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Daniel Hostettler of The Boca Raton is a Trailblazer of Luxury Hospitality

An Obsession with Excellence: Daniel Hostettler of The Boca Raton is a Trailblazer of Luxury Hospitality

“I couldn’t possibly run a location of this size—or even, truth be told, a smaller one—without being able to delegate so much to the great teams here, whom I implicitly trust in everything.”

Let’s step into the world of luxury hospitality with Daniel Hostettler, the Swiss-bred hotelier with a remarkable number of Forbes Five Star awards under his belt and explore his passion and expertise for outstanding guest service. Starting his journey from his past performance at Rhode Island’s Ocean House to his most recent achievements in South Florida at The Boca Raton, Hostettler's steady dedication to excellence sets him apart in the industry.

Ocean House: A Star-Studded Beginning

Hostettler first impressed the Forbes Travel Guide and the luxury hospitality industry (and press) with his performance at Ocean House, a grand Victorian-style resort in New England. Starting with zero stars after a to-the-foundation renovation, the oceanside property achieved, under his direction, three concurrent Five Star ratings for its lodging, food, and spa. The Weekapaug Inn, Ocean House’s sibling down the road, soon added another five stars to Hostettler's galaxy.

He also continued to serve the larger hospitality community for four years as the President of Relais & Chateaux North America, where his main focus was on standards of luxury and innovation for the organization of more than 580 smaller luxury inns and restaurants, some with five stars to their names themselves (and, in the case of one storied member, The Inn at Little Washington, three Michelin stars as well).

The Boca Raton's Ambitious Ascent

Moving forward to Hostettler's recent move out of the Ocean State and southward to Florida, you can now find him at work transforming The Boca Raton, a property with a massive 950 keys (rooms) on premises and a storied (but previously starless) history. Owned by Michael Dell’s investment entity, MSD Partners and managed by Hostettler as President and CEO, the resort has set its sights uniquely high with an ambitious mantra: Twenty-Five Stars by 2025, in other words, a full five Forbes Five Star awards across the properties’ lodging, dining, and spa components. (The Boca Raton team clearly means business, already having landed two of those (for The Boca Raton Beach Club hotel and Spa Palmera) and leaving “just” three Five Star awards to go.

Adapting The Boca Raton to the needs and desires of today’s luxury traveler meant transforming what was previously “a pretty standard convention hotel,” albeit one known for its stunning Addison Mizner architecture. Under Hostettler’s vision, and with the involvement of exceptional design and operational vendors, The Boca Raton was transformed into five distinct “properties,” each with its own unique charm and allure. This transformation didn't come cheap; after an investment "in excess of $225 million," these properties now stand tall, ready to welcome guests. (And the physical transformation hasn’t ended; a second round of renovations is happening right now.)

The challenge of ultra-luxury success is, however, far more than changing configuration or undertaking physical transformation. Guest service of the highest standard is the other key component.  This, says Hostettler, is one of the reasons he has embraced the rigorous Forbes Five Star standards as his guiding light, embracing the 600 Forbes standards and making them his—and his team’s—own.

Hostettler’s belief is that while service styles may differ—some of The Boca Raton’s component hotels and restaurants are less formal, others more so—the standard of service should never waver. "We aren’t going to succeed in our Five Star goals if anyone anywhere on our campus gives guests anything less than a Five Star experience itself, because there is definitely overlap in where our guests spend different parts of the day and where they go to dine,” says Hostettler. 

The journey to Five Star service is far from a solo venture. It requires a strong partnership between management and ownership. Hostettler highlights the importance of having the right owners when pursuing a Five Star level of service. He gives credit to the five separate leadership teams that helm the five hotels, along with the associates who interact with guests day in and day out, extraordinary design and construction vendors, and the “long-term vision” of the owners.

According to Hostettler, the journey towards Five Star Service demands a relentless and sustained dedication that can only be achieved with an eye on what is and should be coming down the road. Without this forward-looking perspective, new, short-term priorities can easily derail the pursuit of excellence. Because according to Hostettler, “without an eye kept on the far horizon, there will always come a new, short-term priority that gets in the way of where we want to be headed. The most important part of my job here, above all others, is to keep everyone’s eye on the horizon. If I do that successfully, I can trust my teams across the resort to take us there.”

The Five Hotels at The Boca Raton after Repositioning

Tower: At 27 stories, the tallest building in Boca Raton, and a local landmark, ever since it was built in 1969, is now a lively, family-friendly luxury destination after a $65 million to-the-studs renovation and an inspired transformation of its interior by the Rockwell Group. Among other playful touches, youthful guests have two robot butlers at their service, Johnnie, and Ethel, who are on call to serve snacks and popcorn, as well as activity packages such as “Family Game Night” or “Movie Night,” from a menu that kids are welcome to order from all by themselves.

Yacht Club: With only around a hundred rooms, all served by (non-robotic) butlers, is intended for adults sans kids; parents can have a romantic interlude here while grandparents are enjoying with the kids in Tower—or vice versa.

Cloister: The original 261-room hotel, opened in 1926 as The Ritz-Carlton Cloister Inn, is particularly popular with conference attendees (its guest mix is 80% groups, 20% leisure) as it adjoins the 80,000 SF conference center.

Beach Club: Beach Club has 212 rooms on its own private beach. Its positioning is a little more fashion-forward and contemporary, approximately along the lines of the Four Seasons Surf Club in Surfside, FL.

Bungalows: A private resort behind a second set of gates, with its own concierge team and separate amenities, is intended for longer-term stays, either for people who want to have “their wintertime place in Florida” as well as, in the summertime, locals (often newly local) or while they’re gutting and renovating their own properties, a cohort that, says, Hostettler, “we’re making a pretty good summer living with.”

More of Hostettler’s Words of Wisdom

‘Develop your Humans. Then Deploy Them.’

Hostettler is quick to point out that there would be no hope of achieving a Five-Star goal without the efforts and buy-in of his “wonderful” front-line employees and leadership teams. “I couldn’t possibly run a location of this size—or even, truth be told, a smaller one—without being able to delegate so much to the great teams here, whom I implicitly trust in everything.”

‘Hire for Personality. Train for Skills.’

According to Hostettler, he preaches, and practices, hire for personality, train for skills. “I feel this is one of the ways we can keep extraordinary service happening with every guest via every employee.”

He furthermore stated that, “when leading a large property like ours, you have some ability to systematize the training, but you have to be cognizant of what an employee brings with them to that training. Five-Star service depends on something beyond what can be trained into an employee and, in a sense, beyond what can be paid for. It depends on something inside each employee that is either there or not.”

Hostettler adds, “This isn’t cut and dried; the most by-and-large personable employee can have a bad day, and someone who isn’t by nature particularly cut out for service can rise to the occasion.” But, he elaborates, “Seeking out potential employees with the right personality traits makes your odds much better.”

“You Need Systems as Well as Smiles.”

Five-Star service needs to be particularly personal and personable, Hostettler said. This requires an element beyond well-selected, trained, and managed employees (though, he hastens to add, that’s certainly the place to start). “It needs to rest on a solid technological backbone, especially at a property our size.” All told, the Boca Raton includes 950 keys.

“We use well-thought-out technology, ideally concealed from the guest’s view, to aid this personalization,” he said. This includes facial recognition and opt-in technology on guests’ phones. And, coming soon, The Boca Raton will be deploying location-based beacons. “As a guest approaches one of our restaurants’ host or hostess station, they’ll be prompted with the approaching guest’s name and other information that’s unique to that guest, including whether they’re a first-time or a returning guest,” Hostettler added. Based on that last item, the host/ess can offer a greeting of either, “Welcome, Mr. Solomon" or “Welcome back, Mr. Solomon.”

“Perhaps this seems like a small thing,” he continued, “but extraordinary, personalized service is truly our unique selling proposition.”

Beyond personalization, Hostettler added, “we use technology to solve myriad problems and pursue opportunities.” To wit, he has uniquely solved an age-old, stomach-turning problem—the half-eaten remains of last night’s room service that inevitably linger in the hallways. “I put trackers on our room service carts—yes, pretty much like on Breaking Bad—and a sensor on each guestroom door. When the cart passes that barrier, the butler gets a ring—a very insistent ring—until they make it a priority to whisk that detritus away.”

‘The Importance of Good Ownership’

If you want to pursue a Five-Star level of service, it helps to have the right owners, Hostettler said. “MSD Partners [Michael Dell’s investment entity] has the long-term vision that’s needed. Because, without an eye kept on a far horizon, there will always come a new, short-term priority that gets in the way of the relentless, sustained dedication that achieving Five-Star service depends on.”

Daniel Hostettler: A Snapshot of His Key Accomplishments

Daniel Hostettler may be his generation’s most prominent entrée into the hall of fame of hospitality leadership. He has embraced the Five Star challenge with gusto. Hostettler and his teams have earned Forbes’ highest award in a staggering six separate instances to date. First came three simultaneous awards (for lodging, food, and spa) at Ocean House, the majestic Victorian-style resort in southern New England that Hostettler helmed until recently. (Only seven other hotels in the world attained three at one property, at that time.) A little later, Ocean House’s nearby sister property, The Weekapaug Inn, added another Five Star award under Hostettler, for a total of four independent Forbes Five Star awards within the greater Ocean House world.

And now, right out of the gate after Hostettler’s move to Florida, come two more Five Star awards – one for The Boca Raton Beach Club hotel and another for the resort’s 50,000-square-foot Spa Palmera. According to Hostettler, this puts The Boca Raton “well on the way to our team goal here. Our much-repeated, admittedly ambitious, mantra is, ‘Five [Five-Star ratings] by 2025!’”

Even if you have no intention of submitting to the rigors of the Forbes starring process at your own hotel, or you’ve decided to pursue a more accomplishable four stars, there’s much to learn from Hostettler’s approach. And his enthusiasm for sharing is commendable.

“Without an eye kept on a far horizon, there will always come a new, short-term priority that gets in the way of the relentless, sustained dedication that achieving Five-Star service depends on.”

“Our much-repeated, admittedly ambitious, mantra is, ‘Five [Five-Star ratings] by 2025!’”