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Tue 2 Feb 2010 04:00 AM

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Bet the future on the future

Simon Cooper is leading the second coming of the Ritz-Carlton brand around the world. He talks to Tom Rubython about expansion plans in the Middle East and beyond.

Bet the future on the future
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Bet the future on the future
Ritz-Carlton has tentative plans to open in Kuwait, Oman, Morocco and Lebanon by 2015.
Bet the future on the future
By the end of 2012, there will be ten Ritz-Carltons to open in the Middle East.

Simon Cooper is leading the second coming of the Ritz-Carlton brand around the world. He talks to Tom Rubython about expansion plans in the Middle East and beyond.

If recession is a word in Simon Cooper's dictionary he seems not to overly care about its meaning. In the next few years Ritz-Carlton will more than double its size in the Middle East.

It is about to open a brand new hotel in Dubai's financial district and another in Cairo. There are two new hotels in Abu Dhabi, one in Riyadh and another in Cairo in the planning stage and for good measure it will double the size of the existing Ritz-Carlton on Dubai's Jumeirah beach.

By the end of 2012, there will be ten Ritz-Carltons open in the Middle East. It also has tentative plans to open in Kuwait, Oman, Morocco and Lebanon by 2015. By then there will be well over 100 Ritz-Carltons open across the world.

Consequently the president of the Ritz-Carlton hotel company is a very busy man indeed, trotting the globe in a seemingly continually exhausted state. He often works sixteen hour days and it is not uncommon for him to have ten external meetings in a single day - in fact it is the norm.

But in many ways his ridiculous work schedule is his own fault. He is a hands-on manager and personally presides over the operations, development and strategic positioning of the Ritz-Carlton hotels.  It is a job description that keeps him very, very occupied.

Cooper was a natural choice as the new president when Bill Marriott bought the Ritz-Carlton chain in 2001. When the sale was concluded its founding president, Horst Schulze quickly departed. Although Ritz-Carlton started in 1927 in Boston it was Schulze who turned it into an international brand in the early 1980s. Schulze was a legend in the hotel industry and the success of Ritz-Carlton spawned a host of imitators.

It made him a very hard act to follow. Schulze set the tone coining the brand's credo: "We are ladies and gentleman serving ladies and gentlemen."

Although Ritz-Carlton became the by-word for hotel luxury and won industry award after award for service and excellence, by the end of the 90's the brand began to falter. It was overwhelmed by competitors and changing consumer tastes. Schulze and his co-founder Bill Johnson decided it was time to bail out and the chain was sold to Marriott in 2001 when Schulze left.

The then 54-year-old Cooper was a veteran Marriott manager looking for the big challenge. An Englishman by birth he had emigrated to Canada in 1972 and was then the Marriott's top man in the country.

But Cooper, now 63, won't be remembered for his success expanding the company, he will be remembered for ripping up Schulze's legacy and effectively instigating brand heresy. As soon as he took the top job Cooper realised that every luxury hotel brand marketed itself in the same way. But it all really started at an eye-opening presentation from the Ritz-Carlton's new advertising agency, Team One, eight years ago.

Mark Miller, strategy director at the agency, showed Cooper and his colleagues, the current print adverts of the top twelve luxury chains, including Ritz-Carlton, but with blanked out logos. Miller asked them which were Ritz-Carlton adverts and they couldn't tell him. It was a defining indictment of the industry and evidence that in terms of marketing and approach all the luxury chains had morphed into one, recognisable only by their names.

That realisation made Cooper even more determined to rid Ritz-Carlton of the ‘coat and tie formality' the brand was, up to that point, famous for.

The hotels Cooper had inherited were from another era, distinguished by wood paneling, marble and heavy drapes. In fact every hotel looked more or less identical.

It was tasteful opulence and designed to cater for travelling Americans who knew what they wanted and knew they could find it in any Ritz-Carlton without exception. But in the mid 90's this concept started to falter as wealth became not only the preserve of the elderly and Americans.

Miller's presentation was a turning point and the truth dawned on Cooper that the great Ritz-Carlton brand, carbon copied in hotels all over the world, had begun to lose its appeal to the new breed of traveller who started to eschew overwhelming luxury as the reason to stay in a hotel.

The new breed of guest wanted to savour the experience as well luxuriate. The predictability the brand had thrived on until now was, in fact, becoming a hindrance. The new breed of traveller wanted anything but predictability.It was a shock to his system as Cooper's first instinct in 2001 had been to change things as little as possible. When he succeeded Schulze he had a different sort of change to instigate - that of a new leader. It was Ritz-Carlton's first change of leader and Horst Schulze was the Ritz-Carlton as Cooper admits: "His style, his vision, his execution [and] how he did things was considered the only way to do things. It had been successful."

Ironically, in view of what was to follow later, he initially deliberately positioned himself as an agent of no-change as he explains: "I said right from the very beginning when I came in was that I was the chef that came in and did not change the menu. In our industry a new chef comes in and they always change the menu. I said the menu is absolutely terrific I just have to cook it my way."

Cooper was faced with classic conundrum of a professional manager taking over from the classic entrepreneur after twenty years as he recalls: "I could almost write a book on it and I would contend that every brand started with a charismatic, visionary leader.

"The key thing you have to do is make sure that everybody understands that you are not trying to replicate the person that you are taking over from. I have always said that it is important to de-personalise leadership and let the brand do the talking. When you take over from a charismatic leader [they key] is make sure that everyone understands that you are not trying to walk in his or her shoes. The leader is much less important than the brand," he explains.

But he was aware that eventually he would have to make big changes: "You need to establish that trust because you do have to change it someday."

And that someday came in 2003 when the first radically different Ritz-Carlton opened in Washington, DC. It was quickly followed by another in South Beach, Miami. Both hotels looked like no Ritz-Carlton before them and traditionalists found them "jarring and profane."  There was a chasm between those who thought the new approach would either "save Ritz-Carlton" or "see it on the road to ruin."

Subsequent Ritz-Carlton openings in Colorado, New York, Moscow and Beijing steered the new course. Cooper realised he couldn't do much about the existing hotels but restaurants and lobbies were changed as much as they could be within physical and budgetary restraints so no one would ever be able to say again that "all Ritz-Carltons were the same."

In fact it was soon clear that the company would never build a traditional Ritz-Carlton again and that concept was dead. Ritz-Carlton's future was offering varied experiences for a new breed of guest. The new breed were named "discerning affluents" internally and after the early success of Washington, DC and Miami, Cooper authorised a complete change of direction to go after them.

So began one of the swiftest brand makeovers in hotel history described in one magazine as a "paradigm shift that inverted Ritz-Carlton's long-standing relationship to product and place."

The new approach meant nothing in Ritz-Carlton's past was sacred. Although the famous gold lion and crown logo was retained Cooper toned down in the newer hotels and there was even talk of a complete name change. That didn't happen but was ultimately reflected in the new ‘Reserve' brand. Cooper introduced the second brand to the chain to better reflect the new leisure hotels opening in Thailand and the Turks and Caicos islands.

But regardless of name, from now on Ritz-Carltons will all effectively be individual, boutique-style hotels reflecting their locale with a distinctive personality and sense of place emphasising  the history and culture of the location rather than what happened in Boston in 1927.Cooper doesn't know what Horst Schulze would think of it all but he is adamant he had no choice to do what he did: "He really was the brand; he was the face of the brand but I had to flip it, in that the brand is now the face. The way that we did things fifteen years ago was no longer appropriate to what customers were looking for today."

Reflecting now seven years later, Cooper believes the changes have been manifestly for the good: "We had a very homogeneous guest and they were primarily male and white in suits. Cast your eye around today and it is different. A different dress code, different ages, different family structures, different races, it is very diverse."

As the rebranding gathers more and more pace Cooper says he can prove it has been successful. He is using science to track that success with research as he explains: "We have twenty attributes that we test every six months and we test against our competition. That is not just our guests but any luxury traveller that meets the criteria. We are certainly looking at attributes of an elegant brand rather than attributes of a traditional brand."

Cooper believes in research to the point of obsession as he says: "We have made extremely good progress on these attributes and the key test we do is compare the opinions of guests in the last twelve months versus the opinions of the guests who have not stayed in the last twelve months."

But he adds a note of caution: "You just do not change people's perceptions quickly. It takes a long time to establish a strong a brand as ours fortunately or unfortunately when you try to change an established brand it takes time; it is hard."

But six years in he does not believe the Ritz-Carlton could survive doing things the old way: "Verdicts are never final but certainly we have made extremely good progress."

The reality is that under Cooper the Ritz-Carlton is no longer the named brand of a hotel it is the endorsing brand that says it an individual hotel with the common link being the quality of service.

He says in the future that: "Ritz-Carlton will be consistently inconsistent," adding: "And that is what our customers are looking for they do not want the same anymore. Now we can have a contemporary hotel in Barcelona and a traditional hotel in Dubai under the same brand."

Now the first difficult phase is over Cooper says he is enjoying his work enormously: "I think it is really interesting not keep grinding out the same thing. Our guests want service but they want us to reflect in our hotels the city that we are in and the location that we are in. They want great quality and great service but they do not want it to be the same as the last Ritz that they were in."

One area where Cooper is making great strides is bringing down the average age of a Ritz-Carlton guest, something he considered essential. It is now down to 43 and he explains why that is so important to him: "I am absolutely sure people are acquiring wealth at a younger age and acquiring a taste for experiences.

I was most afraid of with Ritz-Carlton is that we would end up like a department store with people saying ‘that is where my parents go.' I can think of a couple of our hotels where children of our traditional guests would not have been seen dead."

Now the 35 hotels Cooper inherited from Schulze have become 73 with new hotels sited from Dublin to Denver. There are 21 more about to open or under construction and Cooper is presiding over an extraordinary period of growth for the venerable hotels brand. He says: "If we had stuck with a consistently traditional look we would have been for the parents - and they are ageing - so you can work out the rest of the story."

Luckily because of Simon Cooper no one will have to.

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