President and COO
The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company
One of the original founders of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company when it was created in 1983, Herve Humler has held senior positions with the company around the world. Next year the Nice Hotel School graduate will mark his 30th anniversary spanning two ownerships (now part of Marriott International, Inc.); the opening of 80 properties, 31 Ritz-Carlton Residences, two new brands (The Reserve by Ritz-Carlton and Bulgari Hotels and Resorts) and The Ritz-Carlton Institute (a corporate training center); and the honor of numerous travel publication awards and two Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Awards. Recently Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief Douglas Gollan traveled to Humler’s Chevy Chase, Maryland headquarters to see how much more growth is possible, how technology will change the luxury hotel experiment and if rich people like points programs too.
ET: How’s business?
Herve Humler: In 2012 we had a great start. We’ve got a lot of development, but it’s outside the US. Asia is booming. People talk about China slowing down, but I don’t see it. There aren’t enough rooms. Japan is back in a big way. We just opened Okinawa [featured in Elite Traveler’s 101 Top Suites 2012 list]. We have two openings in China, Langkawi [Malaysia] and a resort in Vietnam, and we’re looking at Cambodia.
Europe is slowing but look at Spain – people want to go there on vacation and Istanbul is booming. Moscow is very strong and Berlin has really taken off. Berlin has become a leisure destination. We just opened Vienna. It’s a great location with 204 keys, a very complete hotel. The building dates back to 1860 and it backs onto Beethoven Square. It’s got a great Guerlain spa and health club, a pool and a terrific Ritz-Carlton Club and Club Floor. Plus there’s a rooftop terrace for when the weather is nice.
Abu Dhabi is 650 keys including 75 villas. There are beautiful gardens and waterfalls. It’s got an Arabian sense of place. There are seven food and beverage outlets from a steakhouse to Thai. In December [The Reserve by Ritz-Carlton] Dorado opens. We are partnered with chef José Andrés, a great personality who has really put Spanish food on the map.
By 2015 we will have 101 hotels and 38 residences and clubs. There is still plenty of opportunity. Every capital of most countries can support a Ritz-Carlton.
ET: What about plans for The Reserve and Bulgari?
Herve Humler: Phulay Bay (the first Reserve) is a destination we created. We are going to do the same in Morocco with 125 residences, 75 villas and a yacht club. The location is almost directly across from Gibraltar. It will be a great place where people can bring their yachts. You’ll also see us in Mauritius with a Reserve. For Bulgari, we now have three with London [Bali and Milan]. The next will be Shanghai and after that we believe it will be New Delhi, Dubai and Beijing. In Dubai we finally got the right location.
ET: LVMH purchased Bulgari a year ago and they have their own hotel group (Courchevel and St. Tropez). How do you see the relationship going?
Herve Humler: We would love the opportunity to work more closely with them.
ET: How has the luxury hotel dining experience changed during your tenure?
Herve Humler: Food and beverage has become the reputation of the hotel. We’ve re-defined what we offer. It’s much more lifestyle-oriented and less complicated. Today it’s about natural ingredients and the best sourcing, eliminating preservatives and grilling lightly. People don’t want heavy sauces. We’ve also changed the speed of service. People want things to happen that much faster.
ET: Are there other trends you see?
Herve Humler: Yes. It’s about creating an experience. Today consumers accumulate experiences. Our marketing has actually become an operational platform – “let us stay with you.” It is an invitation to the customer to stay at our hotels, but with an emotional focus. It is about creating memories for the customer. It’s the big things and the small things. For example, if you send in a shirt and it’s missing a button we should fix the button. I have three cleaners near where I live and if I opened one that fixed the missing buttons that would put the other two out of business. Then you have [bigger things like] Cousteau (Ambassadors of the Environment at Grand Cayman and Dorado) or spa or culinary. We’ve launched a series of videos: “The Art of the Craft,” which pull back the curtain on how we create memories from the perspective of a wine sommelier, housekeeper, chef and shoe shine valet as examples. It’s a story to tell the customer. There is a tremendous amount of dedicated craftsmanship and that is part of the experience. It’s about the passion for what we do.
ET: Can you share an example?
Herve Humler: A chef should be a Picasso in the kitchen. A while back I was getting emails from this kid who was a young chef in Germany. I think he sent me 14 emails, and he said, “if you give me a chance I will become the best chef at Ritz-Carlton.” On one of my trips to Germany he literally met me at the airport. We needed someone in Dubai so we sent him there and eight years later he is the youngest Michelin chef in the world at our hotel in Wolfsburg, Germany. You need to have a passion for what you do.
ET: How does technology fit into the luxury hospitality equation?
Herve Humler: Our mobile application is a good example. We had over 200 of our concierges provide tips from their own city or places they know well, and we are constantly updating them. The concierge recommendations are also on Foursquare, so if you go to the Brandenburg Gate and check-in there, you get recommendations from the concierge at the Ritz-Carlton. In Hong Kong it could be where to get the best noodle soup. We want to help build the stories.
ET: What about for the in-hotel experience?
Herve Humler: We want to use technology where guests want technology. So an example could be you arrive at the airport and on your phone you get your check-in information, and then use your mobile phone to go up the elevator when you get to the hotel and right up to your room. In the car going to the hotel you’ve ordered soup or a sandwich because you want something to eat and as soon as you are situated there comes your meal so you don’t waste any time. And of course if you want to just arrive at the front desk, be greeted and taken to your room and then call and order room service because that’s what you want to do, you do that.
ET: Ritz-Carlton is famous for its credo and service?
Herve Humler: You’re right. At a hotel you have a lineup three times a day for morning, afternoon and night shifts. Four days a week we talk about our service values. We remind our ladies and gentlemen about the meaning of our service values. Once a week we share a best story of the week at every hotel. It’s about reminding everyone about our commitment. They’re not employees. They’re ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.
ET: But you finally gave in and launched a rewards program and affinity credit card?
Herve Humler: I used to say I’m not going to offer points, I’m going to offer service. I didn’t want to become a bank giving out toasters and teddy bears. It became clear that I needed to take a fresh look. But we said let’s do something that rewards customers with more of the experiences they want. So it became about access to partners such as Abercrombie & Kent. Or for example, we are working with Destinations Cellars and through them you have access to vineyards, or with IMG Sports Academy where you can go and train at their academy. And we’ve seen new guests come over who always valued what Ritz-Carlton offered but also wanted a program that rewarded them.
ET: Can you talk a bit about The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Institute?
Herve Humler: We work with all types of companies. We worked with General Motors to retrain salespeople from 250 dealerships. The Apple Genius bar was originated by several of Steve Jobs’s top executives after they took part in a program at The Leadership Institute. They drew it up on a napkin at the end of the day when they were having a drink. We have both ongoing programs, and we can specially customize programs as well. We share our best practices. We see a lot of people from healthcare. It’s anything from training to legendary service to helping a company craft its mission statement.