The Breakers in Palm Beach, FL is an historic and grand property, first opened by Henry Flagler in 1896. It has huge, European, arching public areas with great detail on the ceilings and impressive furnishings. It is one of the most outstanding physical properties I’ve visited and used for meetings. We’ve stayed there many times over the years.
Alas, it has fallen on hard times. Some are physical: the beach, eroding constantly over the years, is now a tiny strip often endangered by high tides. The main pool no longer has a view of the ocean, since massive construction requires immense latticework around it. And many of the rooms badly need a refurbishing, including the large, corner suite we habitually occupy (one balcony door wouldn’t open at all, and another locked itself—I am not making this up—after we walked out on to it).
The staff remains first rate, they do have a new casual bar and eating area that’s a lot of fun (the staff maintains a retro look to the 50s complete with “cigarette girl”). And you can’t beat the Seafood Bar with fish swimming around beneath your drinks for casual dining.
But management is something else. I’ve taken one of my highest level programs, Thought Leadership, to The Breakers several times. I’ve spent well into six figures, have had world-class guest speakers (Dan Pink at the most recent one) and my deliberately small group of 25 elite consultants invest a great deal to be there. We had seven countries represented in the last one.
Yet four participants were moved to complain, and one checked out of the hotel! (His room wasn’t cleaned by 5:30, the staff refused to move him, and their attitude was that he’d just have to wait.) A fire alarm emptied part of the hotel at 1:30 in the morning with people milling around in robes outside, yet there was never an “all clear” and when called, the front desk replied curtly, “Just ignore it.” I never did receive an explanation.
One of my participants was given a hard time over $100 when checking out, and was told to bring “proof” that she had a lower rate (which was guaranteed to my participants but which the front desk chose to argue about). Instead of the roomy, well lighted room we’ve had in the past, we were squeezed into a long-narrow space once we arrived for our meeting.
Although I take one of the most expensive suites, I’m denied access to the club level, because I don’t take a suite there (those suites are smaller with poorer views). So spending more actually denies you privileges at The Breakers. (I’m writing this from the Four Seasons in Hong Kong where I ran another major event, was automatically included in the club, and received complimentary airport transfers in a Bentley, along with a host of other outstanding benefits.)
A manager responsible for helping me schedule dinners for the group wanted us to dine in the Seafood Bar for our opening reception, which is too loud, too casual, and where we’d be mixed with the public with no partition. When I told her that was an unacceptable option, she told me that if I didn’t like her suggestions I could do it myself and stopped providing any further assistance. To this day, that’s the rudest letter I’ve ever received from any hotel management member, and when I turned it in to the general manager I was surprised to find she was neither fired nor asked to apologize. She still works there.
I’ve held programs and/or stayed at some of the world’s great properties: Four Seasons Bora Bora, Four Seasons Hong Kong, Peninsula Beijing, Four Seasons Florence, Peninsula Beverly Hills, Castle Hill Newport, Park Hyatt Sidney, and so forth. Sometimes errors occur, and they are promptly corrected. I’m not seeking perfection, only sound judgment.
But I find The Breakers’ management attitude to be almost aggressively rude. I felt like revenue-on-the-hoof, not a guest whose program was to be supported for success.
The day I left I called the Four Seasons Palm Beach at 8:30 in the morning. The sales director was already in, we reached agreement in 15 minutes, I signed the contract over the next week for next year, and she invited us to come over for a complimentary stay in January (my program isn’t until October) to get to know the place. That’s a world of difference only 15 minutes away.
Henry Flagler is probably spinning in his grave. And people ask me if consultants are needed in the hospitality business! However, I don’t think you need to be a consultant to apply common sense, courtesy, and decency.
If you decide to go to The Breakers based on its reputation, don’t say I didn’t warn you. I’d send this to the chair of their board, but somehow I doubt anyone really cares so long as they can fill the rooms.
© Alan Weiss 2013
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