A strong service culture helped Santa Barbara’s Hotel Californian thrive in the midst of fire and mudslide disasters that struck just months after the hotel’s opening.
SANTA BARBARA, California—For most hoteliers opening a new property, getting the word out and ramping up are their biggest concerns in the first few months after the doors open.
At the Hotel Californian in Santa Barbara, California, however, management had unique challenges just a few months after its September 2017 opening: The city and surrounding regions were affected by California’s Thomas Fire wildfire in December, and then the Montecito mudslides in January.
The new-build Hotel Californian, which occupies several buildings just blocks from the ocean and in the heart of Santa Barbara’s bustling beachfront, escaped damage, but found itself in prime position to lend assistance to a region affected by back-to-back disasters.
“Our hearts go out to all our neighbors that lost family and homes through those times; it was heartbreaking” said Hotel Californian GM Warren Nocon. “But it was also uplifting to see how the members of the Santa Barbara community came together to help those devastated by these disasters.”
Nocon said the disasters meant “the hotel went from busy to bursting at the seams,” which meant staff—many of whom were still new to the job—had to mobilize.
“Throughout the fire and mudslide disasters, everyone pitched in to help in any way they could,” he said. “All of our team members jumped in without hesitation, … providing shelter, finding clothes and basic necessities for those who had lost everything, taking care of pets and doing whatever possible to support our neighbors and the community.”
Many of the region’s biggest thoroughfares were shut down because of the disasters, but that didn’t stop the service the Hotel Californian team needed to provide to its guests, many of whom were displaced from their own homes.
“With the 101 Freeway shut down, we paid for people to take the ferry or train just to get to work,” he said. “For employees who worked in the evenings, we set aside rooms in the hotel to enable them to get the working hours they needed and also to ensure our guests were taken care of.”
With the immediate impact of those disasters in the rearview mirror, Nocon said it’s time to make sure “the rest of the country and the world knows that Santa Barbara is still here, still beautiful and remains a world-class travel destination.”
A long history for a new hotel
The destination of Santa Barbara is what inspired the Hotel Californian in the first place. Developed by Los Angeles-based real estate developer Michael Rosenfeld, CEO of Woodridge Capital Partners, the 121-room* hotel compound consists of three buildings designed in the Spanish Colonial Revival style. In addition to guestrooms and a 1,700-square-foot presidential suite, the compound includes sprawling indoor-outdoor event space, a Moroccan-inspired spa, a rooftop pool patio, two restaurants and a boutique.
But despite its new-ness, the Hotel Californian isn’t entirely new: The original hotel by that name occupied on the site in 1925, but closed almost immediately when a massive earthquake hit the city. The hotel went through rebuildings and new owners, serving as a popular spot through the 1950s, after which it fell into disrepair.
Today, the original 1925 façade fronts the four-story Californian building of the hotel, which houses guestrooms, the spa and the 1,300-square-foot rooftop deck and pool.
Nocon joined the planning team for the hotel in 2013.
“When I first visited the site, the preserved façade of the 1925 building was surrounded by a small neighborhood begging to be the center of attention,” he said. “Michael Rosenfeld explained to me his very ambitious vision to create a new ‘entrance’ into Santa Barbara and (he) gave me one direction—make sure we provided service commensurate with the product he would create.”
Strong service culture
That service—and the people behind it—are what brings the property to life, Nocon said.
“Our goal in assembling the operations team was to bring on a group of individuals who would represent the spirit of Santa Barbara with a commitment to provide exceptional service that is both genuine and sincere,” he said. “Many of our employees did not have luxury hotel service experience, but were selected because they demonstrated the qualities we valued and believed would contribute to our outstanding service goals.”
For Nocon, the idea of authenticity is best expressed through service.
“Everyone on the team must work together to make service authentic,” he said. “Whether in housekeeping, guest reception, engineering, food and beverage or sales, all our team members have been trained to know their duties, but more importantly to respect the hotel and the city.”
Designing a vision
The Hotel Californian, affiliated with Preferred Hotels & Resorts, has been a labor of love for developer Rosenfeld, whose Woodridge Capital Partners firm is known for high-profile deals. Notably, the company is an owner of several Fairmont-branded hotels, including Fairmont San Francisco, Fairmont Orchid in Hawaii and the historic Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles, which is currently under renovation to re-open this year as Fairmont Century Plaza.
“Santa Barbara is a special place for Michael for personal reasons,” Nocon said. “Many of his projects may be larger in scale or budget, but this development held his attention on a daily basis. It is the responsibility of our team to take this realized vision and give it a life.
“Michael came and spoke to the managers and leaders before the opening and said, ‘We’ve built a building. But you … will give it life and make this a hotel.”
Designer Martyn Lawrence Bullard managed the Moorish-inspired design elements of the property.
“Martyn’s designs are so intricate and dramatic, that your first time through the hotel will take your breath several times,” Nocon said. “Just to give you a glimpse of the design detail, we used 27 different patterns of tile throughout the buildings, and installed more than one million tiles to execute his intricate design concepts.”
While Santa Barbara is a well-known leisure destination—the hotel sits adjacent to the city’s “Funk Zone” district of shops, restaurants, galleries and other entertainment—business travelers make their way to the hotel as well, courtesy of the city’s corporate-office presence. The hotel’s event space is designed to appeal to both corporate events and leisure events like weddings, with a 3,000-square-foot ballroom, adjacent plaza lawn and rooftop deck that can accommodate groups of 200 or more.
“For the rest of 2018, our goal is to continue to make the Hotel Californian into one of the finest Santa Barbara and Central Coast hotel experiences,” Nocon said. “We’ve built a beautiful hotel and the neighborhood around it has grown dramatically over the past three years. Our goal is to be a ‘jewel’ of Santa Barbara, a world-class destination with connection to our community.
“In the next three to five years, we want to continue to develop a tradition of the finest sincere service and become a first-class luxury hotel that represents everything good about Santa Barbara.”
* Correction, 23 February 2018: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect number of guestrooms at the property.