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Editor’s Note: Skift is running a series of interviews with hospitality CEOs talking about the Future of the Guest Experience and the evolving expectations and demands of hotel guests. Check out all the interviews as they come out here. This continues our series of CEO interviews, the previous series was on the Future of Booking, with online travel CEOs.
The Ritz-Carlton is one of the most iconic luxury hotel brands available to travelers today. Founded in 1983, the brand quickly grew from one property in Boston to 24 properties when, in 1998, the brand was purchased by Marriott International.
Today the brand boasts 87 hotels located in 29 countries. Herve Humler, a founding team member, today acts as president and COO. Despite its long history with the brand, Humler is actively looking ahead by adapting to the desires of today’s luxury customer.
Skift recently spoke with Humler about the technology’s role in a luxury service environment, strategies for activating employees, its social media efforts, and the sociopolitical issues that impact the hospitality industry.
An edited version of the interview can be read below:
Skift: What are the biggest challenges that you face today in improving the guest experience?
Herve Humler: Traditional luxury was all about material goods, living a life of comfort, which was characterized by collecting material goods on the wall. I go to China and I buy a vase. I go to the Middle East and I buy a carpet.
Those needs and values haven’t disappeared but luxury is changing rapidly. We hear a lot about experiential travel and that’s what people are doing. Guests today define themselves by what they have experienced versus what they have bought. The aspiration is about authenticity and originality. They are very connected with the local culture. That’s what Ritz-Carlton has to deliver on.
You have to look at design, technology and meaningful service. You are the key provider of that experience, and it is constantly evolving; yet we have to maintain the standard that Ritz-Carlton is well known for as an iconic brand.
Skift: Is there a certain element of the guest experience that takes priority in improving over the others?
Humler: Technology is one of them. Today the millennial global citizen is shaping luxury travel. Across all countries and cultures, this is a generation that has been shaped by technology. Therefore, we have to adopt an online and offline strategy that allows our brand to participate in the conversation and engage guests on their terms. Through various digital touch points, such as Ritz-Carlton hubs, we provide guests the option to use a mobile device for services such as checking in and checking out.
I have two teenagers at home and they talk to our neighbor online instead of going to see them. We see a lot of customers act that way. They are sitting by the pool or in their room and they look at the menu and order online.
Skift: A luxury hotel experience has so much to do with the service. How do you balance technology versus human service to still provide that luxury experience?
Humler: Luxury travelers today have different expectations, which are more complex and challenging. We want to make sure that guests have a deeply personalized experience. They value a two-way conversation with the ability to be a part of creating what they want. They see technology as a key component of great service too, but they expect that service interaction to provide access to unique skills or local knowledge. It is our job to constantly assess evolving technology and find out which one will enhance the guest experience at Ritz-Carlton. You have to keep your pulse on what the customer wants all the time around the world.
Skift: Another aspect of human service is the hiring experience. How has the hiring experience changed or evolved to match the changes in guest expectations?
Humler: We don’t call new hires employees or associate, we call them ladies and gentleman. They are ladies and gentleman serving ladies and gentleman. They are our most important resources in our service commitment to guests.
First, you have to tell them why we are in business, which we do quite well at Ritz-Carlton. I am a founding partner of this brand and I enjoy going around the world, to new hotel openings, and sharing our strategy, our visions. I define service. It’s the greeting, being compliant with our guests’ wishes, and a warm farewell.
Our ladies and gentleman are our most important resources. When you say that, you give them the tools for success.
We developed a process where all of our employees are reminded of the service value of the day before starting their job. We share one story of one customer so that they understand how to create an emotional connection with customers.
Skift: Employee empowerment is something that we hear about often but that I think it more difficult to do than to say.
Humler: That’s right. How do you empower people when we have 42,000 ladies and gentlemen? You have to define steps and remind them every day. The customer who is in New York today will be in Beijing tomorrow. We want to deliver a seamless experience so you have to do it every day.
Skift: How has social media and digital content changed Ritz-Carlton’s conversation with customers?
Humler: A very large one. As of today, we have twelve branded social media channels, more than three million fans and followers, and more than 11,000 interactions and conversations every single day. Through social media we are not only able to provide destination information to guests when they are exploring the idea of travel, but we are able to talk to them during their stay and after they have left. We have been able to extend many of our other services across the social platforms such as a leadership advice on LinkedIn and travel tips from our concierge on Foursquare. We can literally be with our guests at all times and communicate at their convenience.
It’s not just existing guests that we are speaking to. We spend as much time talking to people who have aspirations to experience The Ritz-Carlton — the girl who is saving to buy her mother a candle from the website for Mothers Day or the couple who is dreaming of a Ritz-Carlton wedding. Existing, future, or aspirational, we appreciate the opportunity to share dialogue with anyone who wants to be connected with us.
Skift: Is there anything about the guest experience that we haven’t touched on but that keeps you up at night?
Humler: The political geographic situation around the world is most concerning; specifically, the economy slowing down in China and embargoed in Russia. We have not seen a lot of changes in China as we now have ten hotels there, however, we are concerned about our Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Moscow, as this is effecting the livelihood of our employees, the ladies and gentlemen, on property. We are keeping everyone employed by multitasking in different areas of the hotel from adding more training and language skills.