Elite honors: Kohler spa, golf, American Club

Think “the ultimate in luxury travel,” as inspectors for Forbes Travel Guide do every year, and you’ll likely gravitate to the world’s biggest cities for international and business travel – places where the volume of traffic most easily supports such ventures.

Mandarin Oriental hotels and spas in Singapore to San Francisco earn five stars, the highest Forbes rating. It is the same with Four Seasons hotels in Chicago to Hong Kong. These high-end business chains work hard to hone their global identity.

Now we can add The American Club and its Kohler Waters Spa to the list. They are the first in Wisconsin to earn five-star awards from Forbes.

Only 57 hotels and 30 spas in the world gain this distinction in the 2012 guide, formerly known as the Mobil Travel Guide. An easy minority of this elite category is independently owned. Far less than 10 percent do business in rural locations, such as Kohler (population around 2,000).

Anonymous Forbes inspectors refer to more than 500 standards during their onsite evaluations. “Our ratings cannot be bought or influenced,” the company declares online.

What separates great businesses from those that are exceptional? “To me it is all about putting the guest first,” says Christine Loose, resident manager at The American Club. “An outstanding business is one that truly listens to their guests’ feedback and then takes action to improve the guest experience based on this feedback.

“We make sure that every time a guest comes in contact with any associate, their experience is a memorable one, different than the others, with complete attention being paid to the guest, as if they are the only guest we have.”

So going above and beyond is important. Here’s how I think Kohler hits the mark in other ways.

Customer service: It is attentive without being pretentious. Staffers do not forsake Midwest friendliness while addressing details. Trump cards are the area’s strong work ethic and pride in German heritage.

Maids, bellhops, chefs and concierges all appear genuinely cheerful and proud to work at The American Club. That’s what is missing in many service jobs elsewhere today.

Captivating history: The hotel was built in 1918 as modest accommodations for immigrants hired to work at the Kohler Co. The blue-collar past was embraced instead of discarded when the Tudor-style building became a hotel.

Reminders of the humble beginnings are sprinkled throughout, from old-time photos on walls to antiques under glass. Each guest room honors a famous American, not only in name but through biographies and displays of memorabilia.

Fine furnishings, fixtures: Most people equate the Kohler Company with just plumbing products, and it’s true that spa areas emphasize water and overnight accommodations provide innovative bathing options.

But the Kohler empire also includes sister companies (Baker, McGuire, Dapha Ltd., Ann Sacks, Kallista, Mark David and more) that produce high-end furniture, lighting, tile and accessories. This means easy and logical access to stunning, ceiling-to-floor hotel furnishings.

The hotel’s Immigrant Restaurant for the third year has earned four stars from Forbes and is the only Wisconsin restaurant to earn a star rating from the organization. The fine dining outlet is one of 11 options for eating out during a Kohler stay.

Autumn accolades for Kohler endeavors don’t stop with the Forbes Travel Guide. Golf Digest recently rated The American Club as the continent’s third best golf resort (after Bandon Dunes in Oregon and Pebble Beach in California). For detail, see www.golfdigest.com.

The Society of American Travel Writers recently presented a Phoenix Award to Herbert Kohler because of his environmentally sensitive golf course development.

“This project took a polluted, virtually unusable and seriously contaminated 560-acre tract of Lake Michigan shore land and turned it into the award-winning Whistling Straits Golf Course that brings worldwide attention, millions of dollars of travel spending and hundreds of jobs to the east-central area of Wisconsin,” SATW concluded.

“The huge financial investment to clean up and undertake the project was done because of the vision, commitment and risk of Herbert H. Kohler.”

The course will host the 2015 Professional Golf Association Championship and 2020 Ryder Cup.

The annual Phoenix Awards recognize conservation, preservation, beautification and environmental accomplishments that involve the travel industry. Three other efforts were honored by SATW this year: Vandenberg Reef in Key West, Fla. (www.bigshipwrecks.com); Railroad Park, Birmingham, Ala. (www.railroadpark.org); and Quartier des Spectacles, Montreal (www.quartierdesspectacles.com).

For details about Phoenix Award winners, go to www.satw.org and click on “awards.”

Overnight rates at The American Club, 419 Highland Dr., Kohler, start as low as $149 for two people on Nov. 27-30, Dec. 11 and Jan. 1, 2012. That’s a deep discount. For more about Kohler getaways, see www.destinationkohler.com or call 800-344-2838.

Another option is to simply experience a spa treatment or meal at the hotel.

Upcoming events include:

The Ultimate Holiday Party, 7 p.m. to midnight Dec. 2, $48 for a dinner buffet and dancing.

Breakfast with Santa, 9:30-11 a.m. Dec. 3 and 17, $22.50 for a kid-friendly buffet with the jolly king of gift givers.

New Year’s Eve Bubble Reception, 9 p.m. Dec. 31 to 1 a.m. Jan. 1, $90 per person for the music of Milwaukee’s Velocity (Billy Joel to Lady Gaga tunes) plus nibbles of kabobs and flatbreads to tortes and tarts.

Winterfest, Jan. 27-29 at The Shops at Woodlake, near the hotel and featuring dogsled demos to ice skating and shopping discounts.

The Kohler Shop and Spa Day, available Sundays through Fridays at this time of year, costs $120 for a pedicure, access to spa lounge areas (plus relaxation pool, steam room, sauna, whirlpool, cool-plunge pool) and gift certificates for shopping.

Events, except for Winterfest, require reservations; call 800-344-2838.

Canoe Bay Resort, near Rice Lake, is the only other four-star Wisconsin business in the 2012 Forbes Travel Guide. The Pfister Hotel, Milwaukee, and Grand Geneva Resort, Lake Geneva, earn three stars. For a complete list of the ratings, consult www.startle.com.

“Roads Traveled” columns began in 2002 and are the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.