The Sanctuary Hotel Kiawah Island

The Sanctuary on Kiawah Island meets AAA's highest standards for luxury hotels. Photograph by Patrick O’Brien/Courtesy of Kiawah Island Golf Resort

So what does it take to compete with the world’s top resort hotels?

Ask Bill Lacey, general manager of The Sanctuary at Kiawah Island Gold Resort. It’s the only hotel in South Carolina that made AAA’s list of Five Diamond lodgings this year. 

It’s all about creating a personalized experience for every guest, and that starts with the staff, he said.

"The most important aspect of our business is our employees, finding the right personality that can engage with our guests," he said. "It’s about every employee with every guest every day. That’s always been a mantra I’ve lived by."

Lacey was part of team that opened the beachfront resort in 2004. The hotel has been on the Five Diamond list every year since 2006. It’s also on Forbes’ list of Five Star Hotels.

AAA's ratings are based on unannounced inspections. Every detail of the property is included in the evaluation. Five Diamond ratings follow several meticulous inspections that are evaluated by a panel of experts.

AAA describes its top rating as denoting "ultimate luxury, sophistication and comfort with extraordinary physical attributes, meticulous personalized service, extensive amenities and impeccable standards of excellence."

Still, Lacey said the most important aspect is how the staff interacts with guests.

It starts when taking reservations, asking questions to find out what the guest is looking for to make the experience personal and memorable.

"We like to call them golden nuggets of information that give us a springboard to launch a conversation into a more intuitive discussion about what’s going to be important to their stay," Lacey said. "I think that engagement with the guest is something we feel really proud of. It happens at all levels."

The staff is always looking for ways to anticipate needs before the guest has to ask about them.

"It’s those types of smaller details that the guest notices and ultimately will remember and take note of," he said.

Guests are greeted by name when they arrive. It helps that the staff is tipped off when the car drives through the security gate to the island and the car has a tag on the window.

Return visitors, which make up about half the resort’s business, get special treatment.

"We have systems in place to recognize a return guest as a welcome back," he said. "We make suggestions to excite them."

The staff makes sure to find out if the guest is there for an anniversary of a birthday.

"It personalizes that whole experience," he said.

Lacey didn’t say if he’s ever had a celebrity ask for a constant supply of only-green M&Ms or other stereotypes of the hard to please but said he’d do it if asked.

"There’s nothing too small for us," he said. "We get all sorts of very special requests. It often makes me stop and think for a second, and then I say, ‘All right, let’s make it happen.'"

A second hotel is planned on Kiawah Island that will be almost as exclusive. Plans will be unveiled in March, according a resort spokesman.

The new hotel will be built on the west beach, near the Cougar Point golf course. The entrance and Beachwalker Park are also on the west side of the island.

The new hotel will be part of a renovation of that area that also includes a new clubhouse at Cougar Point. The work is scheduled to be finished before the PGA Championship returns to Kiawah’s Ocean Course in May 2021. The famous Pete Dye-designed layout previously was the site of the high-profile major tournament in 2012.

Reach Dave Munday at 843-937-5553.