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July 24, 2014

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For CityCenter’s nongaming Mandarin Oriental, service is ‘be-all, end-all’

Guest experience to start with ride to 23rd-floor ‘sky lobby,’ greeting by name

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Leila Navidi

The Mandarin Oriental has begun hiring in preparation for a planned opening in December. The top manager will personally interview everyone on staff.

Employees at the Mandarin Oriental hotel, which opens Dec. 4 at CityCenter, are not allowed to point. They must escort guests to their destination rather than simply signaling or telling them how to get there.

This small detail is one of many that Mandarin Oriental executives hope will set a new standard for service in Las Vegas.

Customers who walk into the receiving lobby off the Strip will be escorted to the main lobby on the 23rd floor, where they will be greeted by name. By the time guests have ascended to the 12,000 square-foot “sky lobby,” their cumulative requests and preferences from previous visits will have been retrieved and scanned by the receptionist as well as other employees who can begin preparing for their stay.

Customers who like their shoes polished, clothes pressed and bed linens turned down in a particular fashion can rely on employees knowing that without being asked.

Such standards might sound typical in Las Vegas, which was built on treating the masses — but especially the gambling masses — like royalty. In reality, such personalized service is often reserved for high rollers. The vast majority who stay on the Strip do not visit often enough or spend enough to warrant much special treatment.

All Las Vegas hotels pride themselves on customer service. But that reputation is slipping in the recession as hotels tighten their belts by reducing staff and cutting perks.

For Rajesh Jhingon, who ran the Mandarin Oriental in Singapore before becoming general manager of the Las Vegas property a year ago, customer service is more than an oft-repeated phrase.

“That is the be-all and end-all of our existence,” he said. “It’s about acknowledging and anticipating what your guests want. It is the key to our success.”

In some respects, the Mandarin Oriental has a leg up on the competition.

With only 392 rooms, the hotel will become the smallest luxury property with no casino on the Strip. The Mandarin Oriental, with a center Strip location, will also be more prominent than the Four Seasons hotel next to Mandalay Bay, which has 424 rooms.

The hotel is expected to compete directly with the Four Seasons for guests but might also lure a few customers from the big casino hotels at the high end, said Bill Lerner, a gaming consultant and principal with Union Gaming Group in Las Vegas.

The property may also draw Mandarin Oriental fans who have never been to Las Vegas, he said.

Customers who want easy access to a casino probably won’t stay at the Mandarin or Four Seasons, though it will attract people who seek a hushed sanctuary from the bustle of the Strip, he added.

Mandarin Oriental will also differ from its Strip neighbors in that it will be managed by a global hotel company but owned by CityCenter — a partnership between MGM Mirage and investor Dubai World.

As the landlord and developer, MGM Mirage will not funnel customers to Mandarin. But Mandarin will benefit from the gaming giant’s purchasing power and the balance of CityCenter amenities. In other words, MGM Mirage is expected to spend the money needed for Mandarin Oriental to operate and maintain the property to a high standard but otherwise stay out of the way.

Jhingon declined to comment on specifics of the company’s management contract as well as potential hotel room rates, which are “under consideration.”

The real customer service effort, Jhingon said, happens during the hiring and training process.

Jhingon will meet and interview each of the 600 to 700 people hired to staff the hotel. Hiring began a few weeks ago and will continue into September.

The hotel company’s standards, imposingly collected in a binder titled “Legendary Quality Experiences” and given to every employee, from executive to bellhop, are both concrete and abstract.

Phones must be picked up before the third ring. The hotel must deliver a customer’s bags to his room within 10 minutes and handle guest complaints and requests within 10 minutes.

“There is no 11th minute,” Jhingon says. “We are fanatical about these things.”

Guests also must be pleasantly surprised by some aspect of their stay. Every room service order, even a lowly cup of coffee, must come delivered with some perk — perhaps a giant cookie or a croissant, for example.

“There is no cut-and-dried formula,” Jhingon said. “They are small things and easy for our colleagues to do.”

Like its much larger competitors among the luxury resorts, Mandarin Oriental will have an upscale spa and gourmet restaurants. Each of the company’s 23 hotels borrow some design elements from Asia — where Mandarin hotels originated — as well as the local culture.

(Unique elements in Las Vegas include a pastry shop on the ground floor, a lobby tea lounge, convention space and a spa with Chinese-influenced foot treatments.)

Other aspects of the hotel will be different from the mass-marketed properties along Las Vegas Boulevard.

The pool, for example, will be available only to guests and condominium residents. Guests will not have to pay for the privilege of having a fresh towel placed in their chaise longue if they leave their chair. (The Mandarin Oriental is hiring an employee whose primary job will be to wipe the sunglasses of lounging guests.)

Also, rooms also will feature valet cupboards that will eliminate the need for customers to open their doors to receive newspapers, polished shoes and other items.

“The way we interact with our customers is not defined by a training program. It’s a constant ritual,” Jhingon said.

He then presented a business card to a visitor with two hands, as if showing off a piece of expensive jewelry.

It was a small gesture, but one that might be long remembered.

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