April 14, 2020 Larry Gulko

CEO Lounge: Hervé Humler

Co-founder of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, Chairman Emeritus, The Ritz-Carlton and St. Regis Hotels & Resorts

Herve Humler CEO Lounge

“The vision of The Ritz-Carlton is clearly defined by the values and philosophies by which we operate.  We created our motto, “We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen” in 1986 and it took a great deal of thought and discussion.”
~ Hervé Humler, Co-founder of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company

LG: Herve, you are one of the co-founders of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, 36 years later with a global portfolio of 96 iconic luxury hotels. What was the fascination that inspired you to pursue your career in hospitality?

HH: I was born in the southern French city of Toulon, and raised on Africa’s Ivory Coast, where I earned a baccalaureate degree. Like all prospective hoteliers, I began as an apprentice, learning every aspect of the hotel business from housekeeping to food preparation.

In my early twenties I worked in a small lodge —located on Africa’s Ivory Coast. Because the lodge was so casual, I would spend time with the guests, sharing stories and getting to know their families. It was there that I learned the satisfaction in engaging with customers and delivering service based on their needs. That experience inspired me to work in hotels around the world and became a foundation for my guest-focused service philosophy.

LG: Share with us your vision and the Ritz-Carlton brand voice that reflects the authentic customer-centric culture you created and the way of life motto ‘Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen.’

HH: The vision of The Ritz-Carlton is clearly defined in our Gold Standards, which are the values and philosophies by which we operate. We created our motto, “We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen” in 1986 and it took a great deal of thought and discussion. After spending time with our employees and customers, what our customers told us was that we have true Ladies and Gentlemen working in our hotels, not servants. We listened to this and agreed. So, Ladies and Gentlemen serving other Ladies and Gentlemen — how you behave, how you act, how you talk, your eye contact, being warm, relaxed, refined — all of these things, those are the tools we give our employees to be successful. This philosophy is based on trust, respect and integrity, and one which translates around the world no matter where we open a hotel.

LG: As you grow your business, and the noise level gets louder in your industry, how do you keep The Ritz-Carlton brand ‘fresh and relevant’ in today’s rapidly evolving business landscape?

HH: To keep the brand relevant, we have continued to maintain a pulse on the customer. Over the last decade, everything from the brand’s design strategy, the service style, grooming standards, and the dining experience have all been re-designed or re-invented based on the needs and wants of the luxury guest. Now, 36 years later, the company’s growth from 1 to 100 hotels shows that what we have done has resonated with customers; in fact, over 50% of our current guests are from the X and the Y generations.

LG: Who is your consumer and corporate customer and how have they changed over the years?

HH:When we look at our hotels today compared to only 10 years ago, there is more diversity. We have a younger clientele and we see families travelling more with their children. When we saw this change occurring, we created our Ritz Kids program, to provide activities for families while staying at our hotels.

Our goal is to be forward thinking, on-top of travel trends, and to create new brand extensions so that wherever our customers travel, they will always find a Ritz-Carlton. This is a priority. Our latest brand extension is The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection. Research told us that, 405,000 Ritz-Carlton guests had taken a cruise annually, which means that there is huge opportunity with our current customer base. We saw a need in the market and are uniquely positioned to enhance the ultra-luxury cruise space with exceptional service, smaller ship design, and yacht-style itineraries.

LG: How does a leading global luxury lifestyle brand reshape the travel experience, leverage innovation to turn technology into a competitive advantage?

HH: Everything still comes down to the guest experience, except now in the digital world, our guests are more in charge of their experience than ever before. Our focus has always been on our guests but their needs have changed, and we’ve evolved with them.

More than ever before, luxury travelers are placing a greater emphasis on service and personalized travel experiences. At the same time, technology has made travelers expect a certain level of speed and customization, from hotel recommendations to being able to easily book leisure packages at their fingertips. Our guests also want to engage with us in the digital space and we have done that through our social media channels.

We are always looking at new technology trends and evaluating whether they will provide value to our guests’ changing needs. Simply put, we are always looking to use the latest technology in ways that will enhance the guest experience.

LG: What were some of the key challenges and major benefits being acquired by Marriott International in 1998?

HH: This acquisition provided us with tremendous resources and synergies in company best practices and systems. It is also created an attractive and added incentive for guests in a loyalty program and created tremendous opportunities for employee career growth and value for owners. We now have eight distinct luxury brands across the Marriott portfolio and it has made it more important than ever to ensure each brand promise is clear in the eyes of the consumer and delivered consistently.

Our breadth of geographic distribution gives us a significant advantage over the competition in that we can really see the global trends in travel and luxury and better understand the key drivers of growth in these markets. This allows us to quickly identify and respond to the changing needs and demands of today’s luxury traveler.

LG: You created The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center. Was this created to establish a thought-leadership program to educate and share The Ritz-Carlton magic standard of excellence with others in the industry?

HH: Our Leadership Center was started after we won the Malcolm Baldrige award to help companies across all industries benchmark the best practices of The Ritz-Carlton and develop their service models to create a competitive difference. Today, companies come from all over the world to The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center, our corporate university, to learn about the way we do things. They come from a range of sectors: automotive, energy, finance, fitness, healthcare, human resources, insurance, legal, retail, transportation and technology.

We opened the Leadership Center in 1999 and have welcomed thousands of senior executives, managers and staff from leading companies far and wide. In fact, several leading brands, such as Apple®, attended our courses prior to creating their own legacy of legendary service.

Whenever I meet up with top executives who participated in learning at our center, I ask, ‘How’s everything going?’ In response, I often hear, ‘It was more difficult to put into practice than I thought.’ A lot of organizations have great mission statements, but if leaders don’t preach it, if they don’t make living it a priority every day, if they don’t believe in it, nobody’s going to believe in it. I really do feel that long-term success is the result of having a strong culture and a strong set of beliefs that are nurtured all the time, starting at the top. It’s all about the disciplines of execution.

LG: Besides Maine, what is your favorite place in the world to visit?

HH: My other favorite place in the world to visit is a small village in the south of France called Valaurie. It is where my grandmother had a summer house that my wife and I have renovated in the French style. The town dates back to the 16th century and it is said that Napoléon spent the night there. The village has a small square with a fountain as is surrounded by beautiful fields of thyme, lavender and olive trees.

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