Personal service propels Ritz-Carlton Chicago to top ranking

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).

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