318 | Gold Standard: General manager of The Ritz-Carlton St. Louis leads property through more than one challenge

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NEW RESTAURANT: Mario Iaccarino of Southern Italy in March opened Casa Don Alfonso in The Ritz-Carlton, St. Louis. The restaurateur’s first U.S. venture is inspired by his Don Alfonso 1890 restaurant, an Italian dining landmark. Amanda Joiner, general manager of the 299-room luxury hotel, worked closely with Iaccarino to design the restaurant to appeal to hotel guests as well as visitors to and residents of St. Louis. The casual-yet-luxurious dining concept was developed after hotel owner BLR Properties conducted a feasibility study of the local market.

The Ritz-Carlton Hotel brand marks its 110th anniversary this year. Though the hotel has a rich international history, most modern-day hoteliers connect the brand to Horst Schulze of Atlanta, Georgia. He is co-founder and former president and COO of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co.

Schulze has a storied career of providing uncompromised service to guests of The Ritz-Carlton hotels. His motto “Ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen” remains a key brand promise that has defined The Ritz-Carlton’s culture through the ever-evolving landscape of the hospitality industry.

LISTEN: ‘EXCELLENCE WINS’: Episode 219 of Lodging Leaders podcast features Horst Schulze, co-founder and former COO of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co., which manages the brand of hotels for owner Marriott International. The episode launched on Feb. 13, 2019, soon after Schulze released his autobiography, “Excellence Wins.”

Amanda Joiner has been with The Ritz-Carlton Hotels for 25 years. As general manager of The Ritz-Carlton, St. Louis for more than five years, Joiner embodies the company’s culture of service.

Joiner started her career in housekeeping as a turn-down manager. Her career trajectory is not unique, she says, as anyone can adopt The Ritz-Carlton’s tenets of customer service to clear a path to leadership in the hospitality industry. The lessons she has learned as well as her rich experience gleaned in different areas of hospitality leadership enabled her in 2020 to lead the 299-room luxury hotel through a $28 million renovation and the opening of a new restaurant amid the coronavirus crisis.

Since joining The Ritz-Carlton in 1994, Joiner has held a variety of operational roles, including the front desk. She also worked in events and was national sales manager at The Ritz-Carlton Atlanta before becoming the hotel’s manager – second in command – in 2010.

At one point, Joiner left the company for about two years, returning to the Atlanta hotel in 2001.

In 2012, she shifted to senior director of sales planning and support at the company’s corporate headquarters in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and in 2015 she became general manager of The Ritz-Carlton, St. Louis.

The luxury property is about a 15-minute drive from St. Louis in a city called Clayton. Managing a large suburban hotel amid the coronavirus pandemic is a monumental challenge. But Joiner’s job was made even more so as the hotel recently finished a multi-million-dollar renovation and added a new restaurant in the past 12 months.

GOLD STANDARD: The Ritz-Carlton, St. Louis underwent a $28 million renovation in 2020. Leading the project, which included opening a new restaurant, was Amanda Joiner, general manager and a 25-year veteran of the luxury hotel brand. Episode 318 of Lodging Leaders podcast features Joiner as part of our Lodging Luminaries series, which will launch on April 29 as its own program hosted by Jason Freed, a journalist and founder of Hotel Recovery, an online newsletter. Lodging Luminaries with Jason Freed is part of Long Live Lodging’s multimedia programming.

From Square One

Although Joiner was with The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. for 20 years she had to interview for the role of general manager of the St. Louis property.

The hotel is owned by a group of investors called BLR Properties LLC. Marriott International acquired The Ritz-Carlton brand in 1998 and The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. manages the hotels.

Joiner says The Ritz-Carlton culture is so indoctrinated in her heart and mind, it affects most everything about her life, even how she raises her twin teenage sons.

“The first thing is the brand is about excellence,” she said. “When I left for two years, I acted the same way as if I worked for The Ritz-Carlton.”

Joiner is not the only job candidate to undergo an extensive interview at The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. Every prospective employee – new ones as well as those seeking a promotion – is vetted to determine if they’re the right fit for the brand.

“Although people may not use the same language of the culture that we have, it’s a philosophy; it’s an intensity; it’s an uncompromising commitment to excellence,” she said.

“There’s no doubt that I am the leader I am today because of this incredible brand I’ve worked for. Our gold standards and our credo have helped me have the confidence to be the leader that I am.”

The Ritz-Carlton “roadmap” to excellence enables anyone to carve a career path to leadership in hospitality, Joiner said.

Consistency is a key element.

“Our gold standards take away the guessing game about what the right decision is. It’s really obvious and it’s obvious for a housekeeper, a dishwasher, the general manager or the director of finance. Across the organization, our gold standards give you the roadmap and the philosophy of how to make decisions and how to be empowered to make decisions.

“I’m sure I’m a different mom and wife than I would have been had I not worked for this incredible company. It’s just really about doing the right thing.

“At the end of the day, the guest is our highest mission. It’s not number two or number six or when I’m in a good mood or when I feel like it. It’s every single day, all the time.

“In the beginning of my career, I was learning how to adopt it and own the content of our gold standards. Now my role is to teach it and have it be sticky glue to my ladies and gentlemen that I hire.”

The Ritz-Carlton leaders value the brand’s culture so highly, they’ll only hire people who can adopt and adapt to its tenets in the workplace.

At the end of a three-day orientation, new recruits are expected to be able to recite the brand’s credo from memory:

The Ritz-Carlton is a place where the genuine care and comfort of our guests is our highest mission. We pledge to provide the finest personal service and facilities for our guests who will always enjoy a warm, relaxed, yet refined ambience. The Ritz-Carlton experience enlivens the senses, instills well-being, and fulfills even the unexpressed wishes and needs of our guests.

If employees do not know the words, they cannot own the message and make it come to life as they serve guests, Joiner said.

INTIMATE MOMENTS: The lobby of The Ritz-Carlton, St. Louis is relatively small. The design enables employees to interact closely with guests and build relationships. Though COVID-19 safety protocols are practiced, The Ritz-Carlton values getting to know each guest well enough to be able to anticipate his or her ‘unexpressed wishes and needs.

Building Loyalty

The unexpressed wishes and needs of guests, Joiner said, it all about anticipating what the guest desires and expects.

“It’s not enough to fulfill the expressed wishes,” she said. Most travelers expect the hotel to perform the most fundamental services such as a clean room. Coming back to well-made bed and fresh towels is now a wow factor and will not generate loyalty.

“We’re seeking guests to go out of their way to stay with us, even when it’s inconvenient. We want irrational loyalty, i.e. ‘I love Ritz-Carlton so much that even if I have business in downtown St. Louis, I’m going to go out of my way to travel 15 minutes to stay in Clayton at the Ritz-Carlton.’

“We want that loyalty because if we don’t have that, when a new hotel opens, they’re just going to try that other brand or other hotel. We want all of their business.”

Going beyond the basics and building relationships with guests is what it takes to become a favorite choice among consumers, Joiner said.

“The differences, the unexpressed, observing you, understanding why you’re visiting us, developing a personal relationship, acting on the preferences that I learn about you when I interact with you so I can surprise, Donight and create a unique experience for you. That’s what it’s all about.

“It’s that personalized experience. We don’t send everybody chocolate chip cookies, but if a family of four checks in with their kids and we write their children’s names on the cookies, what a surprise and delight. It’s about creating experiences that are unique to the person, and unexpressed is what’s unique to the person.”

The COVID-19 pandemic forced The Ritz-Carlton, St. Louis to reduce staffing as occupancy plunged. For employees who remained, it was all hands on deck. Even Joiner was back at the front desk.

NEW KING ROOMS: BLR Properties LLC, owner of The Ritz-Carlton St. Louis, included a redesign of the hotel’s king rooms and baths in the property’s $28 million renovation.

$28M Project

Adding to seismic shift in operations in 2020 was BLR Properties launching a $28-million renovation of the 31-year-old hotel. The top-to-bottom update included a new full-service restaurant, a redone and relocated luxury cigar club and a new 3,000 square foot solarium or indoor-outdoor terrace. It also redid its king guest rooms as well as the baths.

The restaurant and other areas were supposed to open in July, but the coronavirus pandemic slowed the pace of the project. Though occupancy was low and many other luxury hotels throughout the country closed in 2020, Joiner said it was important to its owners that The Ritz-Carlton, St. Louis remain open.

“Luckily, we have a group of investors that are here for the long-term instead of the short-term,” Joiner said. “It’s a partnership with hotel owners and management companies to be on this journey together.”

Besides overseeing operations amid renovations at The Ritz-Carlton, St. Louis, Joiner also was hands-on in developing a one-of-a-kind restaurant designed to appeal to guests as well as visitors to and residents of St. Louis and its surrounding community.

Casa Don Alfonso opened on March 21. Joiner worked closely with owner Mario Iaccarino of Southern Italy as the dining concept is his first venture in the U.S.

Casa Don Alfonso specializes in cuisine from Italy’s Sorrento Coast, where Iaccarino grew up on the family farm.

The coronavirus pandemic cast a long dark shadow across the U.S. hotel industry, but Joiner said working with Iaccarino to bring Casa Don Alfonso to life was for her a bright spot in 2020.

“Mario and his family, the philosophies of how they take care of their guests really area symphony with our culture. Their happiness factor is all about highly personalized experiences,” Joiner said.

The decision to work with Iaccarino to develop his restaurant concept in the U.S. came after The Ritz-Carlton, St. Louis performed a feasibility in 2015. “That really told us that we needed something in which it was unpretentious comfort, a relaxed environment and a flexible dining experience that is inherently social,” Joiner said.

At Casa Don Alfonso guests can experience the restaurant in different ways, including dining a table, in a private room, at the bar or outside on the patio.

SORRENTO TO ST. LOUIS: Chef Travis Spear prepares a dish at Casa Don Alfonso, which recently opened in The Ritz-Carlton St. Louis. The menu is influenced by owner Mario Iaccarino’s childhood on the family farm along the Sorrento Coast in Southern Italy.

As with most government restrictions throughout the country, indoor dining in Missouri was prohibited. As authorities have begun to allow restaurants to open, Joiner said the key to attracting guests to Casa Don Alfonso is to focus on the promised dining experience over the messaging of The Ritz-Carlton.

“We have a very specific strategy for Casa Don Alfonso,” she said. “We hired a separate marketing agency and PR firm to represent Casa Don Alfonso. We rarely talk about The Ritz-Carlton or say, ‘Oh, The Ritz-Carlton has a new restaurant.’ It’s not about the hotel. That will naturally happen on its own. We have positioned to this to the best of our ability as a standalone restaurant. It has a separate entrance. A separate staff, if you will separate social channels, a separate website.

“Casa Don Alfonso needs to be loved by the residents of St. Louis, the locals of Clayton and the hotel guests will love it, too. But our true success is going to be that we are the favorite of the city, not just the favorite hotel guests.”

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