Amelia Islander — April 2010
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The Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island
Jan Davis

As the most imposing building on Amelia Island’s shoreline, The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island, stands as a symbol of the area’s arrival as a tourist destination. Completed in 1991, it is a hotel replete with all of the luxurious amenities that make guests feel welcome and pampered. AAA has repeatedly ranked it with its prestigious Five Diamond award. It was recently reported on NBC’s Today Show as one of Conde Nast’s top ten hotels in America, while myriad magazines and newspapers have praised its natural beauty and warm Southern charm. With its elegant ambience, it has welcomed celebrities and corporate giants, as well as families and wedding groups from around the world. Amelia Island has become a recognized name in the travel industry, in large part because of The Ritz- Carlton, Amelia Island.

But how did the hotel actually choose to come to Amelia? It was a small, sleepy Victorian seaport town when The Ritz-Carlton advance team began their first exploratory visits in the 1980’s. Amelia Island Plantation had established a quality resort presence on the southern tip of the island in the late 1970’s, and so resort life had already arrived. For the most part, the island was primed and ready to welcome an elegant hotel. There was much to sell with the spectacular beach and the laid-back, relaxed atmosphere of the community and its charming historic downtown.

The catalyst was one of those situations of “knowing people in the right places.” An Atlanta friend of a partner in Summer Beach Ltd, which owned the beach-front site, knew the then-CEO of The Ritz- Carlton chain. There were few grand hotels in the area At the time and only one Ritz-Carlton in Florida. In a social conversation, the friend mentioned that a hotel of the Ritz’s stature was needed in northeast Florida / southeast Georgia, praising it as an excellent site—on a beautiful island, with a great golf course, right on the Ocean. What could be better? By 1988, The Ritz-Carlton had submitted a letter of intent, and, after months of putting the real estate component together with a group of investors, it was time to proceed.

Jim Sands, who was involved from the very beginning as President of Summer Beach, talked about the initial finance team. One-fourth of the ownership would be The Ritz-Carlton, one-fourth Summer Beach, and two Japanese firms, Mitzui and Shinizu, composed the final fifty percent. “Eighteen Japanese corporate executives came to look over the site. It was a challenge to entertain such a powerful group, many of whom spoke little English,” remembers Sands. “Luckily, there was Amelia Island Plantation to house them. It was a 100-million-dollar project which took two years to build.” Although it was pouring rain on that cold November day when they broke ground, Jim remembers one of the Japanese saying that rain on ground-breaking day was “a very good omen.”

Since then there have been a series of owners. According to Brooks Haney, the hotel’s director of finance, who has been with the hotel from its inception, “it is a convoluted path tracing the ownership.” The Japanese sold their interests around 1995; Blackstone, a large real estate investment company, owned it for approximately one year. Summer Beach Partners, which owned the land lease, sold when the entire package of land and building was purchased by Host Hotels and Resorts. Host owns over 300 hotels of various brand names throughout the world. In 1999, Marriott International bought the name “Ritz-Carlton” and now has a management agreement to run The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island. “The arrival of The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island immediately enhanced the creditability of this island as a resort destination,” says Jim Sands. “Although Summer Beach is no longer a direct partner with them, the liaison between the two remains strong.”

Yet, in spite of all the accolades and success, it is obvious that 2009 has been difficult for the tourism industry in general and this hotel in particular. With the downturn in the economy, the segment known as “luxury” travel has been increasingly hard hit. As Kate Monahan, general manager of The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island, says, “2009 was a dreadful, dreadful year. The press demonized our industry with the suggestion that just because a hotel was on an island, with a spa and a golf course, it was too expensive and therefore a waste of a corporation’s money.” In fact, a lot of companies that had booked conferences cancelled because of such perceptions. “That was totally unfair,” continues Monahan. “We have always been competitive in pricing for the corporate traveler. Often companies had booked a meeting or convention a full year in advance and steep penalties were imposed when they cancelled. They lost huge deposits.”

“The other downside to loss of business for this hotel —as well as so many others—was the impact on the community,” explains Monahan. “Orlando and Las Vegas have been devastated, but in a small town such as ours, it was also difficult. We were forced to scale back more than 100 employees during the past year – dishwashers, valets, housekeepers, wait staff, etc—all with families. We tried to spread the hours around to keep our main corps of employees, putting some of them on part-time hours and transitioning them into different jobs. And with fewer guests in the hotel, there were fewer meals in the downtown restaurants and fewer shoppers in the stores. It was not easy for us or for the community.”

Despite this, Monahan sees 2010 as turn-around time. The travel industry is rebounding and bookings are up. Already the hotel has thirty new or former employees in training each month since January and will soon be back to the 650-employee base. “We have lots of optimism about the coming year and are pleased with how we weathered the storm. We are incredibility proud of our team here on Amelia. We now feel energized, unified, and committed to providing an even better experience at our hotel in the future.”

In order to prepare for what’s ahead, several new objectives are already underway. The recently completed Talbot Ballroom, contracted in 2008 for $22 million just weeks before there was any clue about the “crisis” ahead, is paying its way in bookings. It will seat 750 to 800 people and now provide adequate space for trade shows. It will also allow sizeable groups in the Talbot Ballroom, simultaneously with a large wedding in one of the other ballrooms. The Talbot is a departure in decorating style, with a sleeker, more modern look – and none of the crystal chandeliers and silk covered walls for which The Ritz-Carlton was known in the past.

That sleek look is the direction in décor to be undertaken shortly for other public areas of the hotel. When questioned about the array of valuable antiques and museum-quality paintings scattered throughout, Monahan replies, “We are just going to ‘lighten’ the hotel, for more of a sense of place here in North Florida. The bones of the hotel are very traditional, however.” After that, the guest rooms are also scheduled for new décor.

Monahan is confident and enthusiastic about leading The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island into the next decade. “It’s exciting to be in a rebuilding mode, and I am looking brightly on the future with this unbelievably talented group of employees. I am honored to work with them.” From the vision of those investors who first dreamed of a world-class hotel on Amelia to the talented team that runs the hotel today, this luxury hotel continues to impress visitors with its unparalleled setting, Southern charm, and unshakeable determination to be the best-of-the-best.

The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island is well known for service. The staff is carefully trained to give the ultimate in luxury service to each guest; they are the ones who make the hotel memorable. Some of those who work behind the scenes include:

Paco Saldana: When Paco Saldana emigrated from Mexico City in 1997, he spoke no English and started work at The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island as a café bus boy. However, his engaging personality and hard work have catapulted him into training in many facets of the hotel’s operations, “almost like a college education,” he says. Paco was honored this past year in the nationwide “Faces of Travel” contest sponsored by the U.S. Travel Industry. The prize is a highly contested national award, and Saldana was selected through competition with 16,000 travel service employees. As the “Face of Travel”, he became a travel ambassador who has met with Congressional leaders on Capitol Hill and officials at the U.S. Department of Commerce, as well as business advocacy groups in Tallahassee, to highlight the importance of the travel industry in the U. S. economy. Currently, he is Assistant Director of Housekeeping, where he supervises 40 staff members. “Housekeeping is a very physical job and often unappreciated,” says Saldana. “Great attention to detail is expected from the housekeepers in a very fast turn-around time.”

Craig Schoninger: Director of Sales and Marketing Craig Schoninger has been with The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island since January, 1990.
He has seen the good and the bad of the market, and, of course, in his position as someone directly responsible for filling the guest rooms as well as the ballrooms, he knows what a challenge the last year has been. He points to his head and says, “I had a lot more hair before last year began!” He feels, however, that he and his staff of 20 have become more effective and will know how to operate more efficiently going forward. “I don’t just sell a hotel,” says Schoninger when describing his job. “I sell the quaintness and charm of the entire island. Many people are surprised when they arrive because they expect us to be more like South Florida.”

R. J. Voit: The first people to greet you at the hotel are the valets, bellmen, and the concierge. R. J. Voit is Bell Captain and knows how important that first impression is. R. J. has been a hotel employee since the very first days of the hotel, and he remembers current General Manager Kate Monahan coming from her position in Phoenix to help with training before the hotel opened. “She taught me how to open a car door in the ‘Ritz’ manner,” he laughs, “and to treat everyone the same.” R. J. arrived in Fernandina in 1987 and worked for awhile at Amelia Island Plantation in the golf department. He, wife Nan, and his two boys, Jack and Sam, live in town, where his wife is well-known as head of Fernandina Beach’s Recreation Department.