Hired as a housekeeper when the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay opened 26 years ago, Vivian Hamlin today oversees the cafeteria where all 359 hotel employees can eat a free meal every workday.
"The benefits are great and everybody here is a professional," she said. "It's fun working here."
That's why employees like her voted their hotel one of the best workplaces in the bay area for the second year in a row. It's joined on the list this year by its younger sibling, the Hyatt Regency Clearwater Beach.
But the older Hyatt poses a different challenge: motivating a low turnover staff, 43 percent of which has worked there at least a decade. A dozen have been there from day one.
"We're an entirely different type of hotel and staff," said Paul Joseph, 47, Grand Hyatt general manager. "Because we have such a seasoned team, we have customer service refresher courses, provide lots of recognition and I'm very hands-on at driving the message we treat our employees as well as our guests."
With 445 rooms, highly rated Armani's and Oystercatchers restaurants and a dozen casitas including Joseph's home on property, it's a four-star luxury hotel filled by business travelers drawn by the sweeping views of Tampa Bay and runways at Tampa International Airport.
Long among the region's premier business hotels, the Grand had lost its edge when Hyatt Hotels Corp. decided to sell — but continue to manage what had become a dated property — to a UBS investment fund for $56 million in 2011.
Now UBS is midway through $16 million remodeling of every room with a lobby overhaul to come in 2013. Meantime, internal Hyatt guest satisfaction ratings rebounded from the middle of the pack three years ago to the chain's fifth best 2011.
Morale only begins with standard Hyatt pay of about $20,000 to $60,000 including tips. Bonuses for upselling and being named for good work in customer surveys abound. Reprimands are delivered in private, but all positive customer feedback is widely celebrated in group atta-boys, shout-out bulletin boards and countless prize contests.
About 70 percent of the chain's hotel management teams and 90 percent of its general managers came up through the ranks. Jobs are filled by promotion or transfer from other Hyatts before outside applicants enter the mix.
Despite a college degree, for instance, Joseph moved in with a cousin in Baltimore to land his first Hyatt job as a front desk clerk 23 years ago.
The Grand Hyatt's catering event staff creates multiple events tailored for the hotel's more mature workforce: family Easter Hunts, awards dinners in the hotel's elegant $100-a-plate Armani's, outdoor picnics, free travel incentives and charity fundraisers.
To develop teamwork, staffers and managers are trained to greet and engage co-workers in conversation as they do guests. Joseph's pet peeve: a "silent elevator ride."
"I get after any back-of-the house engineers and security people who don't initiate contact," he said.
Staffers and managers gently prod each other for personal details: hobbies, family and travels. The hotel keeps a database of employee favorites for recognition awards.
"If they like Skittles, we're going to give them Skittles, not M&M's," Joseph said.
The result is teamwork in a cross-trained, 24/7 environment where employees routinely volunteer to work other people's shifts in a pinch, raise money to help fellow workers dealt an emergency or offer a empathetic ear to help a staffer recover from a berating by an overbearing guest.
"I've taken people off the front desk and lent encouragement while they walk it off," said Patricia, front desk manager.
Leann Gatlin, 42, applied to be a restaurant server, but landed in room service which required mastering a ritual.
She got a month's training, then took orders over the phone in the kitchen for weeks before her bosses let her deliver a room service order.
"You knock three times, ask if it's a good time, then if it's okay to come in, recite the order and then ask to set it," she said. "You serve it just like a meal. We even light a candle."
The server gets 17 percent of the required 22 percent gratuity (the kitchen staff the rest) plus most customers leave more. Her best tip: $100.
The Grand Hyatt workday starts at the employee entrance where a wall is covered with the words of the "Hyatt people promise": fun, mutual respect, intellectual honesty and integrity, creativity and humility.
Printed over the door: "Hospitality isn't a business, it's a calling."
Staff Writer Mark Albright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8252.