How Cape Cod's Wequassett climbed from four to five stars

(The team at the Wequassett Resort & Golf Club in Harwich, Mass., realized they were a 4-star hotel offering 5-star service. Here is what they did about it.)

A few years ago, Mark Novota and his team had an epiphany. As managing partner at the Wequassett Resort & Golf Club in Harwich, Mass., Novota took stock of the property and realized it was offering five-star service but was still shy of recognition as a five-star resort on Forbes’ Travel Guide. A member of Preferred Hotels & Resorts, Wequassett comprises 22 luxury historic buildings on Cape Cod, and Novota was determined to raise its rating by a star.

“We looked into it, learned a little to understand what we were and weren’t doing right, and after that we realized it was well within our reach,” Novota said. “It was a combination of improvements on many fronts. We did it for our guests and our team as well, to challenge them to be among the elite.”

After successfully raising the hotel’s rating, Novota spoke with HOTEL MANAGEMENT to share five ways the property became nonpareil in the region.

1. Employee Training

Novota defers the success of the property’s transition to the strength of his team, which he said sticks to a philosophy of customer intimacy and creating an immediate emotional connection with guests. In Novota’s own words, his employees became “masters of that philosophy, building loyalty and bringing in higher-level clientele.” With this success, price points at the resort increased and management began to investigate proficiency issues among staff.

“Did our passion meet our proficiency? At first I thought maybe it didn’t,” Novota said. “In response, we developed an academy that would address that, and our proficiency had to be more refined.”

In order to move up a star level, many hotels have to make sweeping improvements, but to clinch the difference between four and five stars the devil is in the details. Though staff at the Wequassett was able to maintain a high degree of professionalism at all times, this attention to detail reared its head when employees had to phase slang out of their speech.

“Slang is something you have to work on at a 5-star service entity,” Novota said. “That means different things in different countries. In locations such as the Caribbean it is often accepted, but it’s a no-no for Forbes, and so we were to comply.”

Some of the greatest challenges associated with raising your star rating, particularly at the high end, are related to service and employee training.

2. Investigate the Criteria

Novota knew Wequassett was close to five stars, but he wasn’t sure how close. It was that lack of awareness that allowed the property to linger on the borderline for so long, but even he was surprised at what he found once he began digging into the particulars of leveling up the resort.

“Forbes matched up well with our beliefs, as much of the standards are service-based,” Novota said. “Nearly 70 percent of the requirements revolve around service, and we were pleasantly surprised that we were already doing much of what we needed to earn five stars. There were areas for improvement, some to do with the diversity of cultures within our staff and getting people to come together as a unit, but being so close gave us energy.”

3. Prepare to Spend

Wequassett was fortunate in that it had been reinvesting into the property with regularity, and so property improvements were not as high on the list of necessary requirements as other considerations.

“We weren’t ready 10 years ago to make the shift to five stars; we needed that time to invest in the resort,” Novota said. “We felt we were mostly there, but when you look at the standards the details for the assets required us to invest in better glassware, better flatware and provide an overall more elegant presentation.”

The property had been reinvesting 5 percent of its annual revenue in property improvements, but in the lead-up to its push into the highest star category this amount was increased slightly to give it a little more depth. However, this capital was primarily invested in training and intangible costs, with Novota saying more hotels could benefit from auditing proficiently and directing capital a little differently in order to find the money they need.

Wequassett had to invest in property improvements in order to raise its star rating, but luckily upgrades were limited due to consistent upgrades over the past decade.

4. Remain Energized

Before and during the initiative, Novota made sure he reminded his team—and himself—how difficult the process was going to be. This was done not only to control expectations, but to keep energy high on property and direct employee eyes on the end result.

“We had to constantly reinvigorate our energy in the pursuit of improvement,” Novota said. “For us, it was the culture and creating an environment through empowerment and anticipation to generate those moments that translate into a five-star experience that kept us going. But it’s a full commitment, and in many cases it takes years.”

5. Know Your Worth

For Novota, this process was not about ego. Rather, he looked at the rates his resort was charging and thought his guests deserved more.

“They were already paying five-star rates, so we had to live up to it!” he said. “We had to prove to them we were worth it, and if tomorrow Forbes went away I would continue this culture. That to me says this works for us and our customers. It forced me to get better at what I knew instinctively I should be doing.”

In that vein, Novota said he believes the opportunities are available for many other properties to raise their star ratings, and in many cases it comes down to the culture of the property.

“If you spend billions of dollars on design and elegance that’s five-star in one regard, the service has to match,” Novota said. “That doesn’t mean an independent in a uniquely positioned facility doesn’t have the chance to market themselves as five-star [property].”

Lastly, Novota said the ongoing struggle will be to maintain the rating, though it’s a struggle that will be defeated out of habit.

“You also have to believe in it. You have to want it, and say it’s right for the customer,” he said. “Make sure it’s for you. You can’t rest on your laurels. You will work hard to maintain it, but it makes you better.”