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March 2010
Putting on the Ritz
By Susanne Deitzel

     In 2005, when Bank of America announced that The Ritz-Carlton would open a hotel in Charlotte, the city was flushed with excitement. The legendary hotel’s reputation for hospitality, impeccability and business savvy would add an impressive gem in the Queen City crown and bring international exposure.

     The hotel was built by Bank of America for a price tag of about $60 million, and managed by The Ritz-Carton Hotel Company. The 146-room hotel is part of a $540 million complex including the 30-story Bank of America office tower. A primary intention of the project was to provide amenities for Bank of America employees, directors, vendors and guests visiting from out of town.

     When the recession set in, there was concern that the project might be scrapped, or that the venue would struggle to find solid footing in what has widely been reported as a dour climate for hospitality.

     To the contrary, The Ritz-Carlton, Charlotte opened on October 1, 2009. After its first five months General Manager David Rothwell reports, “Our October occupancy was the highest ever for a Ritz-Carlton in the first month, and we have had increasingly successful months since then.  February was an absolute home run for us.”

     Which begs the question—with unmitigated success in what many refer to as a turbulent and competitive industry—what can we learn from The Ritz-Carlton?

 

Strong Values + Flexible Thinking = Innovation

     The danger of being an icon is that many of them get trapped in their historical successes. Totem practices and processes become an invisible part of the landscape, often blinding growth opportunity.

     Not so with The Ritz-Carlton. A firm commitment to its values—most importantly impeccable guest service—has facilitated a flexibility of thinking organization-wide. By listening intently to the unique needs and desires of guests in emerging markets—like Charlotte—The Ritz-Carlton expertly and reflexively provides offerings to delight and serve its clientele.

     Comments Rothwell, “This is not your grandfather’s Ritz-Carlton.” The Charlotte hotel’s sense of place is different—giant floral arrangements have been replaced with crisp artwork and photography, and the music has changed. Rothwell adds, “The gentleman at the front door of The Ritz-Carlton, Charlotte isn’t wearing a top hat.”

     The most significant evolution that The Ritz-Carlton, Charlotte has made is seeking LEED Gold certification. The Ritz-Carlton, Charlotte is the first Ritz-Carlton set to attain Gold status and is only the second luxury hotel in North Carolina to do so.

     Hotel management and Bank of America ownership collaborated on the LEED design because they saw it as a clear opportunity to offer what the market was asking for while simultaneously becoming recognized as leaders in environmental sustainability.     Ultimately, the transition raised the hotel’s service delivery from the individual to what would also best serve the community and the planet. It has also gotten the hotel world-wide media recognition.

     The most buzzworthy LEED feature is the hotel’s green rooftop. It includes 18,000 plants that save energy costs by insulating the building. It also yields a variety of organic fruits and vegetables harvested for use in menu items served in its popular Lobby Lounge and via In-Room Dining.

     The process of LEED Gold Certification is rigorous—from the types of construction materials used and how far they must be shipped, to waste management, lighting, employee transit, materials used in rooms and amenities like the spa and restaurant, and water use.

     The hotel has installed four on-site water filtration systems that eliminate the need for plastic water bottles, which, while sounding like a detail, is estimated to divert 73,000 plastic bottles from landfills, save more than 104 barrels of oil, eliminate 49 tons of CO2 emissions and save almost 605 billion BTUs of electricity each year.

     “We are very aggressive in finding new and better ways to be a leader in environmental sustainability. Our goal is to eliminate 74 percent of waste by the end of the year—we are currently at 40 percent. Our purchasing is organic whenever possible, with an emphasis on buying from local farms. We have 150 bike racks between the hotel and the corporate tower, and encourage the use of mass transit,” says Rothwell. The hotel also offers complimentary parking for hybrid vehicles and complimentary weekday morning transportation via hybrid vehicle.

     He says that the process is changing the way the company does business, and providing new outlets for the creative problem solvers that are the hallmark of Ritz-Carlton’s service excellence.

 

Ladies…and…Gentlemen!

     While the practices of The Ritz-Carlton are centered in evolution and innovation, the essence of the brand is steeped in one value: service. And this service ethos is deeply rooted in the history of the company. Nowhere is this more evident than its moniker for hotel staff: “Ladies and Gentlemen,” or its slogan, “Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen.”

     Its tenets regarding a “Customer-Centric Culture” have lead to the development of a certificate program to teach other organizations the secrets of its service excellence, and been recognized with the prestigious Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award twice.

Rothwell says that the company is vigilant about honoring its stringent service core, while also making sure that it is constantly questioning its practices.

     He explains, “In 2006 we received data that the expression, “My pleasure,” that we had had been using was starting to fall out of favor as ‘too robotic.’ So we asked our employees to make their interactions with customers personal and natural to them. At the same time, you won’t hear people saying ‘folks’ or anything inconsistent with the brand.”

     The company’s obsession with finding data and leveraging it to make improvements is central in its continuing pursuit of excellence. In January, Rothwell found himself walking in a line employee’s shoes, washing dishes for four hours while wearing a suit. The outcome of that evening was a request for a new spray head for the washing station, a request for a smaller portion and different presentation of butter in the dining room, and a new presentation of chocolate on dessert plates to reduce the amount of water and time needed to clean them.

     “I started out washing dishes, and I loved the chance to do it again. It was great to be reminded that everyone can be an owner in his/her role and make a significant difference,” says Rothwell meaningfully.

      Internal transfers account for 98 percent of Rothwell’s executive team, and 58 percent of the hotel’s Ladies and Gentlemen came from other Ritz-Carlton properties, including 13 from his former base at The Ritz-Carlton Resorts of Naples, Fla. He explains, “We’ve got to transfer expertise and culture to create a strong mentoring climate.”

     He adds, “We are also very careful not to bring too much of our experience into what is a new and very different market for many of us. Charlotte is a city hotel—much different from a resort location. Its high volume of business travelers and slightly younger weekend clientele make the priorities different. There is a lot of emphasis on time efficiency, availability of IT and support services, and other logistics.”

     The hotel staff rigorously documents client preferences to assure they are delivering its hallmark personalized service. Explains Rothwell, “The Ladies and Gentlemen learn to serve by observation and documentation. They have preference pads and record the answers to guest questions like: ‘What magazines did they read? Did they only eat the banana out of their fruit salad? Did they order a lime with their beverage’?”

     Such attention to detail also provides the ability to make big picture changes in what the hotel offers. Rothwell says that in the first month of operation the hotel had to purchase additional in-room dining tables because guests enjoyed staying in their rooms for breakfast, as well as increased requests for late-night, in-room dining.

     The hotel goes to extraordinary lengths to empower its staff to make decisions that will serve the customer. Up to $2,000 is provided per employee to provide a “Wow” experience for a guest. One employee used it to correct a luggage mistake that involved an employee hand delivering items to both Winston-Salem and Fort Lauderdale, by the next morning.

     Ritz-Carlton’s extensive hiring and training practices, as well as their GM Roundtables, daily shift lineups, and employee recognition programs are structures that perpetuate and continue to develop a climate of trust, mutual respect and commitment to delivering upon promises made to each other.

     “Our Ladies and Gentlemen are the experts in what our clients need and want, which is the key to our success. Our executive team is beholden to upholding our Employee Promises to them, just as the Ladies and Gentlemen are beholden to their promises to our clients.”

     The company uses copious data collection techniques from internal surveys, customer feedback and Gallup surveys to assure that the guests and employees are receiving everything they need. They also stay immersed in travel and hospitality trends, best-of lists and media coverage to brainstorm about new ways to delight guests.

     And it’s working. Currently Rothwell’s team has exceeded other Ritz-Carlton city hotels in the system by 10 percent in customer engagement scores.

 

Community-Footprints

     “The Ritz-Carlton, Charlotte has been one of the most successful openings in the history of The Ritz-Carlton. It is also the first time one has opened on time,” says Rothwell.

     The competitive GM says that his goal is for The Ritz-Carlton, Charlotte is to become the top hotel of its kind in the world, and leading efforts to get Charlotte what he believes to be well-deserved national and international recognition.

     Charlotte is a relatively unknown gem. With attractions like the NASCAR Hall of Fame, the Bechtler, Gantt, Levine and Mint Museums, the Speedway, Whitewater Center, the NC Music Factory, the Blumenthal and EpiCentre, there is a rich variety of experiences. The regional attractions are incredible too—I had a trip to Childress Vineyards that rivaled experiences I have had in Napa.”

     He concludes, “The bottom line is that national and international travelers will get to experience all that the city has to offer and will make it become the destination it is capable of becoming.”

     The Ritz-Carlton, Charlotte is focusing the majority of its community initiatives around environmental awareness, wellness and service, commensurate with its core values and unique and visible position as a LEED Gold-built luxury hotel.

     As part of the company’s Community Footprints program, the hotel is planning major initiatives for Earth Week in April, a children’s program, and partnership with Second Harvest Food Bank which includes donations and gifts-in-kind.

     Rothwell’s optimism about the city’s possibilities for partnership and growth is infectious; largely because it is clear he has both a trained eye and the drive to turn opportunity into reality. “If we are continually reinventing ourselves, not resting on what we did yesterday, and executing in each moment of truth, we can undoubtedly be the best.”

Susanne Deitzel is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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