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The Group Travel Leader Going on Faith Select Traveler

Ojai Valley Inn: Paradise found

Courtesy Ojai Valley Inn and Spa

Spa and revolution: Rarely do those two words appear in the same sentence. Yet, in the case of Ojai Valley Inn and Spa, the opening of a spa 13 years ago led to monumental, if not revolutionary, changes in a peaceful valley 90 minutes north of Los Angeles.

Spa Ojai (pronounced O-hi) was immediately touted as one of the best spas in America by multiple magazines, and all its sparkle made the rest of the resort seem dull.

“We had this [AAA] Three-Diamond resort with one of the top 25 spas in all of America,” said Peter Bowen, director of sales and marketing. “Guests would visit Spa Ojai and say, ‘Oh, you must be five-diamond,’ and then they would go back to their guest room and it would smell like 1923. It was eye opening.”

It opened checkbooks as well. The disparity in quality convinced Ojai’s owners to upgrade, and upgrade they did, spending $90 million and three years to transform a resort that had become, as Bowen described it, “mismatched and piecemealed over the decades,” into a uniformly high-class and appealing property.

        Courtesy Ojai Valley Inn and Spa

“We’re in our fourth year of getting the fifth diamond from AAA,” said Bowen of the 220-acre property, which began as a 22-room inn and golf club in 1923.

In the process of upgrading, management also made Ojai Valley Inn a better destination for meetings by significantly increasing meeting space and revamping guest rooms.

The resort had only a 4,800-square-foot ballroom before the expansion; it now has another 6,000-square-foot ballroom and a boardroom. The ballrooms, located in one building and separated by a central corridor, have roomy indoor and outdoor prefunction areas.

The project also restored Ojai Valley Inn’s distinctive Spanish Colonial look. A series of owners and changing architectural fashion had muddled Wallace Neff’s design, created for owner Edward Libbey, the glass mogul and philanthropist from Ohio who fell in love with the valley in the early 1900s.

Newer buildings that were out of character were torn down; today, the resort consists of 19 buildings, none taller than a story and a half, all crisp white stucco with burnt-orange tile roofs.
Almost half of the 308 guest rooms are new; half are connecting rooms and 25 percent are suites, an acknowledgement of the resort’s growing appeal to families.

Coming upon the resort in a rather remote part of Southern California is a surprise for first-time visitors. “I remember when I drove in from Monterey, I thought, ‘I can’t imagine that a really nice place is going to be out here,’” said Barbara Peay, who organized two incentive programs meetings at Ojai for California Capital Insurance in 2007 and 2009.

Stellar from the start
The incentive at Ojai was the first of eight Peay planned in 2007, and because of her workload, she coordinated it by phone. What could have been an unsettling experience wasn’t because of the Ojai staff’s responsiveness.

“I bet I never waited an hour to get a response back on anything from anybody,” said Peay, who now works out of her company’s Reno, Nev., office. “They were willing to go and take pictures for me and scan them and send them to me.”

National sales manager Jody Comet made it easy for Peay to find local suppliers. “She’d say, ‘Give me some broad ideas of what you are looking for,’ and then she would link me with someone in the area,’” said Peay.

More than a dozen resort staff from every division attended Peay’s preconference meeting. “They got their whole staff incorporated in our meeting,” she said.

Peay and her attendees found the resort’s staff attuned to guest needs. During the 2007 incentive, Peay twisted her knee. Staff noticed and brought her ice bags without being asked.

    Courtesy Ojai Valley Inn and Spa

The July weekend was unusually warm, and the resort staff were intent on making sure that guests did not get overheated. “One couple told me that they would no sooner walk out of our room than a valet would be there with a golf cart, asking if they needed to be shuttled somewhere,” said Peay.
As a result of the service Ojai provided, it was one of only two resorts from 2007 to which the company returned for its 2009 incentive programs.

The staff’s attentiveness could stem from its strong ties to the resort. Ojai Valley Inn is the village of Ojai’s largest employer — 48 percent of the town’s budget comes from the resort’s bed tax. Three-quarters of the staff of 700 full and part-time employees live in Ojai.

When Ojai shut down in 2002 to rebuild and renovate, it gave staff the option of staying on to do construction and renovation work.

Move saves jobs, teaches new skills
Desk clerks, maids, valets, gardeners and others learned new skills as they laid 200,000 square feet of Saltillo tile, applied 5,000 gallons of paint, installed half a dozen fountains and planted 125 trees. The unusual move paid dividends in employee loyalty.

“When you build something or have a hand in putting it together, you have more of an attachment to it,” said Bowen. “It was an extraordinary experience. In today’s world it would be too easy to lay everyone off and mothball the place and get everything done.”

Another nod to local culture is the Artist’s Cottage, where guests can absorb Ojai’s artistic vibe. The valley, which portrayed Shangri la in the Frank Capra film Lost Horizon, is an enclave for the artistically inclined. At the cottage, guests paint silk scarves, produce watercolor landscapes and distill their own scents from essential oils.

The spa and the original George Thomas-design golf course remain popular with groups, although fewer companies are footing the bill for massages and rounds on the green.

To combat that, the spa takes its services to the ballroom, leading guided meditations or giving “Blackberry” hand massages. Golfers remain enamored of the undulating course, built without any landmoving equipment and the site of seven senior LPGA tournaments.

Like most resorts, Ojai has suffered from the AIG effect, but clients who cancelled programs are starting to make plans to return, in part because they have learned the hard way that the Ojai’s magic can’t be conjured elsewhere.

Two clients, an entertainment industry entity and an educational institute, tried holding meetings in-house, with poor results. The education institute rep told Bowen “it was the worst meeting we ever had; we had no energy, no new ideas.” The entertainment industry client said, “Never again.”

They and others seem bent on returning to Ojai, where the rare east-to-west valley ensures a full day of sunshine, a colorful sunset splash known as the “Pink Moment,” and more than a hint of the magic of the fabled Shangri- la.

“What we’ve found is that because of the environment we are placing people in, they find more creative results here,” said Bowen.