DAY 5 (Saturday, Feb. 12)
The lobby of the Ritz-Carlton, Toronto, feels quiet and expectant, like a cathedral before worshippers file in. A man in a hard hat stands in a corner, surveying the room, as if mentally ticking to-dos; otherwise, it's just me and a couple of security guards. Curious, I pop behind the front desk, imagining darkened computer screens coming alive in five days' time, when the hotel welcomes its first guest. We're midway through Opening Boot Camp, and dozens of veterans from Ritz-Carltons worldwide are in Toronto to smooth glitches and fine-tune training of the 450 new staff. I'm exclusively invited to observe; a tourist of the innards of the new hotel.
This is the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company's official return to Canada (the Ritz-Carlton Montréal isn't managed by the same company). It's an opportunity for Toronto, at last, to gain its first AAA five-diamond hotel (though it will be a year before inspectors arrive to assign a rating); and for the chain to woo a younger, more casual luxury traveller with the luminous, hip iteration of Ritz opulence. Chandeliers are spare and contemporary. The grand staircase is in stainless steel and glass. I note cheery caramel wood panelling (instead of dense oak), bronze maple leaves inlaid into marble floors for a sense of place, and an area rug in cobalt blue, nodding to 113 years of a legacy that began with the single Paris hotel opened by César Ritz. The lobby still has that new-upholstery smell.
DAY 4: MORNING
At a daily inspirational "Lineup" meeting in every department at every Ritz-Carlton, the topic is always a variation on the theme of serving ever more perfectly. Today, housekeepers begin their Lineup amid the laundry's hulking washer-dryers, with stretching exercises timed to a version of ABBA's Dancing Queen: "See that girl ... (shoulder roll) … watch her clean (left lunge) … we are the cleaning team!"
Trainers lead the group in reciting "service values" - including the motto: "We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen," and phrases such as "I own and immediately resolve guest problems" - from a small credo card neatly folded and tucked into everyone's uniform. Examples of excellent work by Toronto trainees, called "wow moments" in Ritz lingo, are acknowledged. Someone mentions that Toronto's opening is the theme of this week's Lineups worldwide. And the shift begins with a rousing "Woo-woooooh!
I head with supervisor Mary Ann into Room 707, one of 267 guest rooms, all with floor-to-ceiling south-facing views of the CN Tower, or north-facing views of Roy Thomson Hall across the street. She runs her fingers everywhere: bottom of the coffee pot, beneath the desk (always lots of surprises there), atop the headboard.
Then she sets the telephone a room-card length from the corner of the desk. Spaces hangers just so. Makes sure the Ritz's lion logo is visible here and there. Lastly, she checks the bed for perfect hospital creases. "In lessening variability, consistency will come," she explains.
DAY 4: NOON
An in-room dining drill: From the moment an order is taken, trays must be delivered in less than 25 minutes, in this case, to trainers posing as guests in the rooms.
Over at TOCA, the farm-to-table restaurant headed by chef Tom Brodi (an alum of Toronto's prestigious Canoe Restaurant), servers are memorizing 200-plus dishes available at TOCA and through in-room dining; for now, though, there's a choice of two test items: a burger made with Ontario beef, and Lake Huron seared perch. I order the perch, which is as perfect as the fizzy melon mocktail that preceded it. The restaurant has a glassed-in cheese cave and separate 5,000-bottle wine cellar. Diners will be invited in to sample and discuss their choices with sommeliers.
Seated next to me, guys from loss prevention pretend to sign for their meal, and then start filling out written evaluations. They notice that the signal for BlackBerrys and iPads in one corner of the restaurant isn't strong enough and make a note to have it boosted. Filled juice glasses are a bit tippy - a couple actually splashed to the floor during trials - so the company is now considering alternatives.
After lunch, a fire drill has everyone going downstairs, through the lobby lounge called DEQ, and onto the back patio. The CN Tower is so close, it feels as though I could wrap my arms around it.
DAY 3: MORNING
There's no understating the importance of what front-of-house calls the "warm and sincere greeting." Arrivals and departures are choreographed not just to deliver guests smoothly to or from the hotel, but to learn as much as possible about them; to engage them emotionally and begin establishing a relationship so they will choose to become "Ritz-Carlton guests for life."
Throughout Boot Camp, I've observed cars pulling up to bowler-hatted doormen, luggage instantly handed off and disappearing to guest rooms (through its own entrance, never the lobby). During a minute-or-two escort to the front desk, "ladies and gentlemen" are informed of local attractions and hotel amenities. By the time they reach front-desk trainee Ashley, she knows their names and purpose of their visit. Everyone does. And during their stay, more interactions, complaints, preferences will be recorded in a personal file. If they visit any other Ritz-Carlton, staff there will know which side of the bed they sleep on, what they like for breakfast. It's endless.
The company's own polling shows that 80 per cent of the guest experience is dictated in the first 10 minutes of a stay: "If this doesn't go well," says a trainer from Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, "we've lost the guest."
During one disgruntled-guest drill, the manager of the Ritz-Carlton, Central Park, pretends to be a Mr. Wilson, annoyed that a room upgrade isn't available at check-in. Ashley soothingly apologizes, over and over, all the while lobbing make-good offers - an upgraded room for tomorrow, use of the boardroom, access to the Club Lounge (a quiet space on the 20th floor, reserved for higher-category guests, which has a concierge and all-day buffet). She makes "no" sound so enticingly like "yes."
DAY 2: NOON
Ritz-Carlton "Ladies and Gentlemen" are rarely seen in less than formal dress, but today is a day for families of the new staff, who get to tour the hotel privately, and there's a pep rally, so everyone wears T-shirts emblazoned with "Return to/retour au Canada." The mood is Mardi Gras, with streamers, noisemakers, string necklaces and leis, as they form a procession under banners of each department, heading from the lobby into the fifth-floor ballroom. There, general manager Tim Terceira leads them with speeches and a slideshow, including a family-style compendium of favourite Boot Camp moments. His final advice is to "look impeccable" for opening ceremonies tomorrow, which will be streamed live. "Be special," he says, "because we are special."
The hotel is finally "live." At the opening ceremony, emcee Heather Hiscox, host of CBC News: Morning, jokes about how everyone at the national broadcaster - the building next door - is glad to finally have 53 floors of construction over with. All the heavy lifting is done. Chantal Kreviazuk sings the national anthem, and Piers Handling, head of the Toronto International Film Festival, accepts a ceremonial room key as the hotel's first official guest.
The company has endured ribbing for pride of service that comes close to religious fervour, but Ritz-Carlton is known for having one of the highest retention rates around. Many staff starting work here will stay at the Toronto hotel for life. No other corporate office, prior to an opening, dispatches so many leaders - including the president of the company and the global officer of worldwide operations - to spend 10 days role-playing with recruits. Who knows if this hotel will win its five-diamond rating, or be able to best future rivals including a Trump International Hotel & Tower opening next month, a new Four Seasons, and a Shangri-La. For now, after all the preparation, enthusiasm, cheers, morning Lineups, drills and testing, the Boot Camp has been a resounding success: They believe. And the Ritz-Carlton, Toronto, is open for business.
The Ritz-Carlton, Toronto: 181 Wellington St. W.; ritzcarlton.com/toronto; rooms from $500.
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