Ed French may have one of the best jobs in the travel industry. He is Chief Sales and Marketing Officer for The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, a gold standard among luxury brands. Interestingly, his path to The Ritz-Carlton brought him through American Airlines and parent Marriott International, better known for serving a high volume of customers than satisfying a finicky, demanding clientele who often pay $1,000 (or more) per night, and are willing to pay far more than that for what they want.
That being said, his experience building loyalty with a multitude of divergent customer segments (he was President of AAdvantage, the AMR frequent flier program long the industry leader) is serving him well. At the end of 2016, the luxury group will hit the century mark of open hotels.
French notes, however, that “for (Ritz-Carlton) it’s all about the people, the way the people interact with our ladies and gentlemen. Our marketing positioning is about making a memory so we have a real story telling culture. It’s not experience for experience’s sake.”
Whereas employees at U.S. legacy airlines are tightly scheduled with a limited bandwidth (and, perhaps, a limited desire) to deal with special needs, the Ritz-Carlton functions on a higher plane. French tells a story of a child who left his stuffed giraffe at a Ritz-Carlton. When the family realized, the father called the hotel. The giraffe was found, but before it was shipped home it was taken on a photo tour to the pool, spa, gym, and so forth with the pictures packed along so the youngster could see how his favorite toy enjoyed its extra night in luxury. “It’s about having the authority to make it happen,” says French.
Having launched a points-based rewards program in 2010–Ritz-Carlton alongside Four Seasons and Mandarin Oriental had been long time holdouts–French says guests are aligning with two types. One segment consists of “very frequent users of multiple (Marriott) brands,” while the other is the “core Ritz-Carlton loyalist” who wants the recognition but cares “less about the currency.”
Top customers receive access to limited attendance special events, paying to participate. Offers include sports, food and beverage, culinary, and arts, but in terms of demand, sports is a strong number one. A typical offering, for example, would be a Peyton Manning weekend at The Ritz-Carlton Denver.
In terms of expansion, Ritz-Carlton has just opened 10 hotels in the past 18 months, with 12 to 13 in the next 24 months, and four slated next year. Significant will be the brand’s return to Bali at Nusa Dua in March, and then later in the year at Ubud with a Reserve. Cairo and Macao (in conjunction with a J.W. Marriott) will also open.
The Reserve portfolio will grow with Panama, Cabo San Lucas, and Morocco already in action, plus possibilities of a second reserve in Bali, and a Turks & Caicos outpost.
Like most travel related companies, French says of the elite traveler end of the market that “that group is truly global.” Whereas Puerto Rico’s main market is East Coast United States, at The Reserve in Dorado, its Mi Casa villa, for $30,000 per night, is attracting the private jet set from around the world.