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.

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