Auburn, Alabama probably isn’t the first place you’d think to discover a stunning five-star styled luxury hotel, but The Laurel Hotel & Spa is all about defying and elevating our expectations. This elegant 26-room property sits in the heart of the Auburn campus—and while it dazzles customers with everything from a swanky rooftop bar and pool, Bulgari amenities, multi-course dining and spa, it also serves as a training experience for students in the university’s visionary hospitality and hotel management program.
At the Laurel, hospitality, education, and service are stitched together to create an uncommon and thoroughly original experience. Let’s start at the beginning, when you pull in with your car and the valet greets you by name, because the hospitality staff went to great pains to learn your arrival time. A concierge then whisks you up to the 6th floor lobby for a personalized check-in and glass of welcome Champagne. You note that the lobby offers a rotating selection of bites and drinks. Next there is a quick tour and FYI with your concierge as he escorts you to your room. Along the way you’ll see the rooftop pool (with private cabanas that are sure to be the best game-day real estate), rooftop lounge with bar, fitness center and spa.
The rooms are elegant and sumptuously furnished. IPad technology controls lighting, drapes, and music. A deep soaking tub, rainfall showers, Bulgari amenities, and a wet bar with a wickedly tempting selection of libations—including a local bourbon and local tea accompanied by Aubee Honey from the university’s horticulture program round out the amenities. It’s these myriad details that conspire to make guests feel as if they’ve entered another world. In the hotel, students shadow all aspects of the experience from housekeeping and engineering to concierge and dining. “We wanted them to get exposure to every aspect of the job in a luxury setting. Many of these students are intimidated at the idea of working at a luxury property because they themselves have never experienced such a thing. This program changes that,” explains Hans van der Reijden, founder & CEO of Ithaka Hospitality Partners, which is managing the Laurel.
But, for the full experience you have to step outside the hotel and into the Tony and Libba Rane Culinary Science Center, which is connected to the hotel. This is where the action is. It’s a world-class culinary center that features everything: brewery, coffee roaster, distillery, training kitchens and a fine dining restaurant staffed with a rotating chef and Master Sommelier who serve in residence each year. Says van der Reijden, “It took 15 years of traveling the globe and observing other programs to ensure this program was as perfect as we could get it. The other schools we visited were great at just one thing—we wanted this program to include everything.”
During a recent Epicurean Experience at 1856 restaurant the guests were treated to a nine-course menu with paired wines. Visiting Chef Ford Fry worked with chef-in- residence, Tyler Lyne and a team of three Master Sommeliers to create an epic meal. Students worked in both the kitchen and the dining room throughout the experience. The program’s Head of School and Horst Schulze Endowed Professor of Hospitality Management, Martin O’Neil, sums the program’s vision up with this: “we give ourselves seven years to be the world’s top hospitality school.” Given the quality of the stay at The Laurel and the meal at 1856 Restaurant, I think they are already there.