Travel

How Encore Boston Harbor navigated the pandemic and reached five-star status

The property, which earned the prestigious honor this week, has been fully operational for only 16 months in the past three years.

Encore Boston Harbor in Everett. Encore Boston Harbor.

Encore Boston Harbor was awarded five-star status by Forbes Travel Guide on Tuesday, making it the largest U.S. gaming resort outside of Las Vegas to earn the prestigious rating.

The property, which has 3,300 employees, achieved the designation despite been fully operational for only 16 months in the past three years due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to Jenny Holaday, president of Encore Boston Harbor. Other local hotels with a five-star distinction include the Boston Harbor Hotel, Four Seasons Hotel Boston, Four Seasons Hotel One Dalton Street, and Mandarin Oriental, Boston.

“It’s just by far my most proud career achievement,” Holaday said. “Nothing will top this. The fact that we got [five stars], on this scale, our first year, under these conditions, is just mind blowing to me.”

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The conditions included dealing with a pandemic while juggling five operating models since the company’s grand opening, she said.

“This is our first full second quarter,” she said. “So there are things that you learn that most hoteliers around town and other resorts understand about their seasonality and their market that we don’t understand yet because we’re still learning. So it’s strange and a little funky that in some ways we are still very, very new.”

Encore Boston Harbor, which first opened in June 2019, would not see a full first year in business because the pandemic forced a shutdown in early 2020. During the closure, workers prepared for a reopening with restrictions.

“We can’t just remove tables like a restaurant can,” she said. “We had to reconfigure all of our pits, all of our slot machines. We actually became internal fabricators of plexiglass. It was crazy some of the things we figured out as a team during the four months that we were closed.”

Then Encore Boston Harbor reopened at 50 percent capacity and the hotel was only open four days a week, she said. Holaday called the staffing decisions “heartbreaking.”

Encore Boston Harbor wound up furloughing 3,000 workers and laying off 385 employees.

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That fall, a statewide business curfew went into effect, the casino went on a 12-hour operating model, and the hotel temporarily closed.

“Casinos aren’t designed to close,” she said. “So closing every day at 9 o’clock was weird, to say the least.”

The closing procedures took hours each evening, she said.

“But we got through it. Our only goal during those very dark four months was to break even and we did,” she said.

Next, Encore Boston Harbor fully reopened for 24 hours a day, but at 50 percent capacity, Holaday said. Finally, this past September, the property was once again fully operational.

A premier king room at Encore Boston Harbor. Encore Boston Harbor

Guests who visit this season will find that health and safety measures remain in place.

“We will always have hand sanitizer stations throughout the resort,” she said. “Masks will always be available upon demand. We still use all of the electrostatic cleaning devices in between stays in the hotel rooms. I think that just might be the new normal in hospitality.”

The staff has had to constantly pivot through each phase of the pandemic, Holaday said.

“That’s why the five star award is such an amazing achievement and recognition for this team,” she said.

Forbes Travel Guide has been rating luxury hospitality for more than 60 years. Forbes “incognito” inspectors secretly book accommodations and complete an independent inspection process of up to 900 standards based on 75 percent service and 25 percent quality of facility.

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Some of the criteria for a five-star property, according to Forbes, are rooms with more than just luxurious beds for a restful night’s sleep (including blackout curtains and soundproofing measures), thoughtful guest amenities (such as jogging maps and yoga mats), and helpful housekeeping that goes beyond cleaning, (a microfiber cloth for your sunglasses and a bag of your favorite candy, for example). The property should offer memorable meals and distinctive drinks. And service should be supreme. As Forbes puts it: “Does the staff seem to magically know what you want, even before you ask it?”

“Typically five-star resorts are very boutique,” Holaday said. “To train a staff to actually care that much and love taking care of guests that much, that’s a significant endeavor for any operator. And so to do so on our scale was obviously daunting.”

Encore Boston Harbor’s spa also received a five-star rating from Forbes.

The staff at Encore Boston Harbor is “completely overjoyed and thrilled” by the five-star designation, she said.

“This team — I get choked up when I talk about this, you will have to forgive me — this team has just been through the ringer,” Holaday said. “And I know everybody in Boston has.”

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