The most captivating hotels deliver on the elements that can be seen: beautiful décor, inviting restaurants with skillfully prepared food and a warm atmosphere and scenic landscaped grounds. They also enchant visitors with what can only be felt—a certain spirit embodied in flawless service. Read on to meet some Omni Hotels & Resorts employees who have welcomed guests to their destinations for years—and, in one case, are continuing a family tradition that goes back generations. They bring decades of local knowledge and a passion for people to their daily work, and they have a special pride that gives travelers a sense that, even as they’re exploring a new corner of the world, they have arrived home.
Heritage of The Homestead
Heritage of The
Meet the Ryders, a family that’s worked at a historic Virginia resort for generations
“My grandfathers, both of them, built that,” said Don F. Ryder, 70, pointing to the hilltop red brick clock tower that has dominated The Omni Homestead Resort since it was built in 1929.
At just over 250 years old, The Homestead sits on more than 2,000 acres of lush, rolling farm land in Hot Springs, Virginia. It has attracted presidents (23 of them) and princes (including the lamentable abdicator Edward VIII, who came with his American wife, Wallis Simpson, and reportedly tried to skip out on the bill).
But you don’t have to be a head of state to enjoy the historic resort. Many families descend summer after summer—from Washington, D.C., Richmond, Charlottesville, Roanoke, and beyond—as regular as the clock on the structure that Ryder’s grandfathers built. Credit for the family-friendly atmosphere is shared equally by the staff and guests. The grand buildings are run by generations of locals, from Hot Springs or the nearby towns in Bath County. Families with names such as Ryder—and Woodzell, Robertson, Pettus, Keyser and Tonsler—trace lineages that go back to Scotch-Irish or German immigrants, or in West Africa. Out of The Omni Homestead’s nearly 1,000 employees, there are currently seven third-generation and 87 second-generation workers.
Don is the club manager at the Cascades, the newer of The Homestead’s two championship golf courses (the other, appropriately named the Old Course, boasts the United States’ oldest first tee in continuous use). Five generations of his family have worked at the resort, including every member of his immediate family who is old enough. Wife Joyce, 69, once worked in human resources; daughter Kathy, 47, works there now. Another daughter, Katie, 49, worked in the purchasing department. Son Don Cameron, 44, is an instructor at the Shooting Club, which hosted the first U.S. Open Sporting Clays Championship in 1992.
Five of Don’s seven grandchildren are also employees of the resort, including Kendal, 21, who is a poolside server at the Allegheny Springs Grill. “A few years ago, my aunt Katie won a contest for the person with the most relatives currently working at the resort. She listed 96,” said Kendal. With retirements and attrition, that number has gone down—but not by much. “I think we only have about 70 relatives working currently,” said Kathy.
Decades of Dedication
Decades of Dedication
Meet a few more members of the Omni Hotels & Resorts family whose lively spirit, insider knowledge and good food keep guests coming back year after year.
A Big Easy Welcome
Years of service: 46
Doorman at Omni Royal Orleans, New Orleans, Louisiana
A Big Easy Welcome
Hometown: Opelousas, Louisiana
Signature greeting: “It depends. If it’s morning I say ‘Good Morning! Welcome to the Omni Royal Orleans. May I assist you?’ Sometimes I give them a little hug—it’s a New Orleans thing. Our hotel, it’s been around a long time. People expect good service.”
How he got his start: “I got a job at the hotel when I was 17; that was in 1968. I started off busing tables in the famous Rib Room, worked for three years. Then I left for five or six months, spent the money I made, and I came back in 1971.”
What it takes to be a good doorman: “It’s like being a doctor: I do anything I can to help them, within reason. This is the French Quarter, you get all sorts of people…New Orleans is a party city. Eat, drink, and be merry. But mostly I assist with the luggage, park their cars, answer questions.”
His trick to remembering names: “We get a lot of return guests. Mostly I can remember their names, but if I don’t, I take a quick look at their luggage tags when they’re not looking.”
Weathering the challenges: “This hotel, and the people of New Orleans, we’ve been through a lot over the years. When Katrina came, I had to leave. My house flooded and I lost my wedding pictures, but I was lucky because I was paid the entire time I was out.”
How the job changed him: “Being around real people every day. It taught me how to accept people. It’s a precious thing. I treat them nice and they treat me nice.”
Travel tip: “The cab drivers here give great tours. They can take you on a cemetery tour.”
When he’ll retire: “Two more years. But I said that two years ago.”
Omelets With a Side of Love
“But everybody calls me Mrs. Donnie!”
Years of service: 18
Chef, Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort, Florida
Omelets With a Side of Love
Hometown: “I was born in Charlton County and raised in Camden County, in Georgia.”
Her start: “I was visiting Amelia Island—I live just over the border—and just happened to be driving by. I stopped and put in an application. I was not looking for a job and didn’t know that two minutes later I’d get hired. That was 18 years ago, in 1999.”
Signature dish: “People go crazy over my omelets. On a busy day, I can make 300. But there’s no secret. Whatever they want I just give it to them. I do not limit them. If they want shrimp or crab or bacon, I give it to them. If they want lobster, they can have it. When I’m not making omelets, I make the homemade nut butters for the hotel—peanut, hazelnut, cashew nut, almond. We also use our own natural honey and we add stuff to it—cinnamon, rosemary, whiskey. Whiskey, yes, m’aam.”
People person: “I love my guests. I don’t care how they come in here, they always come to me nice. They come directly to me, holler for me first. If they’ve been there before, 95 percent of the time I remember their names, and usually their orders. If I forget their name, I do not let them know. I’ll strike up a conversation and it usually comes to me. I’m a talker, I’ll tell you that right now, I’m a talker. If I’m cooking and you’re getting your food, we’d just be running our mouths.”
In the zone: “I’m on my feet all day but I don’t realize how long I’m standing until I get in the car. As long as I’m standing I don’t feel tired.”
Cooking tip: “You can’t just cook. If you just cook it’s not going to taste good; you got to love it.”
Secret to life: “I can’t let nothing break my spirit. If you come off as negative, I’m not going to let you take my thunder. I’m going to give you as much positive as I can. If you meet me, you’ll understand what I’m talking about. Cause I’m always smiling.”
In Virginia’s Allegheny Mountains, where the labor pool is small and many people are related to each other by blood or marriage, staying on the right side of nepotism rules is not easy. Kendal said, “The rule is that a close relative cannot supervise another, so I’ve had to switch departments a few times to avoid one of my sisters being my boss.”
But having a job close to family has its benefits. “It’s fun to work next to my sisters, or run into Poppy [grandfather Don] on grounds,” said Kendal. And for guests it’s a boon. “They love coming back and seeing the same faces year after year. For those who come back often enough, sooner or later we become friends,” said Don. “I’ve taught people to play golf and now I’m teaching their kids or even grandkids.” The younger Don (who sometimes goes by his middle name, Cameron, to avoid confusion) added, “Or I’m teaching them to skeet shoot.” Kathy, who sees the guest satisfaction surveys, said, “They may like the activities like archery or zip-lining, but what they really love and what keeps them coming back is the staff. One family got so attached to their housekeeper that they request a room in her section whenever they return.”
The source and sustenance of The Homestead and its community is the water—the mineral-rich springs that burble from this fertile valley and that led one enterprising Thomas Bullitt, a captain in the French and Indian War, to open a lodge next to a set of exceptionally productive springs in 1766, a decade before the Declaration of Independence. (Thomas Jefferson himself famously took the waters here and in nearby Warm Springs and deemed them to be “of first quality.”)
The 19th and early 20th centuries gave rise to a cluster of grand and modest hotels that diverted and piped the naturally fortified water for guests to “take the cure” to alleviate all manner of ailments from asthma and angina to polio and phlebitis. That first 18-room rustic lodge has evolved into today’s 483-room luxury resort, the heart of which remains the springs—still productive, still healthful—though these days it mainly addresses the epidemic ailment of modern life: stress.
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What’s Your Favorite
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“Locals don’t bathe in the springs too often, though we’d sometimes sneak in as teenagers. I can’t remember the last time I went in,” said Don. “But do you know, it’s in the water we drink? Our tap water comes from the springs—treated of course; it’s the best in the world. So we can’t escape it, it’s in our cells.”
Don gets reflective. “We know the springs created The Homestead and without them the town wouldn’t be what it is today. Without the jobs the hotel provides, our young people would be gone. My entire family is here in the valley, either right here in Bath County or in the next county; that’s pretty unusual for most rural areas. The Homestead kept our families close and close-knit.” And, at the same time, it’s kept a community thriving.