By now, we’re used to hearing the big news that Trip Advisor has acquired some smaller company—it seems to happen about once a week. But the past couple months, we’ve also been hearing big news almost every week from a very different type of company: the Ritz-Carlton.
The luxury hotel company has unleashed a flurry of new properties on the world in the past couple months, opening three in October (Chendgu and Tianjin in China, and Bangalore, India) and two in November (Almaty, Kazakhstan and Aruba), with another on the way mid-December (Herzliya, Israel).
The timing of this unprecedented pace is coincidental, said Ed French, the company’s new Chief Sales and Marketing Officer (who sounded remarkably calm over the phone with everything that’s going on); after all, these are no pop-up hotels—they’re years in the planning, and lots of factors can influence the opening date. But the focus on developing markets is very much on purpose. The luxury travel market is growing, and some of the biggest growth is in technology centers like Bangalore.
So yes, these new properties are “business hotels,” but aimed to appeal to leisure travelers as well, said French. Herzliya, just north of Tel Aviv, may be a business and technology center, but the hotel’s spot in a quiet marina overlooking the Mediterranean says “unwind.”
Interestingly, this hotel is the company’s first in Israel (and Bangalore is its first in India) and, not surprisingly, opening in a new country is what French called a “great endeavor.” But the launch of any hotel with a reputation like the Ritz-Carlton’s is a huge undertaking. Employees are groomed years in advance, and the opening itself involves a formal (and, one would guess, frantic) 10-day “countdown.”
The start-to-finish process isn’t just about maintaining standards; making a connection to the destination is essential, too, said French. That means hiring locals, working with local businesses, and connecting to the new area through design. Horses and apples, for example, are important in Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan (the surrounding area is thought to be the apple’s ancestral home), so the hotel features both (the horses are in the artwork; the apples are for eating).
Whatever its formula for opening new hotels, the company will be using it plenty—20 more new properties are planned by 2016. It’s one that’s been working for a long time. I’ll never forget my experience at the Ritz-Carlton in Kuala Lumpur, where I stayed not long after it opened in late 1997. I had been on assignment for another magazine, following hunter-gatherers around Borneo for a week, and didn’t have time to change my clothes before flying to KL. I showed up at the hotel covered—caked, actually—in mud. Amazingly, no one blinked an eye: not the white-gloved bellman when he hoisted my muddy backpack, and not the front-desk staff when they heard my still-squishing waterlogged hiking boots.
It wasn’t meant to be a test of their new staff, but it turned out to be a pretty good one. The “exceptional guest”…hm…it’s a role I may just have to reprise at some of these new hotels.
Rich Beattie is Travel + Leisure's Executive Digital Editor.