Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Ritz Loosens up its Tie to Change with the Times

For generations, Ritz-Carlton has been known for over-the-top luxury: old-money guests, crystal chandeliers and in-your-face service.

But old-world stuffiness doesn't play well with today's jet-setters. They're arriving in jeans and T-shirts, toting iPods and laptops, often checking in with kids. They don't want to wear a jacket and tie to the hotel dining room, or have the bellman carry their wheeled bags to their room.

So rather than risk becoming irrelevant to future generations, President and COO Simon Cooper is broadly re-inventing the famous brand. In doing so, the venerable chain's joining Hyatt, Hilton, Holiday Inn and other less-expensive chains also trying to keep up with changing tastes.

It hasn't been easy. Cooper says he initially found some resistance from hotel managers who, by most measures, ran successful hotels.

"That's when it's really hard to explain to an organization that you have to change," says Cooper, a former professional yacht captain and amateur rugby player.

But he knew changes were crucial, because "our customers are changing."

Customers such as Scott McKain, a frequent traveler and author of What Customers Really Want, say the overhaul is long overdue.

He's found Ritz staff to be cloying and insincere with their robotic replies. He also dislikes when staffers have insisted upon escorting him to a room he'd asked about, no matter how close it may be.

Ritz-Carlton's strategy has implications for each of its 63 existing hotels and its future hotels, including its most traditional, Cooper says. Nothing is sacred. He scrapped Ritz-Carlton's famous customer-service rules that required staff to say, "Certainly, my pleasure," to each guest request.

Even the generations-old tea service, traditionally served on delicate English floral bone china, now arrives on square, minimalist Asian china.

"Twenty years ago, being consistent was a plus," says Cooper, who took over shortly before the 9/11 attacks in 2001 after founder Horst Schulze left. "Today, it's almost completely the opposite."

Cooper didn't take over Ritz-Carlton expecting to overhaul its image. At the time, it wasn't necessary. The chain was performing well financially, scoring high with customers and growing. Since taking over, Cooper has overseen the opening of 23 hotels, and another 24 are scheduled to open from now through 2009.

Worldwide, Ritz has 17% of the luxury hotel rooms, putting it on par with the rival Canadian chain Four Seasons, he says.

Yet, the emerging culture clash was hard to miss during the steep post-9/11 travel downturn, when all hotels were struggling to retain business and survive.

In the past two years especially, Cooper's priority has turned from expansion to culture and design.

"We knew we needed to re-evaluate," Cooper says. "We know that we have a traditional perception. It's not negative, but it is also something over time we need to evolve."

Key to Ritz-Carlton's makeover:

•Design. New Ritz hotels no longer resemble European chateaus, as was common for those built before 1997.

The modern Ritz in the Georgetown area of Washington, D.C., was built with the remains of the city's former incinerator, with an unusual meeting room at the base of the old brick smokestack. Cooper jokes that when rival Four Seasons turned a former jail in Istanbul into a luxury hotel, "I looked for something worse."

The New York Battery Park hotel has a contemporary art collection inside and out. The Tokyo hotel, set to open in March, looks modern on the outside, yet very traditional on the inside to appeal to its Japanese guests.

•Mood. Mozart concertos no longer set the tone 24/7 in Ritz lobbies, as was the case just two years ago. Today, you'll likely hear a soulful jazz ballad by singer Lizz Wright or the mellow backbeat from electronica band Thievery Corporation. Ritz hotels will change playlists according to time of day to reflect the mood, a technique used by hip boutique hotels.

Ritz has also moved away from huge, overbearing floral bouquets, in favor of smaller, more artistic designs, another sign the chain's striving for more low-key elegance rather than old-world opulence.

•Restaurants. The chain is closing down most of the Ritz dining rooms and replacing them with destination restaurants that often involve well-known chefs such as Gordon Ramsay. The old, formal dining rooms, though well-loved and often critically acclaimed, were rarely profitable, Cooper says. Ritz also started letting hotel owners contract out restaurants.

•Service. Ritz can no longer justify its rates simply by offering in-your-face service. So last summer, the company retrained employees to read guests' body language before addressing them. Cooper says staffers are more spontaneous, too. At the traditional Sarasota, Fla., hotel recently, he says, they threw a five-course dinner for 200 inside a sand castle constructed by expert sand-castle builders.

The evolution will take time.

"Everyone had to stop and take a good hard look at how they do business," says Pamela Malkani, a partner at Millennium Partners, a New York-based real estate firm whose hotel portfolio includes six Ritz-Carltons.

Malkani likes the changes. Today at Ritz hotels, "People are a lot more relaxed, a lot more casual," she says.

Source : ehotelier
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