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Sun 18 Jan 2009 04:00 AM

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Four decades of Ritz glitz

Three Ritz-Carlton veterans with more than 40 years of experience between them talk to Hotelier Middle East about what they love about the luxury hotel chain and the challenges facing the company in 2009.

Three Ritz-Carlton veterans with more than 40 years of experience between them talk to Hotelier Middle East about what they love about the luxury hotel chain and the challenges facing the company in 2009.

General Manager

Andrew Nasskau joined Ritz-Carlton 16 years ago and brought all this experience to the Ritz-Carlton Dubai when he joined the property in July 2008.

The hotel is like a piece of magic — you can’t put your finger on it, it’s different from other hotels, it has more soul.

Nasskau went straight into the hotel business after going to hotel school in London and actually started out as a chef for a short while.

He moved through various departments before joining his first international hotel chain.

"I started in stewarding, then housekeeping and then I joined IHG in the reservations department, which was where I started my career properly," he says. It was after this stint at IHG that he joined the burgeoning Ritz-Carlton brand.

"I was in sales and marketing at the time and Ritz-Carlton was fairly new [as an international chain]. The company had just opened a hotel in Sydney a year before, which was 1989," Nasskau continues.

"Their whole mantra was different; it was something new and their philosophy was the same as my own, but they'd actually written it down in black and white, so that was the main attraction for me."

The philosophy and way of operating that Ritz-Carlton adheres to are elements that Nasskau very much holds dear when he talks about the Dubai property.

"It's a home, and by that I mean that it kind of wraps its arms around you. There's an intimacy about it. When you walk into the hotel you feel like you've been here many times before, even if it is your first time here," he enthuses.

"It's like a piece of magic; you can't quite put your finger on it. I mean it's different from a lot of hotels that I've been to, which are beautiful hotels, but this has more soul."

"It's relatively small at 138 rooms, but it's not a tower block, so this [the lounge area] is its central core and it's homely. I'm welcoming people into my home. That's what really sets us apart, and that's what I generally feel about the property."

Nasskau feels like he has inherited a complete hotel, one that has always been managed superbly, but this does not mean he will be complacent in his tenure.

"You have to give kudos to the people who were here previously, as when they were here, there was nothing here, no JBR residence behind us or anything, just desert, so they really went through hell when that was being built," he says.

"But here we are now and we're very fortunate. Where does it go from here? Well, it's all about innovation, creativity and harnessing the talents of the employees."

Nasskau is mindful of the economic climate looming overhead like a big black cloud, yet he remains optimistic about the situation and views the crisis as a hurdle that the hotel can not only over come, but learn from.

"There aren't really too many worries in the panic sense, you change your actions accordingly, just as if you were sailing a yacht through stormy weather; if you're low on money you don't go on any exotic holidays and it's the same for a hotel, you just spend in the right places," he says.

He is adamant the guest experience will not be sacrificed despite the crisis.

"We never touch the areas relating to customer experiences it," he says.

"And I think that when you go into things like this, again, much as if you're sailing a boat and come out of the storm and into calm sea, you emerge much stronger. So I think the key is preparation. We'll learn from it and we'll get stronger." Director of HR

Corinna Saffhill did not start her career in hospitality - she was actually working in insurance - but she has always had a desire to work with people, which led her to the hospitality sector.

Saffhill started at the Ritz-Carlton 17 years ago at the Sydney property and said it was the company's ethos that enticed her.

There are some very talented employees that like to be challenged and are very ambitious.

"The philosophy was actually advertised as a recruitment campaign with the tagline ‘we are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen' and that really caught my eye, so it was insurance to Ritz-Carlton and I've never looked back since," she says.

"I oversee all of the ‘human processes' in the hotel. For me there are so many factors but it comes down to the fact that we follow our core philosophies with our ladies and gentlemen and make sure they are fully trained.

"There are some very talented employees that like to be challenged and are very ambitious and want to grow within the company, so I oversee this and make sure they are recognised and are rewarded for their work and innovations."

While most hotels in the region suffer from staff recruitment and retention woes, Saffhill says this is not a huge problem at the Ritz-Carlton Dubai.

"We are lucky in that we do get inundated with CVs and résumés but we think that if we do have a challenge then it is honing in on those talented individuals that are applying to us," she explains.

"We have development plans and programmes in place to make sure we retain those very talented people. They do get offers from other competitors but the flattering part is that they don't go."

Saffhill says it's important to have a competitive market edge and so twice yearly, Ritz-Carlton reviews salaries and training etc to make sure it is on par with its competitors.

"I love seeing the ladies and gentlemen we select progress in their careers and in the company; 17 years in the company and you know a lot of people and seeing highly talented people move into other areas of the hotel is a reward in itself," she says.

With guest satisfaction top priority for Ritz-Carlton, Saffhill says making sure employees achieve this is her key goal and in this respect, giving them freedom is essential.

"I think that we are trying to focus on the unique memorable experiences for the guest so for our ladies and gentlemen, it's giving them the empowerment so they can say ‘I can make a decision by myself or I can be very creative about a solution for a guest," she explains.

Ritz-Carlton's structure and approach aides this staff development and the director of HR is happy for all her employees to have more of a say in their work.

"We talk about our ladies and gentlemen being involved in the planning of the work that affects them. We have our ladies and gentlemen selecting new ladies and gentlemen and the teams they bring in," she says. Executive Chef

Executive chef Eric Branger has been with Ritz-Carlton for 15 years, having worked in many freestanding restaurants in his native France and across Europe.

He also worked in two- and three-star hotels before being approached by Ritz-Carlton in 1985 when the company operated just 10 hotels.

By using innovation, up-selling and teamwork we will have happy staff and therefore happy guests.

Branger says that the restaurants at the Ritz-Carlton Dubai were already well established when he arrived in early 2008, but that they were not the finished product.

"What I like about this hotel and what's very impressive is that after 10 years in operation, the consistency has still been maintained and still has a very high reputation in the city," he says.

"We had to maintain this consistency but we also had to add something new to create a different experience for guests."

As a result he has changed processes in the kitchen, including the training, which helps maintain consistency - an essential ingredient before new elements are added.

Having the right staff on board and training them well is also integral to achieving this consistency, says Branger.

"It isn't too difficult to find people as staff as many people want to come to Dubai to work, but it is the way we train them that counts in terms of shaping them to be the right type of staff," he says.

"And from there, the key to retaining these staff is to teach them something new everyday. Staff always want to learn a new recipe everyday, something new, because they all want to become a chef one day.

"If you do this then they are stimulated and interested and when this is the case they are happy and train more easily. You also gain their trust and they will really work for you so that is my vision for the future as far as my kitchen teams go. It is very rewarding when you start to see this happening."

Keeping the staff happy is obviously a priority to Branger, but he explains that teamwork in the kitchens is also paramount.

"I've instilled more teamwork in the kitchens since I arrived as this was the area that most needed improving," he reveals.

"We are now coming up with all sorts of ideas for the coming year - by using innovation, up-selling and teamwork we will have happy staff and therefore, happy guests."

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