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Miami-Dade hotels welcome five-star news

The stars have aligned for a couple of Miami-Dade hotels.

After a long dry spell with no five-star lodgings to boast about, Miami-Dade now has a mini constellation of bragging rights.

The Mandarin Oriental, Miami on Brickell Key and Acqualina Resort & Spa in Sunny Isles Beach, both previous four-star winners, each earned an upgrade on the Forbes Travel Guide’s Annual Star Awards, which were announced Tuesday.

The spa and restaurant at the Mandarin, Azul, also earned five stars, making it the state’s only triple winner. Acqualina Spa by ESPA at the Sunny Isles Beach resort also got the highest rating. NAOE, a Japanese restaurant on Brickell Key, was the only other five-star restaurant in the state.

Formerly known as the Mobil Travel Guide’s awards, the top ratings are coveted by hotels, restaurants and spas for the prestige they lend and high rates they can drive. But they can be elusive. South Florida hasn’t had a five-star hotel since the old Grand Bay in Coconut Grove dropped to four stars in 1997. (That hotel was recently razed.) While representatives for the travel guide have said Miami has five-star facilities, the sticking point has always been service — or the lack of it.

As part of the rigorous rating system, an anonymous inspector stays at a property for two nights and pores over 550 standards. Service and staff engagement, said Forbes Travel Guide executive vice president Jayne Griswold, makes up 75 percent of the calculation. Those properties in the running for five-star status get two or three visits, and scores must be consistently high for each visit.

“It’s a challenge for any property and it all comes down to culture and the staff and the momentum of the staff, its focus to deliver together as a team,” Griswold said. “I can’t point to something that prohibits any property from achieving a five-star level, but I can tell you that it takes years to do.”

The Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau has been working on widespread customer service initiatives for several years, an effort that continues now.

“As Miami has become a luxury destination, it is clear from our research that we need to have the best customer service that we can have,” said William Talbert III, the bureau’s president and CEO. “We’re moving the bar up ever so slowly. It takes time.”

As Miami has emerged as an international destination with high-profile events such as Art Basel and Winter Music Conference, observers say, so has the demand for top-notch service. Miami used to have a reputation solely as a place to party, said Kelly Grumbach, who heads the U.S. travel team for global concierge company Quintessentially. “There’s a different level of clientele that is now traveling to Miami,” she said. “They actually do care about the service.”

For a destination that has grown into an established high-end hospitality market over the past decade, the new ratings are indicative of an evolution.

“This shows real progress,” said Mark Lunt, partner in the hospitality practice at Ernst & Young. “And I think in the long term, and even the short-to-mid-term, it’s helpful to the lodging industry here because you can bet that every other wannabe five star hotel is trying to catch up.”

The firm is working with the tourism bureau on a strategic plan, and Lunt said that one of the destination’s hurdles has remained the visitor perception of uneven service quality and friendliness. He said the seal of approval from an organization as stringent as the Forbes Travel Guide should help change that image.

For the two hotels that earned the higher rating, the designation was no accident.

Sase Gjorsovski, general manager at Acqualina Resort & Spa, said the 98-room property has devoted itself to service since it opened six years ago. He said the hotel has acted on reports from previous inspections and focused on “emphasizing small touches and always being ahead of the curve and finding creative ways to wow our guests.”

On Tuesday, he called the honor “overwhelming” and said he hadn’t even been able to keep up with the congratulatory emails.

Jorge Gonzalez, general manager of the Mandarin Oriental, Miami and regional vice president for the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, learned of the award about a month ago. He broke the news to staffers recentlyduring a fire drill by having a banner plane fly by as they gathered outside.

Speaking from Beverly Hills, where events are being held for the award, Gonzalez said the hotel put together an internal plan last year looking at the approach to coaching, training and developing all members of the staff. They used the spa, which has earned five stars for five years, as an example, and also learned from quarterly Forbes inspection reports.

“The most important part was to create that ownership, attention to detail and accountability from everybody,” he said.

He said customer satisfaction surveys as well as the Forbes rating show that the work paid off.

Mason Hunt, 34, who runs an entertainment company in New York City, stayed at the Mandarin Oriental, Miami recently when he was putting on a show there. Stopping by on Tuesday to pick up the cellphone he left behind, Hunt had fond memories of the stay, raving about the food, the room, the feng shui, the service.

“It deserves seven stars,” he said.