The couples in the images on the conference-room wall are holding hands. They’re strolling on the beach, gazing moon-eyed across restaurant tables. They look attractive and sophisticated—and remarkably similar. Only their faces are different.
On this winter morning in 2004, a strategic planner from a boutique ad agency has tacked up art from dozens of advertisements for luxury hotels in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company’s Chevy Chase, Maryland, offices. He has done it to prove an absurd truth: nearly every brand in the category uses the same imagery, the same tonality—everything but the same models. He gives the company’s executives time to absorb the scene, then issues a challenge. “Which of these ads,” he asks, “is yours?”
The question couldn’t have been more relevant. Not long before, Simon Cooper, Ritz-Carlton’s president and COO, and Bruce Himelstein, senior vice president of sales and marketing, had arrived from parent company Marriott eager to liberate Ritz-Carlton from the coat-and-tie formality that had characterized the chain since its 1983 inception. One obstacle, as the planner—Mark Miller, of Los Angeles–based Team One—had so vividly identified, was its dated marketing formula. But that stale imagery was symptomatic of a deeper, more fundamental problem: how to invigorate a brand freighted with a concept of luxury as it existed in 1927, when the original Ritz-Carlton opened in Boston?
The hotels themselves stood firmly in another era, their heavy drapes closed against the sunlight. The public spaces within were dark, full of wood and marble, and overtly masculine. Their dining rooms served the usual American standards with gracious formality but little verve. And every property looked more or less identical: a cross between an Italianate mansion and an English country manor as it might have been outfitted by Donald Trump. Until a guest emerged blinking into the bright Phoenix morning, he could have been in Philadelphia…or Tysons Corner, Virginia…or most any Ritz-Carlton in the world. “We had no sense of place,” remembers Herve Humler, a 25-year veteran of the company and now the president of Ritz-Carlton International. “Even Kapalua had the portrait of someone’s grandmother on the wall.”
Until Cooper’s ascendance, that’s just how Ritz-Carlton wanted it. “What worked initially was, build all the hotels the same so that people will recognize them,” says Himelstein, and such uniformity served it well. From 1983 to 1993, the brand grew from a single hotel to 30, while stamping an image of tasteful opulence on the consciousness of American travelers. Then the ground shifted. As wealth proliferated among the young, the innovative, and other demographic categories not typically associated with blue blazers and Hermès ties, a different cachet emerged: one favoring experiences that were unique, authentic, and not easily available for purchase. That might mean a trip to the sold-out Masters Tournament, a day of skiing on a pristine mountaintop, a glimpse of a celebrity. It didn’t mean a stay in one of the dozens of carbon-copy Ritz-Carltons around the world, no matter how polite the doorman.
The very predictability that consumers had found so desirable was now a hindrance to attracting a new generation. These “discerning affluents,” as Miller calls them, were willing to sacrifice the comfort of a familiar setting for an experience they could talk about back home. “What they want,” Miller says now, “is to collect stories.”
Toward that end, Cooper and Himelstein engineered one of the swiftest—and arguably most important—corporate makeovers in recent hospitality history, a paradigm shift that inverted Ritz-Carlton’s long-standing relationships to product and place. The first of the new Ritz-Carltons opened as something of an experiment in April 2003, in a retrofitted civic incinerator in Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood. Another followed that New Year’s Eve in a restored Modernist landmark in South Beach.
These properties looked like no Ritz-Carlton before them—and felt different, too. Flexibility trumped bellhop livery. Sense of place subordinated continuity with the brand. To some loyalists both inside and outside the company, the changes seemed jarring, almost profane. When Team One was awarded the account in late 2004, replacing a conglomeration of various agencies, Miller found a chasm between those who believed the new approach would ultimately save Ritz-Carlton, and those who saw it as the road to ruin. “People who’d been with the company for years felt strongly that the dark wood and chandeliers defined the brand,” he says.
But Cooper had seen the future, and it didn’t include heavy drapes. His team of outsiders forged ahead. South Beach and Georgetown became models for the next wave of Ritz-Carltons, which were integrated into singular sites such as Bachelor Gulch, Colorado; downtown New York; Moscow, just off Red Square; and Beijing’s Financial Street. All of them use setting and local culture to determine design components, such as a cowboy bar in Bachelor Gulch and a feng shui–inspired floor plan and tea apothecary in Beijing.