by Kim O’Brien Root
photography by Stephanie Oberlander
At first glance, there’s not much different at the Founders Inn and Spa.
The décor – the antiques, the period furnishings, the crystal chandeliers – is the same as it has been for years. There are still the huge paintings of the country’s Founding Fathers. Out back, the same Colonial formal gardens await the next wedding.
But because of a new management company – and the 3-inch card now in every staffer’s pocket — guests should find their experience at the Virginia Beach hotel completely different.
The card is a canon that dictates the standards of service. Instead of a “hi,” guests get a cheery “hello.” Instead of pointing guests in the right direction, the staff escorts them where they need to go. The rooms are cleaner, the food is fresher, the attitude is better.
It’s a level of service that’s reminiscent of the Ritz-Carlton – service brought to Hampton Roads by Horst Schulze, the man who ran the famous luxury hotel chain for nearly two decades. He now presides over the Capella Hotel Group, an Atlanta-based luxury hotel management and consulting company.
When Capella took over last year, Schulze intended the changes to be seamless, so much that guests would feel little disruption. Guest Mike Hrobak, who’s stayed at Founders Inn more than 60 times when in Hampton Roads on business, says he hardly noticed. The hotel is as comfortable as ever, the North Carolina resident said. It’s clean and comfortable and welcoming.
He did, however, notice a change in the employees.
“They’ve always been friendly,” says Hrobak, the chief operating officer of Community Alternatives, a nonprofit that helps people with emotional, physical and developmental disabilities. “But I think there’s a big effort from the staff. Everybody goes out of their way to say hello. They know your name and they make a point to use it. That grabs your attention.”
That extra effort from employees is what Schulze wants: “We’re asking them to be nice people.”
While at Ritz-Carlton, Schulze became known for the service standards that made the company’s hotels among the best in the world. With Capella, he oversees ultra-luxury hotels and resorts around the world but also manages a cluster of independent hotels.
The Founders Inn, a 240-bed hotel owned by Regent University, is a far cry from most of Capella’s hotels, which lie in such exotic locations as Bali, Mexico and Austria.
The most comparable is the Hotel at Auburn University in Alabama, where Schulze is involved in the hotel and restaurant management curriculum. A similar arrangement could happen at Regent, where the creation of a culinary minor with a business degree has been in the works, said university President Carlos Campo.
For now, however, the 160-member staff at the Founders Inn has been focused on putting into action what Schulze calls his company’s strategic plan – the canon.
The four-page, accordion-style canon pledges to “deliver reliable, genuinely caring and timely service superior to our competition, with respected and empowered employees who work in an environment of belonging and purpose.” It also lists 24 service standards for employees
One standard is to answer the telephone within three rings and with a smile in your voice.
Another is to always recognize guests – to the point of interrupting whatever you’re doing when the guest is within 12 feet in order to greet with a smile and offer any assistance.
Staff members are not to use casual terms such as “hi,” “OK,” “no problem,” “guys” and “folks.” Instead they should say “hello” or “my pleasure.”
Still another standard encourages employees to be just as positive as they appear, and to create a great work environment.
In other words, to enjoy what they do.
“That’s my most favorite one to talk about, and to exude,” says Kenny Franz, the hotel’s executive housekeeper. “Just because you come to work doesn’t mean you can’t have a fun time.”
Lisa Aguilar, catering sales manager, says her favorite is about employees assisting one another, because it promotes teamwork. She saw that in action the first day the new management group came on board, when she walked past the restaurant and saw men in suits. They were on the floor. Scrubbing.
“That made an impression,” recalls Aguilar, who has worked for the Founders Inn for more than five years. “That showed me that it didn’t matter if they were high-level or hourly, they were willing to do what was needed.”
Every day, each hotel under the Capella name makes one of the 24 standards its message for the day. On any given day, a hotel in Germany or Austria is focusing on the same thing as in Virginia Beach. Employees in New York and Singapore alike are reviewing the zeitgeist – the spirit of the moment — committing daily to being reliable, loyal, worldly and memorable.
The constant training changes the mood, changes the relationship between guests and staff and, in fact, changes everything, Schulze says.
“Pretty soon you can feel it when you walk in,” he says. “We check people in, we have beds. We make up rooms, we clean, but there’s still something different. And that’s the unspoken thing. That’s the heart and soul.”
There had been a sense that the Founders Inn was almost forgotten, says Campo, Regent’s president. Its vibrancy had dimmed, and a walk through the hallways had taken on a bit of a library feel.
After 13 years with Benchmark Hospitality International, it was time for a management change, Campo said. Schulze and Capella, then called West Paces, took over last May.
Most of the pieces were already in place at the Founders Inn, which in 2006 added the resort-style Flowering Almond Spa, which includes a fitness and aquatic center and a pool with fountains.
In 2010, the hotel had undergone renovations – including new flat-screen televisions in all the rooms, new carpeting and new duvets on the beds.
As a conference center, the hotel already boasted 18 conference rooms and 24,000 square feet of meeting space with the latest technology. The wedding business was steady, with a new chapel on Regent’s grounds planned for completion in summer 2013.
Schulze set out to make the Founders Inn better.
He didn’t want to change the 20-year-old hotel’s essence, nor its Georgian architecture or antique-filled corridors. Heavy wooden furniture from the 1700s and 1800s is scattered throughout the inn, and an 18th century French tapestry from London hangs in the Atrium. Floors are from old, reclaimed heart pine.
Rather, Schulze says, he wanted to “take it to the next level.” Not a Ritz-Carlton hotel, but as an “excellent Hampton Roads hotel.”
In the Swan Terrace restaurant, for example, executive chef Scott Simpson strives to use fresh, local fare, such as fruit and seafood.
“I want to feel Virginia in here,” Schulze says. “That’s the core of everything. It’s a Virginia inn. That’s what I want here.”
Schulze demands cleanliness, so the entire inn was cleaned top to bottom, from the carpets to the lampshades. Little details matter – a china cabinet centered on a wall, fresh flowers in the lobby.
All of it makes a difference, says the German-born Schulze, who knows what he’s talking about: He was once named “corporate hotelier of the world” by Hotels magazine, and Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, of which he was president and chief operating officer, was continuously named the best in the world.
“All those things that you don’t necessarily know, but when you’re here for a day, you leave and you feel good,” Schulze says. “It should be the little background music that is there. It should be the carpet that is clean. It should be the employee who walks by and says hello. It should be the food you know is fresh and good. It should be the linen that is excellent on the bed, and you know it’s clean, you can feel it’s clean, and it’s first-class.
For longtime guest Helen Stiff-Williams, it’s the cookies.
Stiff-Williams, a Regent online education professor who stays at Founders once a month, has a particular fondness for the fresh-baked cookies, milk and cider put out each evening for the guests. That wasn’t there before the new management took over, she says.
“It’s just an amenity, and now I look for it when I go,” says Stiff-Williams, who lives near Richmond in Chesterfield County. “It makes it warm and welcoming. It makes it feel like home.”
Every employee is allowed to do whatever’s necessary to make a guest comfortable and satisfied – something authorized by Schulze. At a hotel in Cancun, when a honeymooner once lost his wedding ring in the sand, four employees got metal detectors and found it.
At the Founders Inn, a housekeeper can give a free meal. A member of the maintenance staff can offer a discount.
“We’re told from the very first day that we’re empowered to do that, to make the guest happy,” Aguilar says.
The executive housekeeper, Kenny Franz, leads visitors through the fireplace lobby, where two fireplaces and comfortable couches beckon guests to sit down for a chat. He heads outside and down a covered walkway into another brick building that holds guest rooms.
One is softly lighted, decorated in blues and yellows and featuring a couch, a gas fireplace and a two-poster bed covered with a feather duvet and feather pillows. At the delicate wooden desk, the chair is already slightly pulled out, inviting a guest to sit down or place a bag.
The toiletries in the bathroom are from an eco-friendly line; the coffee by the coffee maker is gourmet.
“It’s the little attention to detail,” Franz says. “When a guest walks in, he’ll find an immaculate room. That Colonial feel, clean, functional, comfortable, relaxing. Anything you need, we can get it for you.”