One trait that all 2022 Star Awards winners — the best luxury hotels, restaurants and spas in the world — share is an outstanding team made up of dedicated, passionate individuals. Even though the year presented unusual challenges for the hospitality industry, including staffing shortages, constantly changing regulations and high pent-up demand, many of these workers continued to focus on providing guests with gracious, anticipatory care.
In its third annual Employee of the Year awards, Forbes Travel Guide honors the exemplary staff who stood out in service to guests and co-workers. This year, FTG also added several other industry prizes to recognize heroic deeds and efforts to attract and retain staff.
Properties in FTG’s worldwide collection submitted nominations for these hospitality accolades. FTG received hundreds of entries and narrowed down each category to several finalists. An executive committee then selected the winners below:
Hotel Employee of the Year: Imane Aaqili, Lobby Ambassador, The Ritz-Carlton, Bahrain
A family checked into the Bahrain hotel during the pandemic’s peak, when kids weren’t permitted in many public places, including malls, beaches or pools. Creative and resourceful Aaqili came up with 10 days’ worth of surprise activities to keep the three young children entertained in their room. She gathered the kids’ preferences to personalize the offerings, which included puzzles, Star Wars lightsabers and a basketball board game, all of which were handmade.
Finalists: Victoria Bilenko, director of guest experiences, Acqualina Resort and Residences on the Beach, Miami; Mohammed Rakib, concierge, JW Marriott Grosvenor House London; Kum Suk Cano, guest room attendant, The Broadmoor, Colorado Springs; Katherine Wang, guest services supervisor, InterContinental Beijing Sanlitun.
Spa Employee of the Year: Judi Haskins-Chacon, Spa Concierge, Spa Ojai at Ojai Valley Inn
A 22-year employee, Haskins-Chacon is dedicated to guests (recently, she drove across the property to collect a meal for a guest and when she returned, another guest admired how delicious it looked—she fetched a second order) and colleagues (she often assists the spa housekeeping and laundry teams). Haskins-Chacon retired in 2016 but came back a week later and still works several days a week. She said, “I just can’t leave my spa. I love it here. I love the people, and I love making them happy.”
“Judi remembers the faces and names of our returning clientele and welcomes them with the enthusiasm of someone coming home,” her nominator said. “She’s the first to personally introduce herself to new guests and holds their hands (sometimes literally) through their experience to ensure their every desire is fulfilled.”
Finalists: Sumi Johnson-Bailey, spa attendant, Half Moon’s Fern Tree, A Salamander Spa; Hanna Osuch, salon technician one, Spa at The Broadmoor; Anthony Reed, spa attendant, Spa at Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia at Comcast Center; Lise Sampson, spa therapist, Jade Mountain Resort‘s Kai en Ciel.
Restaurant Employee of the Year: Kevin “Pima Bear” Lewis, Sommelier, Kai Restaurant at Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass
This posthumous award recognizes Lewis, who personified excellence in culture, standard and camaraderie during his 17-year career at Kai, the only Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star restaurant in Arizona. Aside from elevating the experience of every diner with whom he came in contact, Lewis organized weekly classes to allow his associates to get to know wine in a way that was not intimidating. For those who knew little about wine, Lewis would find out how that colleague learns best and tailor his presentations accordingly.
“Kevin was a pillar of the Kai family, and his spirit will live in the accomplishments that the restaurant has achieved,” his nominator said.
Finalists: Lyle Bullock, server, The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota’s Jack Dusty; Amreetnath Dwarka, coordinator, employee canteen and facilities, One&Only Le Saint Géran’s Nou Marmite; Jose Guzman, busser, Wynn Las Vegas’ Wing Lei; Florine Menezes, shift leader, The Ritz-Carlton, Bahrain’s Lobby Lounge.
Hospitality Hero: Victor Perez, Estate Security & Safety, Meadowood Napa Valley
Due to the number of Hotel Employee of the Year Award submissions that represented incredible heroic acts of employees, FTG added this new category. During Napa Valley’s Glass Fire, Perez was the only person on the property. When he saw the fire approaching Meadowood around 2:30 a.m., he sprung to action, coordinating with the fire department and working with local families near Meadowood who were in jeopardy of losing their homes.
“Without Victor’s heroic efforts,” his nominator said, “it is very likely the fire would have done significantly more damage to Meadowood or even destroyed it completely.”
Finalists: Herbert Daluz, bellman, Stein Eriksen Lodge Deer Valley; Toria Estwick-Hinds, housekeeping floor supervisor, Sandy Lane Hotel.
Work Here, Work Happy: City of Dreams Manila
This new award recognizes a property or brand that has implemented creative ways to attract and retain staff. City of Dreams Manila demonstrated this with its 10 Core Promises to its employees, which included schedule management well in advance to better allow for a work-life balance. It also enrolled managers in free eCornell courses for further education, provided complimentary shuttle transportation and showed care during the pandemic by providing free vaccines to employees and their dependents, as well as round-trip limo service for pregnant women to get vaccines.
Finalists: Le Méridien Maldives Resort & Spa; The Murray, Hong Kong, a Niccolo Hotel; The Ranch at Rock Creek; Wequassett Resort and Golf Club.