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Puttin' on the Ritz

Contributor MICHELLE SHAIL chats with the co-founder of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Compnay about his memior "Excellence Wins."

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via Ritz Paris

My husband calls me a picky traveler. What can I say? A lady likes nice things. But champagne wishes on a beer and pretzel budget can present problems. Unless, of course, you understand the real value of exceptional service.

I’m comfortable at home and love my cozy bed and spacious bathroom. Its by no means a mansion but it suits me well, and when I budget for traveling I want to be at least as comfortable away as I am at home. It isn’t just about luxury digs and star ratings for me, because, and lets be truthful, those environments with their glass elevators and marble foyers can feel as woefully staged as a bad wedding reception. Indeed, pretentious environments do not always feel comfortable, and I’m curious how luxury hotel chains generate our champagne wishes and caviar dreams from behind the scenes.

Remember the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company before Marriott took over? That was my ideal honeymoon destination some 20 years ago. But as employees, spouses and parents, how often are we attending to the needs and expectations of others in real life? My psyche doesn’t yearn merely to be pampered, but to feel revitalized when I return to life’s demands. Yet cultures of purpose do not just happen. They require careful planning, intense focus, systemic training, and, of course, an innovative leader and exemplar. Horst Schulze is the man behind my fading memory of the Ritz-Carlton. Today, he’s interpreting that experience for the 21st century with a new project called Capella Hotels and Resorts. I recently spoke with the hotelier in New York.

“The namesake of our Capella Hotels and Resorts is a double star and the sixth brightest in the night sky of the Auriga constellation.” Metaphorically, the double star represents a synergy Capella creates between the hotel’s employees and guests. No stranger to creating experiences that garner a near 100% positive experience rating from guests, and #1 awards by industry insiders, Schulze seizes the spirit of every moment to provide guests with exclusivity, loyalty, and lasting memories.

So how does he do it? In our world of big box stores, massive conglomerates, and super sized options, Schulze doesn’t hesitate to shift from the crowd and listen to a guest’s conscious or subconscious need for “individualized service.” Capella has created stunning small hotels of 100 rooms or less, and the innovative boutique model allows for more agile processes such as “no check-in and check-out times.” Hotel leadership contacts each guest in advance of their stay to determine “how their experience can be customized to meet their needs” from theatre tickets, reservations, special meal requests, particular flower arrangements, or whatever helps the guest fulfill their personal story. We characterize our economy as service driven, but all too often it’s just crowd control with a smile (and sometimes with no smile). My conversation with Schulze reminded me that true service is rooted in a fixed morality; where passion, vision and processes create a culture of purpose.

“The business process is the easy part,” Schulze says, and he has a passionate philosophy for the talented members and team who represent the vision of Capella. “We do not hire people to fulfill a function,” he explains. In fact, he sees that approach as immoral. “Human beings need to belong. They must have a purpose. But what I look for most in a member of my team is an inert self respect that flows naturally to our guests.” In fact, experience and skills are not what matters most to Schulze. For those can be taught and acquired. “Creating excellence in oneself, and summarily for our guests, is really the goal.”

As consumers we know right away when we encounter cultures of respect, excellence and service. Alternatively, we know when we’re in environments of hostility and stress. Similar to the way our children reveal our true family dynamic to the outside world, a hotel’s culture is revealed by a consortium of players from the first point of contact to the last. Even when we don’t have words for it, we all know when we’re dealing with a platitude or something intrinsically genuine.

Thanks to the internet and social media, the opportunity to share our stories as individuals and organizations has never been greater than it is today. However, the cost of a low barrier to entry is more time trying to be noticed. Sometimes we forget that technology, in its myriad of options, is just a tool. People create solutions, and excellence begins and ends with individuals united by passion, integrity, purpose and hard work.

My conversation with Horst Schulze reinforced my penchant for being a ‘picky traveler.’ Not just in terms of the hotel experience—but also in life. Because our lives are stories told by the relationships we build and the vision we pursue. When we drift away from the pursuit of a meaningful existence, and acquiesce to only the demands of external influences, we trade our champagne dreams for cheap beer identities. Attention for the sake of attention, much like luxuries for the sake of luxuries, don’t yield a life well lived; unless or until it’s rooted in something deeper than a sentiment. Curiosity in our world is why we explore. Though from Singapore to Ixtapa, Shanghai or beyond, Horst Schulze and the new ultra-luxury Capella brand is why we do it well. What’s your story?

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