Colin Nagy, head of strategy at FFNY, a global advertising agency, writes this opinion column for Skift on hospitality, innovation, and business travel. "On Experience" dissects customer-centric experiences and innovation across hospitality, aviation, and beyond. You can read all of his columns here.
The hospitality industry can be overly obsessed with trends, the latest shiny technology and the idea of big data.
But an iconic and instructive example of just how the industry is based on people and their effort can be seen with Hector Ruiz, who serves as hotel ambassador for The Carlyle Hotel in New York. As much as change and evolution are necessary in modern hospitality, maintaining tradition and personal service is a reminder of what should never be discarded.
Ruiz has worked at the hotel for 27 years and is recognized as the go-to contact for the hotel’s most loyal guests. He’s an elegant figure when we meet, dressed in a perfectly cut navy blue suit, presiding over the daily flurry of arrivals and to-dos in the hotel. When taking me on a walkthrough of a few guest suites and the common areas, he was constantly assessing every space with a detailed eye, attuned to the rhythms and movements the hotel with muscle memory.
Every small element was noticed down to the positioning of the L’Olivier-arranged flowers and his graciousness extended to not being the slightest bit flustered with a restless, crying child within earshot as we were conducting the interview. He was unflappable and erudite when discussing his history with the hotel, and his observations of the industry.
Raised in Puerto Rico, Ruiz moved to New York at the age of 12. He began working for the hotel developer and real estate investor Peter Sharp as a personal assistant and then moved into the hotel business, where he has been uniquely positioned to watch it evolve. But he maintains that though, there has been a sea change in behaviors, there are timeless elements to the craft.
Ruiz immersed himself in the workings of the hotel. “I worked across every discipline at the hotel, from purchasing to valet, to reservations, to housekeeping,” says Ruiz, citing the need for a hotelier to have deep familiarity with the inner workings of a hotel and how it works at the molecular detail. “It takes everyone to achieve the goals of a hotel.”
And while hotels are obsessed with the latest approach to CRM and mining big data, Ruiz takes a much more simple approach: guests can ring him on his cell phone for reservations, and he keeps a detailed notebook of arrivals, key things to do, and key clients to keep in touch with. Much of his day is spent making personal calls to clients or their assistants, and performing what he calls “air traffic control,” making sure they know when people are arriving, and matchmaking guests with their preferred suite or room.
“Much of this job is pattern recognition,” said Ruiz. “If there’s a frequent guest that always stays with us a certain time of year and they aren’t here, its good to check in on them to see how they are.” He sights the personal touch as being vital, and it is how many of The Carlyle clientele prefer to engage. “Tech has simplified a lot of modern life, but much of our clientele don’t like all the changes,” says Ruiz. In many cases, they prefer to see the hotel as a constant over time. And therein lies a lot of its appeal.
Ruiz said hospitality has changed in many ways since he began his career but in many cases, the principles stay the same. “Touchpoints are essential in a hotel and in providing service, he says. With many guests opting to be more self-reliant, sometimes we have fewer points in a guest’s stay. This makes it necessary for the front-line staff to share information and to communicate effectively.” He cites his role as like a quarterback, working with the teams from the morning standup, partnering with the GM, and also adjusting on-the-fly throughout the course of the day.
Ruiz also cites the need to drill deeper to provide the best service. For example, it is not enough to send a complimentary bottle of wine to a guest’s room. It is necessary to see if they liked it and how they responded to it. This small gesture is an opportunity to observe preferences and improve. “Everything needs a feedback loop.”
He alludes to some of the special things the hotel does for guests over time. Repeat guests will have embroidered pillows, stationery, and embroidered robes coming with more stays. They are physical and tangible nods to loyalty in a world of points hoarding and pseudo loyalty. A very frequent guest even had a say in the decor and remodeling of his favorite suite in the hotel.
Ruiz also says that true service extends far beyond the walls of the hotel. He will regularly call other properties to introduce a guest, their likes and preferences, serving as a diplomat of sorts to ensure that his regulars are treated well in other locations.
And while The Carlyle is finding favor with a younger audience as it builds under the Rosewood ownership, a lot of the audience staying at the hotel have been loyal for years. The hotel serves a role in their lives, even in stressful times as life goes on.
Ruiz said one of the favorite parts of his job is “lessening burdens.” He mentions a guest that was in the hotel recovering from cancer treatments, who wrote him appreciatively to say the hotel had been a refuge from a stressful time in life. In fact, some of the hotel’s clientele that can’t travel anymore regularly call him to stay in touch.
One thinks that in a world of constant change, it is nice to have a hospitality experience, one that has hosted heads of state and the great and good, doesn’t need to change or iterate. Ruiz concurs, “At The Carlyle, we are used to doing things a certain way…unless a client wishes otherwise.”