Four Seasons in Travel + Leisure magazine's 2007 "World's Best" readers' awards.

While the lobby does exude Old World elegance, boasting a large splashing fountain with a bronze sculpture of three wing-flapping herons, the 32-year-old hotel's décor and furnishings are dated. Even the elevators have marble floors and crystal chandeliers. The lobby's upholstered sofas would be more at home in granny's parlor.

Bathrooms in standard rooms ("deluxe" in Ritz parlance) were updated a few years ago with granite counters and sleeker fittings. But pending a renovation planned next year, room furnishings are downright dowdy — The Ritz's PR team prefers the word "traditional" — compared with many competitors.

Suite 3011, for instance, is a discordant symphony of colors and patterns: red-and-white-striped chair, yellow sofa, green rug, flower-patterned bedroom chair and curtains. The walk-in closet contains objects that are anachronisms on today's hotel scene — a tiny safe that opens with a key, an adhesive roller lint remover and spray starch.

TVs are the fat, old-fashioned sort that sit in bulky armoires. There's plug-in Internet access, but if you want Wi-Fi, you'll need to go to the lobby.

The hotel sits above the Water Tower Place shopping center, which is either convenient or slightly tacky, depending on your point of view. And the hotel's entrance (you take an elevator up to the 12th-floor lobby) isn't opulent.

But what sets the Ritz/Four Seasons apart, say Montenaro and loyal guests, is its service. Snippets from the generally favorable reviews on TripAdvisor: "Their staff is absolutely top-notch." … "They actually care about customer service; it was a refreshing change to experience."

"My wife and I look at lists of best hotels, and this is it," Winthrop Carter, 61, a bespectacled periodontist from Portland, Ore., says while checking out on a recent Wednesday. "This is the fourth year I've stayed here, and the staff is great."

The 435-room hotel has 544 staffers. Spokeswoman Susan Maier says 40% have been here a decade or more; 20% have served 20 years or longer.

Low-key chief concierge Jon Winke, so effective that guests have asked him to make hard-to-get restaurant reservations in their home cities, has been here 32 years.

More than half the guests he deals with are repeaters, he says. First-timers often are confused by the hotel name, so he explains it.

Ritz-Carlton doesn't own the hotel or have anything to do with it. The owners leased the right to use the name and in 1977 hired the Four Seasons chain to manage it.

From a counter next to the reception desk, Winke does far more than answer queries. He has found a gospel group to sing at a guest's home and set up a practice session in the hotel ballroom for a visiting NBA team that wanted to keep plays secret. In recent days, he was busy helping doting parents of preteens track down $375 eighth-row seats for this week's Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus concert.

Now 53, he was hired at 21 as a bellman. He had no hotel experience.

"Instead of doing a purely technical interview — like, can they do a certain job? — we do a behavioral interview to decide if a person is sincere about service … if they'll take care of the guest," says general manager Christian Clerc, contacted by phone after USA TODAY's stay. Employees are given guidelines but no scripts to use with guests, he says. They can make decisions on the spot to rectify a problem.

Plus, "people from the Midwest have a very warm, genuine approach," says Swiss hotel school-trained Clerc. "It is prevalent throughout the city and very helpful (for a hotel). What makes the difference in high-end hotels is service, the interaction with the staff."

Indeed, service differentiation is where the luxury hotel industry is headed, says Hotels magazine editor in chief Jeff Weinstein. Lodgings have "spent the last few years working on hard goods — the beds, bathrooms and TVs." Now they're focusing on personalized care, he says.

So does the Ritz/Four Seasons deliver?

Check-in on a recent Tuesday at 2 p.m. is swift. Front-desk receptionist Shannon Moore, an upbeat blonde, acting as if she has all the time in the world, steps from behind the counter to deliver the keycard and explain hotel layout when this guest declines a bellman's assistance.

Up on the 30th floor, a housekeeper in a crisp, gray-skirted uniform stops her chores to show the way to a hard-to-find room.

Here, an annoyance surfaces: the sound of hammering. "I'm so sorry, they're doing some work in the shopping mall," Moore says after investigating. "It should be over at 5. Would you like to change rooms?" No thanks — too much hassle.

Back in the serene lobby, the host of The Café offers a newspaper to read during a short wait for a $22 chicken Cobb salad. A server presents a black napkin to drape over a guest's dark pants (to avoid getting white napery lint on them).

A post-lunch trip to the spa/health club finds it unremarkable in size or décor. But a deep-tissue massage from Romanian-born, Europe-trained Livius Cazan is world-class. (When a massage costs $135 for 55 minutes, it should be.)

Next comes a walk around downtown to see how the Ritz measures up to the other Four Seasons and three competitors. Staffers are friendly when addressed at competing properties, but only the doormen at the Four Seasons Chicago and The Peninsula give unsolicited greetings. Public spaces at the newer Four Seasons Chicago, owned by the same realty company that owns the Ritz, are more intimate and less grand than the Ritz's, and its recently renovated rooms tend to be more expensive.

Back at the Ritz, a room-service dinner ordered at 8:34 p.m. arrives in 29 minutes — a minute earlier than promised — on a linen-draped table with heating compartment. The roasted organic chicken in red-wine sauce, served on Villeroy & Boch china, is fork-tender.

There's a message from a night-shift front-desk staffer checking that the construction noise has abated (it has) and apologizing again.

Then, personalized attention goes to the max. A man identifying himself as a hotel security staffer calls to say a server saw a guest believed to be from this room drop sheets of notebook paper in the lobby earlier. May he bring them up?

As this guest's stay nears an end, a contact lens pops out somewhere on the bathroom floor, counter or sink. It's hard to resist the urge to phone the front desk for help. Somebody would come up. And they'd probably find it.