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About Utah: They're best in the world

DEER VALLEY — Last month, Russ Olsen and his wife, Debi, found themselves in Kitzbuhel, Austria, at the World Ski Awards, aka The Ski Oscars, so Russ could receive, on behalf of Stein Eriksen Lodge, the hotel he manages in Park City, the trophy for best ski hotel in the United States.

That wasn’t totally unexpected. The winners from each country had been tipped off in advance. It was why Russ and Debi were there.

The totally unexpected part came next, when they announced the world’s best ski hotel.

Ela Clark, the British actress who was hosting the show, did the honors, ripping open the envelope and reading … “Stein Eriksen Lodge, Park City, Utah.”

“I almost fell off my chair,” recalls Russ, who somehow managed to stand up, take Debi’s hand, and stroll Meryl Streep-like to the stage. When the actress handed him the award she motioned toward the microphone. They wanted a speech.

“I thanked the academy, if you will,” says Russ. “”I thanked our employees, I thanked all our team members, I thanked our namesake, Stein Eriksen, and I said how shocked I was at getting one of the greatest honors we could ever receive.”

In the heart of the Alps, home to legendary inns and magnificent ski lodges — one of which Russ was standing in while clutching the trophy — a 30-year-old property in Utah took home the gold.

Some 1 million votes were cast to determine the world’s best ski hotel, they told Russ. The ballots were sent worldwide to people involved in the ski, travel and tourism industry, including international travelers, booking agents, hoteliers, suppliers and other ski world connoisseurs. SEL’s win was no fluke. A lot of people had to vote for it to make it No. 1.

As is most often the case with stupendous accomplishments, this one was awhile in the making.

Russ knows the history well. He came to Stein Eriksen Lodge in 1986, just two years after it opened next door to the ski runs at Deer Valley resort, which had also just barely opened, boasting the great Norwegian ski champion Stein Eriksen as its director of skiing.

Stein wasn’t the hotel’s owner, but he helped with the design, he brought in his Olympic medals to display in the lobby, he sold the lodge the rights to his name, and as hotel ambassador he was given free run of the place in perpetuity. At 87, he still visits his lodge on a regular basis.

Russ, a native of Mt. Pleasant, Utah (North Sanpete High School, Class of ’74) and a BYU finance graduate, started out as the hotel’s CFO. He later became acting general manager, and took over as CEO in 1999. One of his abiding dreams was that SEL would one day attain five-star status.

Becoming five-star is no easy thing. In the entire world there are maybe 100 five-star hotels. Mathematically, you’ve got a better chance of getting into Harvard Law, or starting in the NBA.

The requirements are beyond exacting. Inspectors, who arrive incognito and could moonlight for the CIA, have a checklist of over 500 items, ranging from how long it takes to check in, to hotel personnel calling guests by their name, to phones getting answered on or before the third ring EVERY SINGLE TIME.

For several years, Stein Eriksen Lodge failed to make the grade, until, finally, in 2002 it became the only hotel in Utah history to be awarded five stars, by both Forbes and AAA. It’s been part of the in crowd ever since.

Asked for the secrets to their success, Russ says it’s a combination of hiring the right people and stressing service.

“Anybody with money can build a nice hotel,” he says. “The difference is having people who are friendly, who smile, who pull your chair out for you at lunch, who help you with your coat. Fortunately, we have a lot of those kinds of people in Utah and that’s who we hire. Bottom line, it’s service that makes the difference.”

At Stein Eriksen Lodge, paying attention to the little things resulted in the big thing.

Still, Russ can’t quite grasp being named best in the world.

“I was shocked when they called our name,” he says, “still am. Who expects that?”

Well, other than Stein Eriksen himself.

“He is our biggest fan,” says Russ. “I remember a day in March a few years ago. It was a beautiful sunny day and Stein came into the hotel after an afternoon of skiing. We were sitting in lounge chairs on the deck, staring at the sun as it was starting to set on the mountain. He said to me, ‘Russ, if we died and went to heaven, it would be a demotion.’ ”

And that was before getting to place the best hotel in the ski world trophy next to Stein’s 1952 Olympic gold medal.

Already, amid all the euphoria over being best in the world, Russ says people are asking, “What’s next?”

“I tell them ‘universe,’ ” he says.

One star at a time.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. Email: