Peabody Little Rock Earns First Forbes Four-Star Rating in Arkansas

Peabody Little Rock Earns First Forbes Four-Star Rating in Arkansas
Gregg Herning, general manager of The Peabody Little Rock, strategically chose to go after a Forbes Travel Guide's four-star rating during a recession.

Gregg Herning's hands trembled as he tore into a FedEx package in the executive office lobby on the second floor of The Peabody Little Rock.

It was the morning of Nov. 9 and the contents of the package held the results of the hotel's 13-month campaign to achieve Forbes Travel Guide's four-star rating.

Herning pulled a sheet of paper from the package and then, he said, the moment blurred until a shriek from over his shoulder snapped him out of the daze.

"I saw a 'Dear Mr. Herning.' And I remember trying to look down," Herning said. "And it was somebody reading over my shoulder who went, 'Wahoo!' And it was our director of sales and marketing, Todd Scholl, who was behind me who screamed out. And I don't even remember reading it.

"I don't think I'll ever forget that. It's one of those great career moments."

On that morning, The Peabody Little Rock became the first hotel in Arkansas to receive the four-star status from the industry publication formerly known as Mobil Travel Guide.

"I had prepared two speeches," said Herning, general manager of The Peabody Little Rock. "One that if we were to receive the four-star, how great this was for the hotel, for the city, for the employees, and that we would celebrate with a press conference that night and it would become the theme of our end-of-the-year party.

"Then I also had the other speech, that I felt like my role was, if we didn't get it, we can't all of a sudden watch all this morale just go right down into the dump. There would definitely be a disappointment; there would definitely be a lull. But my job was going to be then to say, 'OK, all right, Rome wasn't built in a day.'"

Four-Star Story
The story begins about two years ago. With the economy heading into a recession, employees across the nation tiptoed about as almost any job teetered on the brink of extinction.

For Herning, this is when the wheels began turning for the four-star endeavor.

For the staff, it was just a healthy bit of inter-company rivalry.

As the smallest of the three Peabody hotels and the only one lacking four-star status, The Peabody Little Rock crew felt like the runt of the litter compared with their Orlando and Memphis counterparts. 

Determined to disabuse the hotel and, by extension, the city of the notion of its ugly duckling status, Herning launched an underdog campaign - complete with a motif of the horse Seabiscuit from the 2003 film - to rally the troops.

The management even turned an entire wall into a simulation of a horse race. Each month, when the numbers from the customer satisfaction surveys would trickle in, the three hotels, depicted by cutouts stuck to the wall, would inch closer to the end-of-year finish line.

And at the end of 2008, The Peabody Little Rock had accumulated the highest customer satisfaction scores.

That was the moment, Herning said, that he knew the hotel was ready to take the hill.

"The biggest turning point was when we nudged out the other two Peabodys in guest satisfaction; that was a milestone," Herning said. "It was thought that it would never happen. Even the other two Peabodys, although they were very congratulatory to us, still didn't believe it happened."

Shortly afterward, Herning notified Forbes that The Peabody Little Rock was ready to throw its hat in the ring.

Hotel Boot Camp
From thoughtful placement of bathroom amenities to automatic turn-down service to the effective but discreet use of a guest's name, Forbes' criteria are far-reaching.

"In a four-star setting, in a five-star setting, they want to take [service] to a whole other level," Herning said.

The travel guide grades on about 500 different criteria. The majority - about 75 percent, according Forbes' Web site - is on the hotel's service. Though "service" seems like a subjective thing to measure, Forbes' incognito inspectors use checklists, stopwatches and recorders to make their findings as accurate as possible.

The other 25 percent of the grade comes from the facility inspection. The travel guide inspects for cleanliness, condition and location of the hotel.

Herning said Forbes provides a benchmark inspection and a subsequent set of training courses. After that, it's up to the hotel to bring everything up to par.

"I taught the staff early on in the campaign, 'We're not going to prepare to pass an inspection. That's not how you do it. What you have to do is you have to change a culture and we have to change behavior and we have to just raise our bar,'" Herning said.

"And it was rewarding but it was hard," he added. "It was like a boot camp."

Little Things That Kill
Though The Peabody always considered its service to be good, the staff had to scrutinize the minutiae.

"It's a lot of little things." Herning said, chuckling at the understatement. "It's a lot."

Though the staffs at many hotels are happy to offer directions to a wandering guest, that is not the four-star approach.

"In a four-star approach, it's, 'Yes ma'am, follow me. I'd be glad to take you there.'"

The Peabody then trained staff members to be engaging but not pushy conversationalists during the guided directions.

"So there's a balancing act that had to be developed," Herning said. "We want to always use the guest's name but not overuse it. It can't come across as trite. It can't come across as forced."

Even Herning had to tweak some things about his style of speech.

"I always had a habit of saying, 'Hey, how ya doin'?' What Forbes is looking for is just a little more refined, a little more gracious," he said. "Instead of, 'Can I help you?' - which is very nice - it's, 'How may I assist you?'"

More Than Just Four
Perhaps the biggest reason Herning chose to go after the rating at the time he did was to create a diversion.

Herning said his boss questioned whether striving for a four-star status during a recession was prudent timing

"I said, 'I think it's a really good time because I would like to take my associates' minds off the fact that the business traveler is falling off the world right now,'" Herning said.

The four-star designation could possibly bolster tourism in central Arkansas by elevating the state into an elite category.

Of more than 8,000 hotels that Forbes rates, only 160 have achieved four stars while a mere 54 have received five stars.

"One of our objectives is to try to get more affluent, better educated travelers into the state that will spend more money," said Joe David Rice, tourism director of the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism. "And this announcement by The Peabody is perfectly in line with that because it's going to let folks know that they do have the kind of quality lodging establishment that they would expect to find in any of the major cities around the world."

Though The Peabody certainly isn't the only hotel worthy of four stars, it may have the title to itself for a while. Chuck Magill, director of sales and marketing at the neighboring Capital Hotel, owned by financier Warren Stephens, said it has no plans to seek four-star status. Magill said he thinks online consumer reviews outweigh the nod of a travel guide.

Though The Peabody relishes the accomplishment, Herning doesn't plan on taking a break.

Herning revealed that the hotel has quietly courted a full-service day spa, which he hopes will start setting up shop at the beginning of 2010. Because the deal is pending, he declined to release the name of the company.

If the economy shows more signs of recovery, Herning said, The Peabody also has planned a $15 million renovation of its guest rooms in 2011.

Herning said that in a better economy, the new Forbes ranking would justify a rate increase. However, the hotel has no plans to raise rates without an increase in demand, Herning said.

While The Peabody plans to leverage this designation with all its marketing might, the main reason the hotel went after the four-star status, Herning said, was to divert his troops' attention from the casualties of the economy.

"In a time period where hotels were actually cutting services and cutting employees," Herning said, "we did make a strategic decision to take this downtime and almost go against the grain of what was normal out there."