PRESIDENT INTERVIEW: Ritz-Carlton's Herve Humler

Creating guest memories is key to super service says renowned hotelier

Reports, Executive interviews, Ritz-carlton
The impressive pool at the Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi, which is due to open later in 2012.
The impressive pool at the Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi, which is due to open later in 2012.

One of Ritz-Carlton’s founding members and its current president, the legendary Hervé Humler, tells Louise Oakley why creating memories for guests through exceptional service is his utmost priority

Setting the example for his 38,000 employees across the globe, Hervé Humler is resolutely loyal to the Ritz-Carlton brand he helped found 29 years ago. Now, as the company’s president, he naturally expects a similar loyalty to the brand from both his guests and staff and dedicates himself to achieving this on a daily basis. One of his main goals “in 2012 and beyond”, and his target for all the managers in his company, is to create a “culture of trust”.

“What I mean by trust is you have to have everything defined for Ritz-Carlton and you have to be very transparent — you have to have some guiding principles for your ladies and gentleman,” Humler says when we meet during his recent visit to Sharq Village and Spa in Doha.

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“When we started the company we [introduced the] Credo, our GPS - we commit ourselves to service and when a customer enters a Ritz-Carlton, they need to notice it. You have to have an atmosphere of trust and trust is a guiding principle; we have to define everything for the employee.”

Building such trust among the team is necessary to ensure everyone helps drive Ritz-Carlton’s loyal guest base — vital when the brand by its very nature only targets the very top level of travellers, a niche 6% according to Humler.

But for the customer to be truly loyal, to come back time and time again, he says his hotels have to “create memories”. This requires more than the “personalised service” that has become a mantra for luxury hoteliers. Greeting guests by name and knowing what they like to eat and drink is well and good, says Humler, “but it’s knowing much more than that today”.

“You have to create the memories, you have to create the wow. We call that the wow story. You have to touch on the emotional element with the customer and do something they will always remember. That’s why we have created a new marketing platform this year — ‘Let us be with you’.

You don’t have to stay at the Ritz-Carlton; because of something that we did you will always remember that the Ritz-Carlton is here, something really special touching the emotional side. And that will create guests for life. What do you need to do that?

Well you need to listen to your workforce, you have to empower them to make decisions and leadership has to facilitate that. If you send your shirt to the laundry, the lady has to check all the buttons and if there is one missing, fix it — a small thing people will remember,” asserts Humler.

But how does he ensure the message filters down to his team of 38,000?
“Every day of the week we reinforce how to do this,” says Humler. “Fifteen years ago we developed a process worldwide so that every day in the morning there is a line-up with all the managers; every week we send to every hotel what they need to discuss on Monday Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

From the head office, we talk about the guiding principle; you have to remind people why. Four days a week we talk about the basics and the Credo,” says Humler, who also reveals he still carries the Credo card with him — “I live with it, I almost sleep with it”.

“We know that you have some turnover in the industry and we learned years ago that you have to repeat the same thing 50 times for people to register it, so we have a lot of repeat,” he continues.

“Then one day of the week on Friday we publish the wow story of the week, it may be a story about Sharq Village, Shanghai, New York - something where the customer was ‘wowed’.”

Current focuses
With establishing trust and creating memories as the goals, Humler says “there are two priorities this year” towards achieving them and he has created new operating platforms to this end. The first revolves around guest engagement, the second on talent selection; both inextricably linked in the hotel business.

“We have to improve the way we select people, we have to improve the way we retain talent, we have to improve the way we identify this talent and make them grow,” says Humler; a mission that will surely resonate with many in management positions.

He admits that Ritz-Carlton can also improve upon its guest engagement in some cases.

“I have hotels in the green zone, in the yellow zone and in the red zone too. We are not perfect. But at the same time we are giving the hotels the tools and we know exactly where we are in order to improve, that is the best thing you can do. You know today what you need to do tomorrow”.

Humler says that every department is tasked with reviewing its processes and delivering changes.

“You have to identify your defect and do something about it. In the hotel industry it is pretty weak. The good thing with Ritz-Carlton is we have only 100 hotels, 120 hotels soon, but if there is an issue somewhere I work on it tomorrow, I solve it and we move on and that’s the good thing.”

Room service is one of the departments that has recently come under fire at Ritz-Carlton.

“Let’s talk about room service — because in the hotel industry that is the number one defect. We cannot deliver room service on time. If you all order at 8am tomorrow, if 50 people want room service, we will get a complaint. However, we find out why. If you go to room service in the kitchen in the morning you have a menu about that big,” Humler says spreading his arms wide.

“You have hundreds of ingredients and pretty much what we eat for breakfast in the morning is usually the same thing every day of the week. And you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We are trying to be too fancy. Try to streamline the menu, make it attractive, but deliver on time.

“At times we were too bothered with the classical side of things, or let’s say our food was too processed. We had a piece of salmon stuffed with shrimp mousse and topped with lobster sauce. What people want today is a nice piece of salmon, make sure it is wild from Nova Scotia or wherever, it is fresh, grilled simply with some herbs, flavourful — eliminate the complexity,” he says, his F&B background coming into play.

Another focus point is delivering value, which at Ritz-Carlton, Humler defines as “service” and making sure the very best product is delivered.

“We select all our house wine and I want to make sure I buy a great product, and I want to make sure when I buy thousands of cases I get better value financially; I want to pass some of that saving on to the customer. When you look at the house wines in Ritz-Carlton they are great, and people say ‘oh it’s not that expensive’.

Why, because I am buying hundreds of thousands of cases and I want to make sure it is special even though it is the house wine,” says Humler.

Loyalty scheme
The reinvention of processes comes back to guest engagement and importantly, listening to guests. Humler recalls how it was customer demand two years ago that resulted in him launching Ritz-Carlton Rewards; a loyalty programme he never thought he would introduce.

“About 25 years ago investors would say ‘Hervé when are you going to have a rewards programme?’ and I would say ‘not at Ritz-Carlton’. I’m not going to be like a bank. If you open a checking account they give you a toaster, I said no.

“It was interesting in 2008 when the major economic slowdown started in America and it went to Asia a year later. In America we dropped about 21% in sales, in Asia we dropped about 16%. In Asia the following year we recouped everything, it took two years in America to do it.

During that time many corporate clients and many leisure travellers said ‘I am going to a new company, when are you going to give something?’. It was very obvious in America and Asia; there was no other choice than to develop Ritz-Carlton Rewards.

“But I was not in the business to just give points to people, that’s why we made sure we gave access to the extraordinary. National Geographic will do a photo session for one week with some of the best photographers in the world. If you have enough points you can go with them,” he says.

“Right now I have roughly initiated 225,000 members and these members gave me last year GBP 210 million in sales. When you capture 6% of global travellers, that’s what Ritz-Carlton does, these people want value too.”

Impressive as these figures are, Humler is still at the core focused on value as it links to service.

“When we do something special people are loyal, but that doesn’t replace the iconic service of Ritz-Carlton,” he asserts.

About Herve Humler
Hervé Humler, president, Ritz-Carlton International and executive vice president, Marriott International, is the longest serving member of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company. He was appointed president on November 1, 2010 and is also managing director of Bvlgari Hotels & Resorts.

Previously, Humler served as regional VP Asia, Australia, Western US and MD of The Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco, a position he held since 1995. He was regional VP overseeing Ritz-Carlton California and Hawaii for five years, and general manager of The Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco since its opening in 1992.

Humler served as GM for The Ritz-Carlton, Mauna Lani in Hawaii and GM of The Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead from 1986 to 1988. Earlier, he was VP F&B, and initially, he held numerous executive positions at hotels in Atlanta, Buckhead and Laguna Niguel.

His background includes regional F&B positions with Hyatt. Before coming to the US, French-national Humler worked with Princess Hotel in Bermuda and with InterContinental’s Hotel Ivoire in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.

Future Opportunities
In which locations would you most like to sign a hotel?
We’re always looking at the Indian Ocean, the Seychelles, Maldives. I will be signing Mauritius in the next few months and I would like to be in the Seychelles. We are in Moscow; St. Petersburg is very seasonal but I need a place in St.

Petersburg, we are working on it. I spend a lot of time in South Africa, you need to be outside of Johannesburg. I would love, going back to my first love about the hotel industry, a safari lodge — I would love to get one.

Where do you see the most opportunities for Ritz-Carlton to grow?
It is still in the Middle East, still in Asia, but we are moving very rapidly in South America and that’s Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo and Panama City.

We opened our first hotel in Shanghai 14 years ago; now we have nine hotels in China including the tallest hotel in the world in Hong Kong. When we started in China the Chinese market was about 3-4% of the occupancy, today it is at 50-55% and they never look at the rate and say ‘that is expensive’; they are using our hotel, they are drinking the best wine, they come on the weekend with their family.

People say China will drop, well they are going to drop, they had GOP increasing 12-13% every year, they are dropping, big deal to 9%. Korea and Singapore are booming, Asia is very strong. We are going to Vietnam, second quarter of this year, Cambodia is coming along; it’s interesting.

Would you bring the Reserve or Bulgari brands to the Middle East?
I have a project for the Reserve in Muscat, Oman and the Reserve is very special, an out of place, out of reach destination, targeting that very thin market. Every time you charge GBP 1000 or more for room rate, here you are dealing with 1% of the market and the more exclusive location you find, the more that market love it and they want to be away from everything. In Oman we are doing a reproduction of an Arabian fort.

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