Forget everything you think you know about the luxury hotel group; it’s all about to change. Bruce Schoenfeld gets a firsthand look at the company’s reinvention.
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.
| Credit: Courtesy of the Ritz-Carlton

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.

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.