Putting on many a Ritz-Carlton

Bob Kharazmi, senior vice president international, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel company, speaks to SHALU CHANDRAN

By 2010, the group anticipates 95 hotels, including 35 properties in Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Are you on target?
Yes, and we could even exceed that number.

It has been a strong year in terms of development. In 2007, we opened nine hotels, and in 2008 we are looking at four more hotels. We will open, on March 11, our hotel in Guangzhou which is very close to Hong Kong. After that we will open a resort in Sanya, China and then we will move onto Krabi in Thailand.
Hotels under construction include those in Toronto, Dubai, St Lucia and Turks and Caicos.  In Asia, we have the The Ritz-Carlton, Tokyo and The Ritz-Carlton, Beijing Central Place and The Ritz-Carlton, Jakarta Pacific as recently opened hotels in the region; seven more are soon to follow. What drives us into these markets is the demand from our customers.

What are your plans for the ME region?
We have just signed a management agreement with Aldar to open the first Ritz-Carlton property in Abu Dhabi. The resort which will be situated on the Coconut Island is due to open in 2011. Then there is the serviced apartments in DIFC, we will have our second hotel in Bahrain probably by 2011. After that we will have Kuwait, we also signed a contract in Riyadh and in Jeddah between Madinah and Mekkah, whose contract we should sign by the end of this month. A lot of other projects are also in the pipeline.

You have also made investments of more than $360 million on renovations in 2006 and 2007. Is that to maintain Ritz’s unique ‘classic hotel’ look?
Luxury cannot be defined. As customer profile changes, luxury has to be defined in a different way. We have seen that we have a mix of two different types of customers – our fathers and grand-fathers and the young generations that have accumulated wealth at an early age, looking for a very contemporary and informal experience.
In 2006 and 2007, we spent millions in making our luxury hotels more relevant to the market. Relevance is today’s customer’s preference. In 2007, we spent $700 million just operating our properties. So, it’s a lot of investment to enhance the properties and create a product that is well received by the customers.
Our project in Dubai will undergo renovations in the near future with new restaurants and meeting rooms as well as in the spa.

What is the scope of the luxury hotel market for this region? Is there a market?
Yes absolutely. However, what distinguishes a hotel is the attitude of employees and their real true desire to serve you. To create that is much more difficult that to build a beautiful hotel. From the president to the youngest staff, everyone must have the same values system, same core basics. So, yes this region has some of the finest 5, 6 and even 7-star hotels, but what will distinguish us here is our service which comes from the roots of the brand.

The Reserve brand –what can we expect to see?
It is a slice of luxury, made more unique and smaller, take it to a luxurious exotic destination with the best food and beverage facilities and exclusive and you have a Reserve.
The first one will open in Krabi, Thailand. Markets like Oman have good scope for a Reserve brand.

What are the new initiatives in store for Ritz?
Over the next few years, 40 hotels and residential projects will feature world class spas which will be added to 37 spas currently operated by The Ritz-Carlton. Our spas now offer more than just treatments, they have become a holistic experience for spa customers.