A lot of companies will talk about their commitment to their staff, but for Acqualina’s Deborah Yager Fleming, it’s a way of life.
The CEO of the Sunny Isles Resort manages a staff of 400 — and she knows all of them. For instance, she learned the bell man, Jonathan Lauria, enjoyed design. So the hotel started using Lauria’s talents in its marketing department on signage work. When a staff member has a birthday, he or she will be interviewed (Yager Fleming used to want to be a journalist) and a story about them posted for other staffers to read. In fact, she had just signed a birthday card earlier that day, Yager Fleming told the Herald on an overcast Friday morning.
And each member of her staff is a “team member,” she clarified, not an employee.
“I have a great team,” she said. “It’s not about being a solo pianist. It’s about being part of the orchestra, and that’s where the magic comes in.”
It’s not about being a solo pianist. It’s about being part of the orchestra, and that’s where the magic comes in.
Deborah Yager Fleming, CEO of Acqualina
Yager Fleming likes the orchestra metaphor — she invokes it several times during our meeting. Teamwork — musically or otherwise — is a lesson learned early on, when she was going through a hotel management program at what is now the Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne. The program involved going through different departments, which helped forge the foundation of her managerial style.
“I have a lot of empathy for our staff,” she said. “I understand what we’re asking them to do.”
The hotel celebrates 11 years in operation this year, with a third of its original staff. “The staff turnover is rare, so the staff welcome’s you by [name] and with hugs when we go two times a year [sic]” wrote one commenter on TripAdvisor.
For Acqualina, an independent hotel brand on a populated strip of oceanfront about 45 minutes north of Miami Beach, its commitment to its staff has set it apart from the pack. The hotel was ranked sixth in the country by U.S. News. It has held the American Automobile Association’s (AAA) Five Diamond award for eight consecutive years and Forbes Travel Guide Award’s five-star distinction for five consecutive years.
Acqualina has held the American Automobile Association’s Five Diamond award for eight consecutive years and Forbes Travel Guide Award’s five-star distinction for five consecutive years.
The service, Yager Fleming said, is what has elevated Acqualina — whose name is a play on “on the water’s line” — in an age of legacy hotels and mega mergers. But it starts with the employees.
“Success is due to happy team members who respect each other,” she said.
The Herald sat down with Yager Fleming near Acqualina’s oceanfront Costa Grill to discus the hotel’s philosophy, from conception to modern day.
Q. You weren’t originally interested in hospitality. As you dabbled in it, what finally drew you into the industry for good?
A. The ability to work with people who rely on each other’s talents and who are all committed and enthusiastic about delivering excellent customer satisfaction.
Q. As part of the team that conceptualized Acqualina, and as a Miamian, what did you feel was missing in the local hotel industry and did you craft Acqualina’s amenities and vision around those deficiencies?
A. There was a clear opportunity to deliver not only a beautiful facility with expansive amenities but also to create a special service culture that did not exist — a place where hotel guests and residents alike can feel transported to heaven surrounded by gorgeous aesthetics, where they encounter caring, passionate team members ready to create wow moments. We set out to create a destination, a lifestyle that embodies architecture, design, art and five-star service.
We set out to create a destination, a lifestyle that embodies architecture, design, art and five-star service.
Deborah Yager Fleming, CEO of Acqualina
Q. With such a large percentage of return customers, how do you address the pressure of keeping the hotel fresh for loyal guests?
A. It’s important to have well-maintained facilities, which requires daily effort and constant training. The ability to create services and amenities is actually very motivating, and I find it to be inspiring. It is exciting to be able to offer new options for our repeat customers. It’s a win-win for everyone.
Q. The hotel also has a strong focus on its staff. Can you recall moments where your happy staff philosophy led to truly exemplary service with guests?
A. Our valet parking team recently arranged for a guest, who is a car aficionado, to get a personalized tour of all the specialty vehicles that we have. While doing his personalized tour, he couldn’t believe we had so many luxury cars and a couple of antiques. He took 50-plus pictures of all the cars. He was able to learn more about each type/make and how the vehicles came to be.
One of our servers learned that a junior guest wanted to be an inventor. The next day, the junior guest was presented with a wind racer science kit.
I have a lot of empathy for our staff. I understand what we’re asking them to do.
Deborah Yager Fleming, CEO of Acqualina
One of our pool attendants learned about a couple who was staying with us had a tradition for their travels. Every vacation, they find drinks from the local region, as well as cigars. Our pool attendant wanted to create that tradition for them and found Miami-based tequilas and cigars and gifted the couple with them and a note describing a bit of history on both items.
Just yesterday, another attendant drew a caricature of guests who would sit on our signature red Acqualina pool loungers each day of their visit, since they loved spending time there. The couple was gifted with the caricature along with a beach bag that the attendant hand drew the Acqualina logo on.
Q. What’ has been your most memorable vacation experience?
A. [A place where] the staff was very kind to me, looked after my comfort. I was relaxing in sublime surroundings and was able to enjoy the local culture. In the past year, I have traveled to many places near and afar. I also stayed in Acqualina two weeks ago. The best part of coming home is I return to a place where the staff is very kind to me, looks after my comfort and I am immersed in sublime surroundings. Miami’s culture is very vibrant and there is always something new to try.
Deborah Yager Fleming
Job title: CEO and principal
Experience: Yager Fleming has more 20 years of hospitality experience in luxury hotel brands. She joined Acqualina Resort & Spa in March 2004 as part of the pre-opening team. In January 2011, she became a partner in the hotel with ownership interest. In her role, she oversees the hotel’s executive committee and leads the company’s digital and creative marketing efforts, branding initiatives and public relations. In addition, she serves as president of AQ Property Management LLC, the company managing the newly opened residences, The Mansions at Acqualina. Yager Fleming also contributes to the branding efforts for the company’s latest luxury residential development, The Estates at Acqualina, and serves on the executive committee of The Leading Hotels of the World Ltd. In 2016, Yager Fleming was nominated for Hotelier of the Year in the Virtuoso Best of the Best Awards.
Personal: Married to husband Greg Fleming and has one son, Jack. Yager Fleming says she enjoys “laughing, traveling, fashion, music, art, yoga, spinning, new restaurants, dinner with friends, watching my son play lacrosse, family holidays, discovering new things, places, people and ideas.”
Go-to vacation essential: Hampton Sun SPF 55, BCBGMaxazria Vintage Striped Panama Hat, Roberta Roller Rabbit cover up, Paula Hermanny bathing suit, Tkees flip-flops and Chanel moisturizing glossier (lip gloss).
About Acqualina: Acqualina Resort & Spa is a 98-room Mediterranean-style luxury hotel located on 4.5 acres of beachfront property in Sunny Isles Beach. The hotel includes 188 residences and multiple restaurants, Il Mulino New York, three oceanfront swimming pools, meeting rooms and a marine biology-based children’s program. Acqualina is also home to Acqualina Spa by ESPA,a 20,000-square-foot facility and the first ESPA-branded spa in the U.S. Acqualina is a recipient of the coveted Forbes Travel Guide Awards for both the hotel and spa and the AAA Five Diamond Award.