As I headed south on 405, passing LAX on my right, the sky grew visibly more dark and smudged. It was high noon, but the smoke filling the air made it look like early evening.
Wildfires had been ravaging Southern California for a week, and the news was full of stories of evacuees and the challenges they faced. I was on assignment to write a story on The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel in Laguna Beach. It felt strange driving towards the fires, but I have to admit I was curious to see how the region was affected.
As I drove up to the resort, the first hint that things were out-of-the-ordinary were the valets—they were all wearing white filter masks.
Inside, as I was registering, I learned the hotel had been welcoming evacuees and that it was 100 percent occupied. I saw a fluttering movement out of the corner of my eye and turned to see a young girl walking through the lobby with a green parrot perched on her head. The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel didn’t accept pets—something was definitely up.
As I toured the property, the director of sales, leisure and business travel, Laura Orfield, filled me in. There was more than just a parrot in the hotel. There was a guinea pig, three dachshunds, a mastiff, a lab, a tea cup Yorkie —even a goat.
When the fires were at their height, the assistant director of rooms, John Manligas, received one frantic call after another from people asking if they could bring their pets with them to the hotel. Manlingas contacted the general manager, John Dravinski, and relayed the guests’ concerns. Dravinski didn’t miss a beat. “Absolutely. We’re taking them in.” It hadn’t taken 18 people around a conference table to make a decision.
Since the resort doesn’t typically accept pets, there weren’t any amenities or food on property. Room service manager Kerry Johnson took her job to a new level by jumping into her car and driving to the local PetsMart to purchase supplies. When the manager learned she was from the Ritz-Carlton, and that they were relaxing their no pets policy because of the fires, he gave Johnson a bunch of coupons—enough to cover the entire purchase. Then he threw in a large bag of organic dog biscuits, 30 individual sized sample bags of cat food and a huge cardboard box filled with PetsMart plush-toys.
One of the evacuees staying at the resort was a woman whose Rancho Santa Fe home had been lost in the fire. She’d left with nothing but her Chocolate Labrador and the clothes on her back. When in-room dining server Kirk MacConaghy brought a pet amenity to her room, she broke down in tears, but couldn’t help smiling, too.
Another guest was equally amazed when she opened her door. A server presented her with a silver tray filled with lettuce for her guinea pig.
During the rest of my stay, I saw guests making the best of things: brushing flecks of ash from the shoulders of their blazers, gamely enjoying the Pacific Ocean sunset from the resort’s Adirondack chairs, and in general taking a little extra care with each other.
The only one who hadn’t been flexible was me. Maybe I should have stayed in LA, instead of keeping to my scheduled assignment. But then I wouldn’t have gotten such a great lesson in being flexible under pressure.