The president of one of the world's biggest and most prestigious hotel groups has been in Dubai ahead of the launch of its new five-star property in the emirate. Ritz-Carlton's ambitious plans for expansion show he is a man of big ideas, Rebecca Bundhun writes
A Herve Humler heads the Ritz-Carlton, one of the world's leading luxury hotel groups, and he has big plans for the future.
On a whistle-stop tour of Dubai ahead of the launch of the company's five-star hotel at the Dubai International Financial Centre, Mr Humler, the president of Ritz-Carlton talked about the state of the industry and the effects of the economic crisis. He also discussed plans for the group, including the opening of the world's tallest hotel, the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong.
With 74 hotels across the world, the Ritz-Carlton group is a major player in the luxury market, and Mr Humler aims to keep it that way.
Q: A number of hotels are scheduled to open in Dubai this year. Are you concerned about the competition?
A: Competition is good. The more hotel rooms you have, the more brands you have, which will attract new customers. When you look at Dubai as a destination, you just have to be at the airport. Business did slow down, but it's back. It's the right place to be and it's the right time to be here. When you look at occupancy rates, hotels are running at 70 per cent and above. The numbers are pretty good.
Q: How was Ritz-Carlton affected by the economic crisis?
A: Everybody was affected, but then it depended on the continent you were in. In 2008, we did very well in the Middle East, and we did extremely well in Asia. But the business was slowing down in the US. In 2009, everybody was down, including Asia. Last year, we rebounded in Asia, and our occupancy rates were up. We also did extremely well last year in the US. Corporate business is back as people are travelling again. In the Middle East, it has been a bit of a different story. The region started to slow down in 2009, but if you look at the last quarter of last year, business is back up again. In the case of Bahrain, we did very well. In Europe, we have not suffered as much as the Middle East and the US. The Europeans love their vacations and perhaps they decided to stay there instead of taking an exotic trip.
Q: How is the concept of luxury changing?
A: We survey our customers all around the world and they want to be served very differently than 20 years ago. People used to travel on international flights in a coat and tie. Today people just want to jump on the plane in tennis shoes and relax. People are much more casual, so we have adjusted. In some places, less than 10 years ago in Ritz-Carlton hotels, you were required to wear a coat and tie. That's finished. But we expect our customer to dress appropriately. I don't think they will turn up in a pair of shorts to have dinner in the Ritz-Carlton in Central Park in New York. You don't have to tell the customer. Don't forget, you can buy a pair of jeans today at US$500 (Dh1,836).
Q: How have you been affected by delays to hotels such as the one at the Dubai International Financial Centre?
A: We are opening up just at the right time. Business is picking up again worldwide, including in America, where it has been challenging in the last couple of years. But, from a Ritz Carlton point of view, last year was a rebound. Business travel is up, and group travel is back. Maybe it's a better time to open, although we never planned it that way. The hotel is finally ready, and after Dubai we have another one opening in Toronto next month. Right after that, we have the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong. That will be the tallest hotel in the world. You will have the highest restaurant in the world, the highest pool in the world, and it's right over Victoria Harbour.
Q: How important is the Middle East in terms of your expansion strategy?
A: We have a lot of hotels under development in the Middle East, including properties in Oman, Abu Dhabi and Cairo. They are all under different stages of development. In Riyadh, we have not signed a contract, but the hotel should open in the spring. Abu Dhabi will be a mixed-use hotel, and we should be finalising the contract within the next 60 to 90 days. My estimation is it will take up to 20 months to complete, and it will be one of our biggest hotels. Our next big growth will be to go to South America.
Q: The luxury hotels industry is growing worldwide. What does the future hold for the sector?
A: Luxury is not a need; luxury is a want. True luxury is about the service. Luxury has to be timeless. You have to make sure you have the processes to deliver what the customer wants. It takes years to do this. It doesn't happen overnight. In the case of Ritz-Carlton, it has taken 26 years to develop our reputation. It's not about the chandeliers or the carpets; it's about the service.