By Ritch Eich
The Apple Farm in San Luis Obispo stuck with me after my last visit, and it wasn’t just the lovely antique furnishings or cozy country décor. The service and overall hospitality were second-to-none, leading me to correspond with several key staffers in an effort to learn how the Apple Farm achieves its success in the competitive hotel and hospitality industry.
What I learned is that a strong dedication to the customers and a loyal, well trained staff of local people with sparkling personalities — plus some Disney and Ritz Carlton magic — make the Apple Farm a leading hospitality business.
Here are some ingredients of the Apple Farm’s recipe for success:
“Wowing” the guests: People from all walks of life can work at a hotel, but the Apple Farm has found success with friendly employees who simply want to “wow” their guests. The management seeks out employees with cheerful personalities and what it says is an innate drive to serve people — traits you can’t train into people but that you can discover during job applicant interviews.
The Apple Farm hires people of all ages, including students from Cuesta College and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Apple Farm General Manager Dean Hutton has worked there for 27 years, starting off as a reservation agent and working his way up. Hutton especially enjoys brainstorming with managers and front line staffers to find ways to improve the stay for guests and he places a high priority on making sure the property looks attractive visually.
Rewarding employees: Management rewards and shows its appreciation to the staff in numerous ways, which helps keep employees positive and motivated about their jobs. They include an Employee of the Month program and a “Remarkable” program that involves guest surveys and reviews. If a staff member is mentioned positively by name in a guest comment of any kind, their name is entered in a drawing to win a big prize each month. Prizes range from gift cards to local stores to luggage sets and big screen TVs. It goes without saying that the employees look forward to these drawings with eager anticipation.
Focusing on guest satisfaction: The goal is to make guests feel like they are at home and, indeed, I did feel this comfortable, homey aura on my visit with my wife. We had just finished a week volunteering as marshals at a major PGA Tour golf tournament and were exhausted when we arrived. Employees are encouraged to be friendly, approachable and authentic. Guest satisfaction is measured and monitored in many ways, including using guest surveys and monitoring reviews on social media sites like TripAdvisor, Yelp and online travel agencies. The staff tries to respond to all guest surveys and as many guest reviews as possible. Negative feedback is considered constructive and the Apple Farm isn’t afraid to make changes or evolve to meet guests’ changing needs.
Disney Magic and putting on the Ritz: Disneyland and the Ritz Carlton both influenced the Apple Farm’s approach to its employees. When the Apple Farm was founded in 1977, the original owners visited Disneyland and researched how the park hired and motivated employees. The owners then passed on what they’d learned to the management team for training. Many of those managers still work there today. The Apple Farm has also done in-service trainings using the Ritz Carlton model.
• Ritch Eich is a Thousand Oaks-based management consultant.