Jobs Well Done
Hospitality Exemplars Get Their Red Carpet MomentAbove & Beyond Service Award Program Recognizes Stellar Service
By Zandra Wolfgram | Photography by Heather Forrester
You’ve heard some version of the adage “You can’t please all of the people all of the time.” Well, apparently you can get darn close. The Beaches of South Walton beckons visitors to return to the string of 15 distinctive beach communities along 26 beautiful miles of the Northwest Florida coast each year, and they do — at a staggering rate of 93 percent.
A major reason is the service those visitors get from the hospitality workers who are there each day, helping them relax, plan their activities or get the perfect tee time for a round of golf. They answer every call with a smile. They ensure their guests have clean rooms and fluffed pillows. They escort visitors in open-air trams.
“Marketing research has proven that visitors who have an exceptional experience while they are here are more likely to come back to Beaches of South Walton in the future,” says Walton County Tourist Development Council Executive Director Sonny Mares. This core research was the impetus for creating the Above & Beyond service award program three years ago and, ultimately, why the program was expanded in 2009 to recognize front-line hospitality employees.
Explains Tracy Louthain, director of public relations and visitor services for the Walton County Tourist Development Council: “People come here primarily for our beaches, certainly, but it is the experience they have while here, the interaction with the very people who give our destination personality, that makes a stay here so special.”
The Above & Beyond award program provides recognition and positive reinforcement to those who might otherwise be unsung hospitality heroes.
Louthain says the nomination process itself works on a dual level. Supervisors have the opportunity to share the stories of those who “raise the bar every day” and shed light on shining stars. Then there’s the employee pride the business enjoys by having a nomination considered and, hopefully, chosen.
Of the 12,158 people who work in the hospitality industry in Walton County, 22 were recognized this year for demonstrating exemplary customer service. What do a massage therapist, beach supervisor, pro shop manager, housekeeping inspector, guest services operator and tram driver have in common? According to their nomination forms, these guest-service gurus share many similar traits by being enthusiastic, creative, friendly, charming, knowledgeable, kind, professional, positive, passionate, hardworking, dedicated, caring and selfless. Again and again, nominators said these qualities are why the daily diligence of a select few should not go unnoticed.
Winning Us Over with a Smile
The marketing committee of the Beaches of South Walton Tourist Development Council, which includes 26 local tourism professionals and staff, had the daunting task of selecting three winners for the grand, silver and bronze awards. Nominations were accepted from May through July and were judged on exceeding the customers’ expectations, marketing the destination, communications skills, length of service and attitude.
This year, Maridell McCarty, lead concierge for Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, is the Above & Beyond grand prize winner. Darrell Smith, lead concierge for the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa, is the silver winner. And Lisa Boecker, massage therapist and spa coach for Fusion Spa & Salon, is the bronze winner.
The winners will be showered with plenty of fanfare: a story in the TDC’s newsletter, inclusion in an official TDC press release released to local and regional media, an appearance at the TDC’s annual fall luncheon meeting, and a private luncheon with their supervisor and TDC executive director Mares. All three winners will be showered with gifts from area businesses, and will each receive a personalized congratulatory letter and custom artwork created by 2006 local artist of the year Phil Kiser. The grand prize winner will receive a romantic getaway excursion to Tallahassee, which includes a stay at the Hotel Duval, dinner and tickets to the Comedy Zone.
The 2009 winners join the ranks of Shaun Brown of Newman Dailey Resort Properties, who was recognized as the 2008 grand prize winner; and Joe Kern of Grand Boulevard at Sandestin and Tammy Yelvington of ResortQuest of Northwest Florida, who won 2008’s silver and bronze awards. The inaugural winners in 2007 were Michael Herold of Silver Sands Factory Stores, Kris Thompson Evans of Beach Rentals of South Walton and Kerbi Ancona of Newman Dailey Resort Properties.
The fourth year of the program may include the very visitors who make the award possible.
“Our goal is to work closely with the tourism industry to elevate standards and encourage more employers to nominate their staff,” Louthain says. “As the program evolves, we would like to include nominations from visitors as well as the industry.”
Brand It and They Will Come (Back)
The Travel Industry Association reports that tourism generated as much as $1.3 trillion in the United States in 2008. According to Visit Florida, 82.5 million visitors traveled to the Sunshine State in 2008, spending $65.2 billion. Florida’s hospitality industry lays claim to a work force of more than 1 million – nearly 11 percent of the total workers in the state. In Walton County, the hospitality labor force is 21.7 percent of the total work force, making it the largest local industry. Three of the four largest employers in the area are resorts and rental management companies. These employees are rolling out the red carpet to 2.8 million visitors who flock to the beach each year. Hospitality is big business that thrives on personalized service with a big smile.
The Beaches of South Walton TDC was savvy enough to begin research into the mindset of the visitor four years ago. Its most recent survey of 301 visitors to the area conducted in 2008 indicates that 96 percent of guests rate the destination positively, with 64 percent saying it is “excellent,” a 5-percent increase over the previous year.
Customer service is so critical to the Beaches of South Walton brand experience that the TDC began to measure its impact. The result? Of visitors who had a positive experience in the destination in 2008, 73 percent attributed it to good customer service.
Armed with visitor and non-visitor studies, the TDC began the process of branding the Beaches of South Walton in order to put its marketing arms around the 15 beach communities it represents. After meeting with local industry leaders and poring over focus group and survey data, they penned this brand promise two years ago:
“The Beaches of South Walton provides visitors with a relaxing escape: an upscale, yet casual, place to unwind and rejuvenate. Charm and scenic beauty define our stretch of Northwest Florida’s Gulf Coast, and our white sand beaches and emerald green waters offer a natural setting, where visitors feel comfortable. We deliver an unforgettable experience, filled with lasting memories.”
Louthain gives the hardworking hospitality employees full credit for making the Beaches of South Walton the desirable destination it is.
“They live the brand promise every day,” she says. “We deliver an unforgettable experience filled with lasting memories because of them.”
Maridell McCarty. Photo by Heather Forrester
Grand Prize Winner
Hometown: Omaha, Neb.
Job: Lead Concierge
Employer: Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort
Service: 1 year, 9 months
Nominators: Erin Story, Guest Services Assistant Manager: Preston Miller, Guest Services Supervisor
Excerpts from McCarty’s nomination:
Maridell immediately exemplified the skills and character of a true guest service professional. Her warm, outstanding welcome to all, her attention to detail with every guest request, and the way she gives a fond farewell with a “You come back and see us, now” keeps guests coming back year after year.
Maridell is not only a joy to work with, but is an inspiration to all on how to live life and be happy.
It’s no secret that Maridell is an “above and beyond” type of employee. After just 90 days as concierge, Maridell earned exceptional scores on her first performance review. She has been recognized by guests on countless occasions with personal letters of gratitude. Before marking one year of service at Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, Maridell was the recipient of the Sandestin All-Star Award in March 2008. She was selected from more than 1,000 total employees eligible, and has since been nominated again for her service excellence.
One example of Maridell’s commitment to customer service involved a business guest who left his work laptop in his room. During her lunch break, Maridell hand-delivered the laptop to the guest at the airport right before his flight was to take off. Maridell has taken guests’ laundry home to steam and press on a Saturday when cleaners were not open. She’s even moved luggage from one building on the resort to another when bellmen weren’t available to assist. She is a customer service natural! Guests rave about Maridell and truly fall in love with her passionate and caring ways. If it is broken, Maridell will fix it, and she will do it with a smile. And if there is a service recovery challenge needing attention, Maridell welcomes it with open arms.
We invite everyone to come and meet Ms. Maridell McCarty. With her big smile and even bigger laugh, she will find a way into your heart and memories. She sets the bar for outstanding service, and makes us proud to be her managers.
Darrell Smith. Photo by Heather ForresterSilver Winner
Hometown: San Francisco
Job: Lead Concierge
Employer: Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa
Service: 3 years, 1 month
Nominator: Nancy Stanley, Director of Marketing
Excerpts from Smith’s nomination:
As lead concierge, Darrell Smith’s job is to welcome and provide information to hotel guests, as well as assist them in their needs during their stay. His position requires a positive attitude, an outgoing personality and knowledge about the hotel and area amenities. Darrell not only possesses all of these qualities, but he is also extremely dedicated and truly genuine in his actions and mannerisms.
He is an ambassador for the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort and Spa and the entire Beaches of South Walton community. Darrell not only serves our guests, but he goes above and beyond to establish rapport with each and every one of our local vendors in the community to ensure that he has the most up-to-date information on vendors who offer services and dining establishments that offer specials. In the economy that we are in right now, Darrell is instrumental in relaying the values for our hotel and the Beaches of South Walton, which, in turn, encourages guests to return to this beautiful area.
One specific example of how Darrell exemplifies excellent customer service occurred recently … when he assisted a young couple on their honeymoon who needed a new room key. He could immediately sense that something was not right, as this couple did not have a typical “honeymoon feeling.” When he asked if they needed any assistance with their luggage from a bellman, the man explained how they had some issues with the ATM machine and they didn’t have any access to cash for tipping. Darrell could sense that this one thing had really upset this couple to the point where they could not enjoy their honeymoon. He reached into his own pocket and pulled out what cash he had and gave it to the couple and congratulated them, hoping that the couple could forget their troubles and enjoy themselves. The couple was elated by his action and for the first time since meeting them, they smiled.
Lisa Boecker. Photo by Heather Forrester
Hometown: Marietta, Ga.
Job: Massage Therapist and Spa Coach
Employer: Fusion Spa and Salon, Grand Boulevard at Sandestin
Service: 2 years
Nominator: Julie Martin, Manager
Excerpts from Boecker’s nomination:
Lisa knows how to make a difference in people’s lives. Like Mother Theresa said, “We shall never know all the good a simple smile can do.” Lisa always has a cheerful smile to complement her cheerful heart. All of her coworkers agree that her sweet spirit fills the building from the moment she enters. You can’t help being put at ease in her presence or in her care. She doesn’t limit her generosity to our establishment. Lisa has volunteered and given many hours of chair massages to our neighbors’ special events in Grand Boulevard. She loves meeting the visitors to our unique area and making them feel at home.
Lisa seems to be driven by something so unique that is not learned, but just exists deep within her. Her ability to tirelessly work with a spina bifida patient who was told she could never walk is not uncommon. Lisa doesn’t take “no” for an answer. After a year of therapy, she got the young girl walking despite the statistics. It is a treat for her to see her guests walk out of Fusion feeling better than when they came in. Guests who have traveled the world and visited some of the finest spas will tell us, “This was the best massage I have ever had and nothing compares.”
Lisa knows how to lead our team as a spa coach, too. She influences our staff in so many incredible ways by her example and through unceasing encouragement. This exemplifies her to the core. She always wants to exceed guests’ expectations by giving 110 percent to every service. She loves to visit with the guests and tell them all of the wonderful things to do in our area while they are visiting the Beaches of South Walton.
So many of her guests are now her friends, and they are quick to schedule ahead their return to the beach. They know they truly have a friend at the beach and one who cares about their well being.
Emerald Coast Magazine is proud to support the 2009 Beaches of South Walton Above & Beyond service awards.