GM balances art, science of hospitality

Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., has 49 casitas. Photo credit: Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa

With 20 years of general manager experience under her belt, Coni Thornburg has a strong sense of how to create a luxury atmosphere and experience: Be attentive, be innovative and be resourceful. As the GM of the Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., she has launched several new initiatives for the Relais & Chateaux property—and she's just getting started.

Learning Luxury

Born and raised in Montana, Thornburg moved to the biggest city she could think of when she wanted to begin her hospitality career: Seattle. The city was about to get its first Four Seasons hotel, and she was selected to join the opening team in 1982, taking orders for roomservice.

At the time, Four Seasons had a management training program called Fast Track that gave aspiring hoteliers an education in all the different areas of a hotel. “I learned that each job in a hotel takes different skills,” she said of her time in the program. She learned how to check people in at the front desk, pay invoices in the accounting department, serve cocktails in the lounge and be a maitre d’ in the dining room. The education, she recalled nearly 40 years later, taught her to keep an open mind and to remain flexible, embracing each opportunity as it appeared. 

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Ultimately, Thornburg became director of restaurants at the Four Seasons, and her time at the hotel taught her how to create top-notch experiences for guests. The company’s founder/chairman Isadore Sharp would come to the hotel, Thornburg recalled, and talk with the team about what it meant to change people’s lives through quality service. At the same time, all employees were encouraged to stay at the brand’s hotels as guests themselves to understand what the experience should be. “It taught me that service is not reading a training book,” Thornburg said. “Service is truly reaching in—heart and soul—and sharing with others.” One guest arrived with a dog, she recalled, so the hotel team hid bacon throughout the gardens and created a scavenger hunt for both the two-legged and four-legged guests to enjoy together. “That is going to be an experience a guest remembers forever,” she said, noting while it is certainly important to place the cutlery in the right position and use the best linen, out-of-the-box thinking also is a vital skill for hoteliers.

Cultivating Creativity

Coni Thornburg
Coni Thornburg
Photo credit: Rancho Valencia

After spending the better part of the 1980s at the Four Seasons, Thornburg helped open the Little Nell in Aspen, Colo., where she found a kindred spirit in GM Eric Calderon, who shared her entrepreneurial and innovative mindset. “I went from a strong structure at Four Seasons to an entrepreneurial creative environment at Little Nell,” she said. “It set me up for a strong career because I had both the science and the art of hospitality, and you need both. You need the foundation and the structure and the understanding of how to run a business, but also the entrepreneurial spirit to create warmth and a feeling of service.” Thornburg wound up spending the 1990s at the Little Nell, opening and overseeing the property’s Aspen Mountain Club, Sundeck Restaurant and catering operations as the hotel joined the luxury Relais & Chateaux collection.

As the new millennium rolled around, Thornburg got her first taste of management when she helped open and then was named GM of the Hotel Teatro in Denver, a boutique property in the city’s downtown. The owners of the hotel had a stake in the Four Seasons Denver, and Thornburg got to use her expertise to help open that property in 2009, although she never officially worked there. She went on to serve as GM at the Lodge at Pebble Beach (Calif.) and at the Calistoga (Calif.) Ranch in the Napa Valley region.

A New Home

After Thornburg had spent the better part of a decade in Napa Valley, Doug Carlson (one of the owners and a founder of Fiji Water) began trying to lure her to Rancho Valencia, which he had helped to reopen in 2012 after a $30 million renovation. Visiting the resort, Thornburg fell in love with it—enough that she decided to leave Napa Valley, where she had become “entrenched in the community” after so many years. “I’m a pioneer of life,” she said. “I love new experiences. I thought, I’ll do this.”

Since joining as GM in March 2018, Thornburg has implemented a number of sustainable culinary and wellness experiences at Rancho Valencia, developing an on-site chicken coop and garden as well as organizing “gleaning events” in which guests can help harvest food from the orchards and gardens. Through a partnership with Produce Good, a company that “upcycles” food products that would otherwise be wasted, people in need can get fresh oranges and lemons guests have helped pluck from the resort’s trees. More than that, she added, the resort’s restaurants and bars serve special dishes and drinks to help raise funds for the program.

Thornburg believes that her willingness to implement programs like these goes back to her earliest years in luxury hotels, and her experience at the Little Nell. (Like the Denver property, Rancho Valencia also is a member of Relais & Chateaux.) “Being in a Relais & Chateaux-type of hotel, if you come into work and you want to put in an apiary or chicken coop or develop a lavender garden, it’s very easy,” she said of working in the independent luxury sector. “The Relais & Chateaux style is as if someone is in your home. You have to create an experience … and I have a need to create.”

Coni Thornburg's...

Greatest Challenge: One of my front-desk agents came to talk to me, crying. She had an exchange with a guest who was unhappy. She said, “The guest isn’t happy, he’s upset with me.”

Solution: I shared with her that if my mom said I wasn’t a good daughter, or my daughter said I wasn’t a good mom, I’d cry. But if a guest doesn’t like the room they’re in … it’s not a personal attack. Save your tears for your personal life rather than your professional life. We handle guests and we want to do the right thing, but we have to work on knowing that it’s our profession.

Advice: When I wake up in morning, I take 10 minutes to visualize my day. I’m in competition with Coni. I’ve always had a drive to be better than I was before. It got me from roomservice order taker to GM in world-class properties. Set your own goals and try to exceed those. I’ve had very, very tough bosses, but I’m the toughest.

Secrets to Success:

Don’t count the hours you work. If you love it, it becomes you. Hotel hours can be all over the board—holidays, early mornings. It’s hard for people to wrap their minds around. Just come in and give it your all.

Try everything. There are many careers within hospitality and hotels. Accounting, bus boy, maitre d’. Be the executive steward. Just experience all the jobs within a hotel.

Use your own voice. Be who you are and share with others and make a difference. Leave a thumbprint, whether it’s a change in procedures or a new culinary program. Be heard. You were chosen to make a difference.

Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa
Guestrooms: 49 | Owner: The Jacobs Family, Jeffrey Essakow and Doug Carlson | Manager: NA | Opening year: 1989