To say the hospitality industry has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic is an understatement, so taking a position managing a top hotel for one of the most prestigious brands in the world during the pandemic could seem like a daunting task. But Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island General Manager Greg Cook, who came to the hotel in March, says he is happy here, thankful for the hotel’s dedicated staff, and looking forward to some major renovations slated for September.
Cook began as the pandemic was beginning to affect businesses worldwide. He furloughed himself for six weeks, he said, keeping in contact with Marriott through conference calls. He said the Ritz stayed open throughout the pandemic but with a very limited staff.
“We got down to about 30 or 40 people at one point,” Cook said. “Our slowest night was selling two room nights. The four hotels that led Florida were us, the Sarasota Ritz-Carlton, the Marco Island GW and Hilton Head Westin.”
Staying open throughout the pandemic meant doing everything the hotel could to keep guests safe, Cook said.
“We jumped right on the CDC guidelines as soon as they came out,” he said. “Anything they were recommending, whether it be social distancing, masks, the amount of alcohol in your hand sanitizer, wipes.
“Since then, Marriott has come out with our cleanliness certification. They break down every part of the hotel and have recommendations for what we should be doing in each space. We have to certify that we are doing that. We have auditors that will come to our hotels on a regular basis to make sure all our hotels under the Marriott brand are doing what they are supposed to be doing.”
President Donald Trump’s acceptance speech for the Republican Party’s 2020 nomination moved this month from the Republican National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. to Jacksonville, bringing the promise of more guests to the Ritz-Carlton and other island hotels, along with concerns that the added visitors will increase the transmission of the coronavirus.
Public Relations Director Joseph Murphy said the hotel is screening staff upon arrival and they are required to wear masks, though guests are not. Guests are also not required to follow social distancing guidelines, Murphy said. The hotel is not offering any special packages to people attending the RNC, but Murphy said Cook is looking forward to the increased business.
“Mr. Cook is excited that the RNC (is) coming to Jacksonville because of the exposure to the market on a national level and the probability that it will drive business to all Amelia Island hotels,” Murphy told the News-Leader in an email.
Cook said hotel staff pitched in when times got tough because “we all love what we do.”
“The team did an awesome job. (Hotel Manager) Will Wiest did an amazing job,” he said. “They had to do multiple tasks. Will has a sales and marketing background and he was working on the line in the kitchen. During that time, we followed whatever the ordinances were by the state and the county, and they were changing all the time. At some point, you weren’t allowed to sit in a restaurant, so we were doing take out, so we were not touching anything, passing items on a cart.
Cook said business at the luxury hotel is picking up, and while guidelines still in place limit the numbers of guests the hotel can have, business is coming back.
“The only things that are still closed are Salt restaurant and the pub,” Cook said “Those will be opening up the week before July 4. Most of all the employees will be back. The majority have said they will come back. The group is picking up a little bit faster than we thought it would, so that will help bring the banquet staff back in. We are at about three-fifths of our staff at the hotel.”
The reason the hotel was able to stay open, Cook said, is the same thing that makes the Ritz-Carlton perhaps the most prestigious hotel brand in the world – experiences.
“They want an experience. ‘Show me something I’ve never seem before,’” he explained. “That’s what Ritz-Carlton is about. People buy experiences. They aren’t just buying a room. It’s the experiences that our ladies and gentlemen create. We call them ‘wow’ moments. It’s creating the wow moments. In every guest, we have to deliver that. Our goal is to create a guest for life. You can build the building, and you can make it look beautiful. But, it’s the experiences and the service that you get that make a difference.”
Cook said his experience of the natural beauty of the island is what drew him in.
“I’m a big outdoor person, both in the woods as well as the ocean,” he said. “I drove up Heckscher (Drive) and it reminded me of Old Florida, with the shrimp boats on the water, going over the bridges and sandbars, being able to see people on the side of the road fishing. (It) was awesome. The beauty and freedom to be able to pull over and fish and use your kayak and use the outdoors when you are driving through Big Talbot and Little Talbot – that’s my drive every day. I have no stoplights. I drive through the parks, I get on Amelia Island, (and) I have the hammock and come to this hotel. What else could you ask for?” Cook began his career with Marriott, the company that owns the Ritz-Carlton brand, as a bellman and worked his way up through the ranks. He became an area general manager and oversaw the Amelia Island hotel for three years. When the position of general manager came up, he jumped at the chance.
One of the experiences guests are enjoying is Cocina, a Mexican restaurant at the hotel.
Cook says one of the key points in renovating the space was being able to see the water.
The hotel will undergo a renovation of all its guest rooms and suites beginning in September, Cook said.
“It’s a go, which is phenomenal in current times,” he said. “These kind of projects get put off when the economy is doing what it’s doing right now. Our ownership group is in great shape and they wanted to get this done to their property, which tells you how much confidence they have in the hotel as well.”
Cook said that during his career with Marriott he has had to “reposition” a hotel but he doesn’t see that happening with The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island because it’s already in a great position, so he is simply finding ways to reach the next level of service.
“This property is at a high level of service, so it’s ‘what can we do to grow upon that?’” he said. “’Success is never final’ is our chairman’s motto. Everything we do has a process and a procedure. I will come in and look at every piece of the business and see how I can improve on that. Then I work directly with the team, and at the end of the day, I drop the seeds out there, and they take it to a level that I can’t even imagine. You have experts in every field in our industry. I let my team do what they do, I just give them a little push every now and them, challenge them to do better.”