Why You Should Be Putting on the Ritz

Marketers Can Learn From Hotelier's Philosophy That Employees Are the Brand

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Michael Monarca won't rest until he finds the perpetrator.

Tucked in among reports of rattling air conditioners and overpriced bar cocktails in yesterday's GIA (guest incidents and accidents) report is a complaint that's irritating the manager of the Ritz-Carlton Central Park New York.

Aziz Bendriss arranges a bouquet as head housekeeper Ella looks on.
Aziz Bendriss arranges a bouquet as head housekeeper Ella looks on. Credit: Katja Heinemann
"There's one person up there in the lobby who is not smiling or greeting people when they walk in," he glowered. "I'm not sure if it's that person, but we need to do a time-card check and see if they were in the lounge when this guest filed their complaint and resolve this."

Many employers might consider a nonsmiling employee the least of their problems, but at Ritz-Carlton, renowned for its on-site customer handling and service, it's serious business. The hotel is considered the gold standard because of its conviction that employees are the face of its company, and that service isn't just part of its brand, it is the brand.

"About 15% to 20% of our customers come back because of the people working here and the relationships they have with them, not the product," said Aziz Bendriss, the hotel's assistant rooms executive, who has been at the hotel, which has 460 employees and 259 rooms, since 2001.

Mr. Bendriss, like every other Ritz employee, comes to work each day armed with a hearty "good morning" and a 1.5-inch-by-2.5-inch accordion-style foldout. His weathered copy contains 12 Service Values, three steps of service and the Ritz-Carlton credo, part of which reads: "The Ritz-Carlton is a place where the genuine care and comfort of our guests is our highest mission." Service Value No. 1 states: "I build strong relationships and create Ritz-Carlton guests for life."

'Key to the culture'
Mr. Bendriss is on his way to the 8 a.m. meeting, which consists mostly of housekeeping staff and is a companywide practice. In each of the 75 Ritz-Carltons around the globe, management and staff meet every morning and read from the Commitment to Excellence and Strategic Planning Process. The document contains one of the 12 Service Values, which is read to the staff, and a short article that could either be about the company's strategic plans or a specific customer-service incident that took place in one of its locations and how it was resolved.

Michael Monarca, hotel manager, greets guests at the hotel's entrance.
Michael Monarca, hotel manager, greets guests at the hotel's entrance. Credit: Katja Heinemann

"The lineup is key to the culture here," said Scott Geraghty, area VP and general manager of the hotel. "It sets the pace for the entire day." At this morning's meeting, Mr. Geraghty had a surprise for a housekeeping staffer. Bill Marriott, CEO of Ritz owner Marriott International, stayed in the hotel the night before and asked Mr. Geraghty to pass along a sizable tip to the attendant who took care of his room.

In the cafeteria, where the operational meeting is held, hangs a photo depicting a horse race each week based on an internal "gallop" poll done by the hotel. On it, six horses, each representing a Ritz-Carlton in the Northeast, are arranged in order based on their scores. Today the Ritz-Carlton Central Park is third.

"The staff takes that very seriously," Mr. Bendriss said. "Depending on where we post our horse, you can see the joy or disappointment on their faces."

Mr. Geraghty said one of the tenets of the hotel is that whichever employee gets a customer complaint owns that complaint through resolution. "There's no transferring of calls or pushing you off to someone else," he said. "If the employee doesn't have the answer, they will get assistance but never will they pass the customer along to someone else. We believe in empowering our staff so they can resolve any situation that should arise." To that end, each employee is reimbursed up to $2,000 to help a customer resolve an issue.

How far will the hotel go to please a customer? Mr. Bendriss said if it gets hold of a picture of a guest's pet, it will make a copy, have it framed and display it in the guest's room in whatever Ritz-Carlton the guest visits.

Scott Geraghty, area VP-general manager at the Central Park South Ritz-Carlton in New York.
Scott Geraghty, area VP-general manager at the Central Park South Ritz-Carlton in New York. Credit: Katja Heinemann

In the Ritz-Carlton Central Park's small gray housekeeping office, which Mr. Bendriss calls the heart of the hotel, phones are jangling with guests looking for everything from conditioner and body lotion to ironing boards and a new shower head, as employees shout over a walkie-talkie to Deniza, the sole operator managing the controlled chaos. Her job is to get an employee on a complaint within seconds of hanging up with a guest. And she does it all the while answering questions for employees who repeatedly stop by her office.

Surprisingly, Deniza said she never hears a complaint or request that stuns her. The same can't be said for Maria and George at concierge, who admit they get surprised a couple of times a week. "The more affluent the guest, the more outlandish the request," Maria said. She's gotten requests to have playgrounds shipped to Saudi Arabia and has arranged a lavish Thomas the Tank Engine-themed party for a 4-year-old that included opening up FAO Schwarz early just for him.

Frenzied days
On this day, George was calling every sporting-goods shop in the city trying to secure 80 U.S. soccer jerseys (20 in each size) for a guest who needed them -- you guessed it -- five minutes ago. But that might well be a snap for George, who said his most recent adventure involved helping a frequent guest ship a goat to Pennsylvania as a gag gift to a friend.

At 10 came the operational meeting in the cafeteria with department heads. In addition to the unfriendly employee in the lobby came discussion of a recent guest who was in town for the TV-network upfront, lost his luggage at the airport and was left without a suit. The hotel sent his family back to the airport in a town car without charge to look for the luggage and ended up providing him with a suit from its uniform department. The guest eventually left without returning the suit -- and was hit with a $500 charge without any head's up from the hotel.

"That was just a bad idea on our part," Mr. Monarca told his team. "We had a great story and ruined it. We did all of this stuff to wow him and then threw it out the window for a suit." The situation has since been resolved and ended with the customer "happy," Mr. Bendriss said.

The meeting moved on to VIP arrivals. The day's list was made up mostly of executives but did include one TV actress. The data on guests, used to prepare for arrivals and enhance their stays, is impressive. The staff knew who requested extra body gel, who was allergic to peanuts and who preferred the blinds open when they arrived.

Brian Bennett, area director-performance improvement for Ritz-Carlton, said many aspects of the hotel, such as marketing, pricing and product, can be copied by rivals, but the experience can't. And it's the experience that's most profitable, he said. "It's the positive experience that will make a guest who visits us five times a year visit us six or seven times," he said. "The experience is what triggers change in customer behavior and that change is pure profit."

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