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You Were Just Designated One Of The Highest-Quality Hotels In The U.S. — Now The Work Begins

Houston Hotel

Italian Frette linens, customized locally sourced robes, a $1M custom chandelier and a Rolls-Royce dealership: The newest lavish hotels in Texas spared no expenses in the drive to luxury. Posh offerings are crucial in being named one of the country's nicest hotels.

But after the accolades from the top travel and media companies like AAA, TripAdvisor and Forbes begin to roll in, there is little time to celebrate. Since most hospitality inspectors are completely unannounced and undercover, the hotels must maintain that same level of quality and service for the next time they come knocking. 

This is a daily job.  

“In the luxury segment, it takes a lot more attention to detail to make sure your consistency is there day to day,” said Jorge Gonzalez, the general manager of new AAA Five Diamond designee The Post Oak Hotel at Uptown in Houston. 

Lobby of Hotel Emma in San Antonio

Maintaining Luxury

The Post Oak — a super lux hotel by billionaire businessman Tilman Fertitta — is the only hotel in Houston to earn the prestigious Five Diamond designation by AAA and one of only two Texas hotels to receive the ranking so far for next year.  

The other, Hotel Emma — the 19th-century industrial-style, brewery-turned-hotel in San Antonio — also made the list for the first time. They may be joined by a third Texas hotel: The Ritz-Carlton in Dallas made the list for 2018 but AAA hasn’t announced if the hotel will be named a Five Diamond for 2019 as well. 

To stay ranked as one of the nation's highest-quality hotels, the physical quality must be maintained and the managers must commit to a level of service that far exceeds the nearby competition.    

“Our service is absolutely luxury, and that is one thing that will prevail,” Hotel Emma President and General Manager Bill Petrella said. "We are on stage every day. We can't say 'we made it' and stop. It never stops. It is one guest at a time and all of those interactions have to be perfect." 

Exterior front view of The Post Oak Hotel at Uptown in Houston

If a hotel reaches the Five Diamond status on the first inspection, AAA sends another inspector for an overnight stay and sometimes for a third visit, AAA Regional Inspector Manager John Lubanski said.

AAA is not critiquing the presidential suites but the standard rooms one of its members may rent, he said. The hotels must carry the standard of luxury through all of the rooms. 

Inspectors monitor the quality of the service from guests' arrival by observing the interactions with the valet, the doormen and the front desk staff. The assessment continues through the stay by examining the quality of the hotel, amenities and other on-site services.   

"It's hard to achieve the Five Diamond level," Lubanski said. "And once they get there they have to work really hard to maintain it." 

The Post Oak Hotel earned the AAA recognition six months after opening. Gonzalez — who has managed prestigious brands such as Loews Miami Beach Hotel, The Ritz-Carlton and Hyatt Hotels and Resorts and opened the first luxury resort by the Ritz-Carlton in Cancun, Mexico — said the dedication to service started in the hiring process. The company interviewed thousands of people for about 350 jobs.

The Post Oak Hotel trains its employees using the Forbes Five Star Basic Standards, the highest service industry standards. While it inspects both service and facility, the Forbes star system focuses on service, according to the website. The trained, anonymous inspector stays at minimum two nights, evaluating each property on up to 900 objective criteria. Five-star hotels are outstanding, often iconic properties with virtually flawless service and amazing facilities. 

Gonzalez’ ultimate goal is to receive the Forbes Five Star rating at The Post Oak. He previously earned this recognition while at the Mandarin Oriental Miami — three years in a row.

“The Forbes five star is like winning an Oscar,” he said.

The focus on consistently excellent service keeps guests coming back.

“Our clientele can stay anywhere they want. We want to make sure when they are here they are happy, [and there are] no surprises,” Gonzalez said.

Hotel Emma President and General Manager Bill Petrella

At Hotel Emma, which is the No. 4 ranked U.S. hotel on TripAdvisor, excellent service begins before the guests even get to the Alamo City, Petrella said.   

An in-house guest services representative calls guests before their visit to get the correct pronunciation of their name, the reasons for their trip, the arrival time and other preferences. 

Shortly after they arrive, guests are taken to the library for a hand-shaken welcome cocktail, the La Babia margarita. It is all aimed to create a more personalized experience, Petrella said.

“It sets the tone,” he said. “We like to say we are San Antonio's living room. We are welcoming these guests into our home. That is what we are all about.”

Carefully Curated Experiences

But of course it isn't all about service — what's inside matters. Hotel Emma and the Post Oak both offer an array of on-site amenities that set them apart. 

Dazzling guests with a $1M crystal chandelier in its lobby, The Post Oak features four restaurants and bars, a pool, a fitness center, meeting facilities, a 16K SF ballroom, a two-story Rolls-Royce showroom and direct helicopter pad access.

A few steps from the hotel lobby, guests can experience fine dining from Mastro’s Steakhouse and Willie G’s Seafood or stroll through more luxury car dealerships from Bentley and Bugatti. The hotel’s spa is scheduled to open mid-October.

“It’s a place where you can come on a Thursday, leave on Sunday, and you don’t have to leave the hotel unless you want to,” Gonzalez said.

Exterior of Hotel Emma in San Antonio

While the Hotel Emma may not tout an opulent crystal chandelier and marble floors, Lubanski said it offers something much more authentic. Inside the rooms, the guests can find custom-made robes by a San Antonio-based company Dos Carolinas, Italian Frette linens and a mini bar stocked with the true tastes of South Texas.

“They're offering the same thing but in a different way,” Petrella said. “The Five Diamond experience should be very distinctive and unique: not just memorable but unforgettable.” 

Hotel Emma is a culinary destination, a part of the Pearl Brewery campus, a mixed-use space that features 18 chef-driven restaurants and bars. The hotel’s culinary concierge hosts food and beverage activations weekly and free-of-charge for the guests. Previous classes included knife cutting skills, mole making and the history of avocados.

“In today’s world, people are so into food and beverage that it really adds to the luxury offering,” Petrella said.

Influencing The Levels Of Luxury

Both hotels are raising the expectation of luxury in their respective cities. 

Before the Hotel Emma, San Antonio did not have a luxury component, and the hotel is changing how people view the city, Petrella said. The hotel helps to highlight the best parts of the area.

“San Antonio has a rich culture and a rich history, which is nice because Emma is based on [history] as well,” he said.

The success of The Post Oak may generate more demand for luxury accommodations in Houston, Gonzalez said. Within the last decade, other luxury hotel companies have considered expanding into the Houston market, but none took the step. 

The Post Oak Hotel at Uptown General Manager Jorge Gonzalez

“Nobody believed that Houston could support a luxury-branded hotel until Mr. Fertitta opened The Post Oak,” Gonzalez said. “And now, they are saying, 'Oh my God.' It can happen. It can be done.”

Nobody wanted to be first, he said. He expects those same companies may come back and start looking again. 

One of the determining factors for other luxury brands will be if the Post Oak can support the higher hotel rates, McCaslin Hotel Consulting founder and CEO Randy McCaslin said. The average daily rate should consistently range from $400 to $600 to inspire demand for more luxury hotels in Houston. 

That level of income will be important to The Post Oak itself, too — that income will be important to paying back debt services, making a return for investors and staying on top of the heap of hotels.

"If you want to continue to be a Five Diamond hotel, you [have to] have enough reserves from the revenues to maintain the rating," McCaslin said.

Luxury isn't cheap — even for those creating (and maintaining) it.