1. Business

Sandpearl Resort's casual luxury starts with happy hotel staff

CLEARWATER BEACH — The Sandpearl Resort was built in 2007 to replace the historic Clearwater Beach Hotel — but not to replace what the historic hotel stood for.

The new hotel was built by developer Mike Cheezem and the Hunter family, who owned the old hotel. They wanted to maintain the spirit of relaxed luxury of the resort's historic predecessor.

The new resort had to look great but feel casual. But to do that, it also had to maintain the family-like work atmosphere for the staff.

"It was very important to Mr. Cheezem that we carry on that tradition of not being stuffy," said Sandpearl general manager Eric Waltz, 42, "that our associates feel like they're a part of the family and that we care for them."

That family of associates, in turn, create the easygoing atmosphere for the guests. That's why the Sandpearl Resort earned AAA's prestigious Four-Diamond award. That's also why it's among the five hotels on the Tampa Bay Times' list of Top Workplaces.

The old Clearwater Beach Hotel had 150 rooms. The Sandpearl's 224,000-square-foot beachfront building dwarfs that. It's eight floors has 253 rooms, two restaurants, a lagoon-style pool and a spa along the beach.

When it was finished in 2007 the total cost was $100 million. It was also the first Silver LEED-certified resort built in Florida.

The hotel's commitment to service was spelled out in nine values — they literally spell the word Sandpearl — to respect each other and to be warm, attentive and helpful to the guests.

As at many other businesses, Sandpearl employees are expected to keep a card containing those values with them at all times. Last year employees who could recite them all from memory won $100.

Management said it has maintained those values under the new majority owner, Ocean Properties Ltd., which runs more than 130 high-end hotels. Cheezem and the Hunter family are now minority owners of the Sandpearl, but their vision lives on.

"They wanted the Sandpearl to compete with the Ritz Carltons and Waldorf Astorias," Waltz said. "They want a guest to be comfortable walking through the lobby in their swimsuit, but their surroundings to compete with the best hotels in the world.

"From an associate's standpoint, we want our guests to feel like they're returning home."

It helps if the staff feels like they're at home, too.

There are perks to working at the Sandpearl besides being at the beach. There are awards, annual company events like picnics, a free pair of new safety shoes once a year and, most important, free beach parking. The hotel rented off-site lots for employees and gave out free bus passes.

There are also free meals for the afternoon and evening shifts, prepared by the staff's own chef.

"This is the 12th hotel where I've worked and this hotel by far, more than the others, really does have a feel of family," Waltz said. "If something bad happens to one of our associates, all the other associates feel it. It really is a very close knit group of people."

The resort also maintains an emergency fund to help staffers out in a time of need. Recently, that meant buying last-minute plane tickets for a staffer who had a family emergency.

"We want to make sure people enjoy working here and working with each other," said Human Resources director Gail Hasan, 40. "You see that when people have family emergencies. When you go to a funeral and half the staff is standing there, supporting someone."

LaTesha Crawford, 31, who works in the front lobby, likes the way management helps her do her job. That wasn't the case at the last resort she worked at in Virginia.

"The management style, it's not like any other place where I've worked," she said. "Management wasn't hands on when you really needed them.

"When they see you need help here, they jump in right away. I like that."

She also likes meeting new people and interacting with them everyday. And she especially likes her surroundings: from her post greeting guests at the main door, she can see the sand and surf of Clearwater Beach across the hotel lobby.

"Do you see my beautiful view?" she said. "Who wouldn't want my view? Who could be unhappy with that view?"

Jamal Thalji can be reached at (813) 226-3404, or @jthalji on Twitter.