Five stars and one big party

On Nov. 19, Bellagio threw a big 26-hour party.

That’s not news for a resort that hosts a variety of fêtes every day. This one, though, was all about the employees, who toasted the resort winning its 10th consecutive AAA Five Diamond award.

The fun started at 10 p.m. with a DJ spinning hits in the M Life headquarters across from Mangia, Bellagio’s employee cafeteria, which retooled its menu for the occasion. Employees dined on dishes inspired by the creations served at Bellagio’s gourmet restaurants, such as Sensi’s cedar plank salmon, Picasso’s paella and Le Cirque’s lobster salad.

The crown jewel, however, might have been the five-tier, five-diamond cake crafted by Bellagio executive pastry chef Jean-Marie Auboine, with five sugar diamonds representing the prestigious award.

The next morning, voting started for a celebrity look-alike contest. Employees volunteered as doubles for everyone from Drew Barrymore to Kirk Kerkorian. All day, the DJ alternated sets with performances by Erik Gomez and Regina Williams-Kelley, the 2010 and 2009 Bellagio’s Got Talent contest winners, bringing some zip to the celebration.

According to Bellagio president and chief operating officer Randy Morton, excellence isn’t easy.

“Maintaining unparalleled service is our No. 1 challenge, and it gets more challenging every year,” he says. “So we stress taking Five Steps Beyond Excellence. This includes giving all guests a friendly welcome, using the guest’s name when appropriate, interacting with them while smiling, and thanking the guest. All of this has to be done with sincerity—real service from the heart.”

Ana Marie Mormando, Bellagio’s vice president of food and beverage, is particularly proud of her department. Picasso and Le Cirque each garnered Five Diamond status, making Bellagio the only hotel in North America with two top-honor restaurants under one roof. Three more—Jasmine, Michael Mina and Sensi—received Four Diamond awards.

“It’s a great honor,” she says, becoming a bit emotional as she thinks of all of hard work that’s reflected in the recognition. “The key is engagement—really building a culture within the organization that is worthy of great accolades like these.”

At the two Five Diamond restaurants, Mormando singles out their founders: Le Cirque’s Sirio Maccioni and Picasso’s Julian Serrano, each of whom leaves an iconic legacy to build on.

“Julian is such a great leader,” she says. “This restaurant moves with his heartbeat, with his breath. He’s an incredible motivator.”

Passing two café servers just coming off duty, Mormando greets them by name, then pauses. “It takes a city to deliver one experience,” she says.

At Le Cirque, Ivo Angelov knows a thing or two about Bellagio’s commitment to culinary excellence. Starting as a server at Aqua on opening day back in 1998, he’s risen through the ranks to become the general manager of the Adam Tihany-designed incarnation of Maccioni’s circus-tinged landmark.

“We’re not just serving food,” he says with a smile. “We’re putting on a show. And we can never have an off night.”

Personalized service is the key for Angelov: When repeat guests come in, most of the staff remembers their names.

“It’s a big complement when someone comes in here for the first time, then comes back three or four nights in a row,” Angelov says.

Yet everyone at Bellagio realizes that the Five Diamond accolade isn’t a destination, it’s a journey. When asked what the future holds, Morton doesn’t take long to respond. “We’re going to improve on our customer service,” he says. Since we’ve spent the past 10 minutes talking about how great his team’s service is, you might think he’s being flip. But the look in his eyes tells you he is deadly serious.

“I know that in 2011, our service can get even better. There’s a lot of competition out there. This is a very challenging business, especially now. I’m dedicated to seeing that we all take our service one level higher. We’re working hard on this, every day.”

Morton knows his job isn’t getting any easier, but it’s easy to see that he loves it. And he’s got a team of employees who feel the same way.

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