It’s no surprise that the Boston Harbor Hotel, the Four Seasons, and the Mandarin Oriental were honored with a prestigious Forbes Travel Guide five-star rating again this year, according to the annual list released Tuesday by Forbes. The Four Seasons Hotel One Dalton also joins the five-star club for 2022.
But in addition to those familiar and well-heeled names, Boston (technically Everett) has a new five-star hotel, and this one might raise some eyebrows. The Encore Boston Harbor, which opened in 2019, also made the list. It’s the first casino in New England to receive a five-star rating.
“I just burst into tears when I heard,” said Jenny Holaday, president of Encore Boston Harbor. “The toughest thing about Forbes is that it’s not just the facility; the service has to be delivered with authentic, tangible warmth and care. You are completely dependent on your staff to do that. This is where I get choked up. Most five-star places have 300 or 350 employees. We have 3,300 employees who have just gone through crazy COVID chaos.”
According to the Forbes Travel Guide, which has been rating properties since 1958, five-star properties are “outstanding, often iconic properties with virtually flawless service and amazing facilities.” Anonymous inspectors evaluate “on up to 900 objective criteria.” Hotels can’t buy their way onto the list. Those incognito inspectors pay their own way. Hotels are unaware of when they are being inspected.
Perhaps most remarkable about Encore landing on the 2022 list is that the resort opened its doors in a particularly trying era for the hospitality industry. Even before the $2.6 billion project was completed, Steve Wynn, whose name was originally slated to sit atop the 27-story building, was ousted as CEO of Wynn Resorts amid allegations of sexual misconduct. The world went into lockdown just months after Encore opened, and the casino was closed. Through two years of pandemic-mandated closures, curfews, and restrictions, Encore managed to best some very tight competition to earn its stars.
To put it into perspective, much-loved luxury hotels such as Langham Boston, XV Beacon, the Ritz-Carlton, and InterContinental Boston each scored four stars.
A few weeks ago I started hearing rumblings that Encore Boston Harbor might receive five stars from Forbes and was surprised. OK, I was shocked. I reviewed the hotel shortly after it opened in 2019, and while I thought the spacious room was calm and well-appointed (read beige), I never thought, “This is definitely a five-star property!” It was time to review again.
Like the Forbes inspectors, I went in anonymously and paid the nightly rate (it was $340 a night and I stayed two nights). I didn’t have a list of the 900 objective criteria that Forbes inspectors use, but I did arrive armed with a Forbes article (“What makes a Forbes Travel Guide five-star?”) that gave me a few points to look for. The article broke down five-star qualifiers such as beautiful beds, supreme service, thoughtful guest room amenities, genuine interest, and exceeding expectations.
I knew from previous experience that Encore Boston Harbor hit the mark on bed comfort, quality of linens, guest room amenities (an iPad and Alexa can control everything in the room), and the quality of the bath and shower. What I hadn’t paid attention to as closely was the attentiveness of staff. With a laser focus on service, I checked in earlier this month with knives out.
The check-in process was very smooth. The desk clerk treated me better than my own family, and he helped me make dinner reservations. The service glitch came later than evening. I called the front desk at 8:30 p.m. and asked for turndown service. This seemed to take them by surprise, and a slightly flustered clerk said he would check with housekeeping, but he explained that my request may have come too late. He put me on hold, and when he returned he said housekeeping would be able to come by.
It struck me as strange that a business that runs 24 hours, frequented by night owls, would be thrown by the request. The aforementioned Forbes article explained that one of the points inspectors look for are special touches, such as housekeeping staff hanging up an errant jacket, or neatly coiling a charging cord when servicing a room. I went to work leaving charging cords around my room and my jacket on my bed. When I returned the bed had been turned down, slippers placed on either side, and towels had been replaced. But the trash was un-emptied, the jacket not hung, and the cords not coiled.
This is a level of nitpicking I would never think of on my own, but I was following the Forbes handbook. Another trick I often use to judge hotel service is calling the front desk and saying that I forgot my toothbrush, razor, or both. There were small drawers in the bathroom of my room that already contained a toothbrush, toothpaste, and mouthwash, so I used the razor excuse. Shortly after my call, an attendant showed up with a smile along with three razors, two small cans of shaving cream, and more toothbrushes and mouthwash. Score!
The next day I deliberately left my room a mess and took off for the day. When I returned, it was absolutely pristine. The charging cables were gathered and neatly arranged, that pesky coat was hung up, and everything was spotless. It more than made up for the night before. The only other issue I could find — and I looked high and low — was one of towels had a small ink stain. It was clean and the ink stain small, but I was there with the motto WWFD? (What Would Forbes Do?). I repeated the process my second night: A request for turndown service, a need for more razors, a bucket of ice . . . anything you can think of, I asked for it. All results were flawless. Aside from the glitchy first night, Encore passed the challenges I threw its way.
My experience rivaled nights at some of the best hotels in Boston, and I worked the staff at Encore harder than any other hotel I’ve ever stayed at. I had previously dismissed Encore because it’s a casino. When I set aside my snobbery, I saw things a bit more clearly. The spa at Encore also earned five stars. I didn’t have a chance to test the spa.
Even if you brush off the entire Forbes hotel rating system as a bunch of classist hoo-ha and have no intention of staying at any of these properties, keep in mind that it’s important for a city to have these offerings for monied tourists who are eyeing Boston as a vacation destination.
“With travel coming back and more international direct flights coming into Boston, there are people who are absolutely looking for rooms in luxury hotels,” said Martha Sheridan, president and CEO of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau. “It’s an import draw. We’ll enhance our marketing efforts in places like Japan and the Middle East, places where a lot of those customers are coming from. If they’re looking for five-star hotels, it’s important to have the ability to offer those rooms.”
Forbes Five-Star hotels in Massachusetts
Chatham Inn (Chatham)
Wequassett Resort and Golf Club (Harwich)
Forbes Five-Star spas in Massachusetts
The Spa at Encore Boston Harbor
The Wellness Floor at One Dalton
The Spa at Mandarin Oriental
Christopher Muther can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther and Instagram @chris_muther.