The moment I heard that the brains behind Capella Hotels and Resorts was the same visionary who was instrumental in taking Ritz-Carlton from three hotel properties to fifty and achieving a customer service culture that took the luxury brand to stratospheric levels, I knew I had to be at the Press Luncheon hosted by Horst Schulze last Wednesday. Not because it was sure to be a high end junket, which of course it turned out to be, but because everything I knew about Ritz-Carlton’s meteoric rise to the upper echelons of the hotel industry made me want to be in the same room as someone I’d privately nicknamed “Hands-on Horst”.
What was trailblazing about the Ritz-Carlton customer service policy in the 1990’s was that the staff were empowered–truly empowered, no lip service, no buzzwords–with every team member from bus-boys to chambermaids to executives so engaged that employee turnover in 2000 was around 5% compared to the staggering industry average of 100%.
What were they given the power to do? Whatever was necessary to satisfy an unhappy guest–a simple premise but so revolutionary and effective that its impact was to turn more than 90 per cent of their guests into “recommenders or repeaters”. As any Saint Lucian hotelier will no doubt tell you, those numbers were astronomical in the industry, and during Schulze’s tenure Ritz-Carlton became the gold standard for customer satisfaction.
So what did this strategy of employee empowerment to achieve customer service excellence look like? Well, for example, if you were a restaurant waiter and had an unhappy guest who complained about the food, you were expected to do whatever it took to put a smile back on that customer’s face, whether that was giving a free dessert, comping the whole meal or even sending a bunch of flowers to the guest’s room to make up for the issue. It could be as simple as an extra chocolate on the pillow next evening, but the impact on the guest’s experience and satisfaction was undeniable and took survey results to an insane peak when 96% of customers stated would recommend Ritz-Carlton or come back for more.
Simple premise, but the execution of such an ambitious approach would have been complex and challenging, no matter where in the world the employees were located.
But enough about his former employer – after all, it’s been more than a dozen years – because ‘Hands-on Horst’s first foray into the Caribbean with Capella has brought region’s first “ultra luxury” resort to Saint Lucia, and he plans to similarly empower the Marigot Bay resort’s employees to make repeaters out of every single guest–or at least 95 out of 100 of them! And when you hear him say it, believe me, you believe him.
Horst Schulze is a legend, a titan of hospitality, a groundbreaker and when he spoke at the Capella Press Luncheon on January 29, his passion for creating excellence rebounded off the walls of the dining room, and his confident promises to achieve “unparalleled results” in Saint Lucia were eminently convincing, given that the man has a history of doing just that.
His career in the hotel industry started when he was just 14 years old, quit school and went to work as a bus-boy in a hotel in his native Germany. He’s done every job in the business, so he can share experiences with staff and–more to the point–he knows exactly what they are feeling, understands their challenges and has “been there, done that”. He considers his employees “friends”, and former colleagues are effusive in their praise of his hands-on style:
“Few leaders roll up their sleeves and get involved like Horst does,” said a ten-year Ritz Carlton veteran ten years ago. “I’ve never known a company president who knew almost every employee’s name. And he really, sincerely cares . . . he is as loyal as they come.”
But Horst also loves to make a profit: he’s a self-professed number-cruncher (in the best possible way!). The Capella CEO may be in Dusseldorf, Germany or Ixtapa, Mexico, but be certain he’s keeping an eye on results, results, results, as well as close tabs on what his competition is doing, which is why he can joke publicly about how he’ll be looking for “his friend”, GM Jeroen Quint, to produce only nines and tens in customer satisfaction surveys, or he won’t be his friend anymore. At this end of the luxury market, you can be very sure that nothing is left to chance, and Horst’s passionately expressed vision, mission and objective for Capella are certainly inspirational and convincing. And of course, highly valuable to the economy given that guests looking for ultra luxury are very much a recession-proof demographic.
So what exactly is “ultra luxury” and why is Capella’s arrival in Saint Lucia a timely one for the island? Well, put it this way: what hotel have you heard of that calls ahead to find out how they can make your vacation absolutely perfect? Whether it’s a romantic dinner for two on a deserted beach, a helicopter daytrip to your own private island, the perfect jasmine-scented white candles for your spa bathtub or your granny’s recipe for chicken backs cooked up by the executive chef himself; if you can afford it, they can provide it, and if you don’t know what “it” is, they can certainly offer suggestions. We have “luxury” hotels in Saint Lucia, but if Capella’s reputation and resolve are anything to go by, we’re in for something brand new with the transformation of Marigot Bay into a getaway for the very rich and not-so-famous – the 1% who can afford the dream.
In May last year, Forbes Magazine was predicting a bright future for ultra luxury, explaining that in 2012 “the combined wealth of ultra-high-net-worth families increased by $566 billion, enough to buy . . . every luxury hotel room and suite at every luxury hotel and resort in the world for the next decade.” Quoting Douglas Gollan, Editor-in-Chief and Group President of Elite Traveler Media Group: “Their population is projected to increase by 50% in the next decade. The ability of luxury companies to provide more products and services to these consumers is only limited by how much effort they put into it. There is a lot of demand, but there is even more untapped demand.”
So when I tell you the man is a visionary, believe it.
For if “Hands-on Horst” Schulze has his way, the world’s ultra-affluent few will come to Capella Marigot Bay, fall in love with it and return, just as long as his resort offers a level of customer satisfaction unprecedented and unparalleled in Saint Lucia.
I say, bring it on, Capella. Think we can tempt Beyonce and Jay-Z away from St. Barts this year?