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Reinventing the Ritz-Carlton

Courtesy of the Ritz-Carlton Turks and Caicos : The view from a model room at Reserve's Molasses Reef, scheduled to open in January 2009.

Photo: Courtesy of the Ritz-Carlton

Older properties followed suit. Many of the formal dining rooms have been replaced by jazzy restaurants run by celebrity chefs, including Eric Ripert, Dean Fearing, Gordon Ramsay, Laurent Tourondel, and Wolfgang Puck. Today’s Ritz-Carltons are asked by Cooper to emphasize singular experiences (or “scenography,” in the Miller lexicon). In Cancún, scenography means an Aztec fire ceremony every Saturday. At the Lodge at Reynolds Plantation, in Georgia, it means serving spiced pecans to guests during check-in, with the scent of fresh magnolias in the air. The concept can get carried to the point of absurdity— as at Bachelor Gulch, where the house Labrador retriever is available to accompany guests up the mountain for an afternoon of snowshoeing—but the point is clear: Let no one ever again be able to claim that Ritz-Carltons are all the same.

Has the message been heard?We’ll find out this summer when Cooper ups the ante. A new brand, dubbed the Ritz-Carlton Reserve, debuts with the Phulay Bay resort in Krabi, Thailand. A second Reserve, Molasses Reef in Turks and Caicos, is slated to open in January 2009, with as many as 10 more coming by 2015. The idea is to attract sophisticated travelers to unintrusive, ecologically friendly properties in remote areas, where they’ll bask in site-specific splendor. To anyone who hasn’t stayed in a Ritz-Carlton in the past five years, of course, such cultural immersion will seem bewildering at best. This isn’t about the lack of oil paintings on the walls; the living areas at Phulay Bay don’t even have all their walls. Meals there are so informal, they’re served on the beach upon request. Even the familiar blue lion-and-crown logo will be hard to find.

None of this will seem particularly novel to habitués of the far-flung adventure resorts that now dot the globe, but it will be quite a stretch for the stalwart Ritz-Carlton customer. And that’s precisely the idea. If trust in the brand can lure its longtime customers slightly further into the wild…and a few extreme travelers can be persuaded that creature comforts don’t detract from the authenticity of their eco-experience, Ritz-Carlton just might co-opt an entire niche category.

We’ve seen this kind of maneuver before with the creation of Starwood’s W, which managed to convince at least some of the hip regulars at one-off boutique hotels that chains didn’t have to be soulless and bland. At the same time, it allowed Westin and Sheraton customers to experience something edgier than the typical 18-story cereal box with a health club and a lobby, while remaining safely within the confines of the company’s service promise and frequent-guest program. But W was a new brand, devoid of cultural associations. To a large percentage of America’s traveling population, Ritz-Carlton has all the edge and daring of a Tom Jones concert. “Our brand doesn’t give us a lot of wiggle room,” Himelstein acknowledges.

That puts the pressure on Reserve to strike exactly the right note. The Krabi property, across a bay from Phuket but an hour from the nearest airport, was already under construction when a management contract with Ritz-Carlton was signed in December. That jumped it ahead of Molasses Reef, which was to be the first in the Reserve lineup. It also put the process of precisely defining the brand on fast-forward. As of early March, conceptual decisions still remained, including how much interaction with the Ritz-Carlton name the property should have. Too much and you scare away the independent-minded traveler who may still perceive the name as tradition-bound. Too little and you risk losing the symbiosis entirely. “The robes in the bedroom won’t have the big gold lion and the crown, we know that,” says Laurie Smith Wooden, the vice president of new business development. “Does it make sense to put the Ritz-Carlton magazine in guest rooms?We don’t know yet.”

If such small details sound almost irrelevant, well, the stakes are high. So high that other Ritz-Carlton offshoots have been mothballed so that Reserve can remain the focus. But the corporate team, once skeptical, seems energized by the prospect of breaking new ground. In the halls of the executive offices, employees stop one another with suggestions on how to further tie these new properties to their settings. Humler, who has all of Europe and Asia to run, has been dispatched to the region to find a source of natural toiletries. George McNeill, the company’s corporate chef, is seeking a local chef to meld his talents with those of an international star.

Early on a Wednesday night, McNeill is sitting in the coolly plush bar at the Ritz-Carlton Georgetown. Already, it hums with activity. “We actually had to pull back, tone it down,” McNeill says. “The guests didn’t like standing in line to get in.” Earlier that day, he had returned from a quick trip to the Caribbean. Thursday he’s off to California for a meeting with a famous French chef who might expand his U.S. empire by teaming up with Ritz-Carlton. Soon McNeill will be in Thailand, tasting entrées in village noodle houses.

Now he turns to survey the scene, which feels utterly different from the shadowed, clubby lounges of the original generation of Ritz-Carltons. The chipped granite with mica on one wall creates a modern vibe. The soft red light lends a seductive glow. There isn’t a chandelier or a bookcase in sight. A man with a perfect haircut and a woman in a low-cut dress arrive at the bar’s open doorway and scan the room. If they have any sense of the history of the brand, or feel any disconnect between what they might have expected from a Ritz-Carlton and the pulsating sound track before them, they don’t let on. They walk in. To them, it looks just right.

Bruce Schoenfeld is Travel + Leisure’s wine and spirits editor.

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