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Masters of Modern Luxury: Herve Humler

Jackie Caradonio

Born in the South of France and raised on the Ivory Coast, Herve Humler was one of four visionaries who in 1983 founded the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company.

Now president and COO of the global hospitality brand, Humler has overseen the development of more than 80 hotels and resorts, dozens of Ritz-Carlton Residences, and the company’s newest venture, the Ritz-Carlton Reserve. The hotelier, who is a painter in his spare time, spends his family vacations on a low-key island in Maine, but few people have more insight into—and have had more of an impact on—the evolution of international luxury travel.  

Redefining Luxury
In luxury you have to define everything. Four years after we opened our first hotels, we were voted the best hotel company in the world by Condé Nast [Traveler]. Best hotel company in the world! What do you do? You give yourself a high five, and you go out and have a few drinks. But the following day, you ask yourself, “Why?” Not once, but at least five times.

At the time, Ritz-Carlton was already an iconic name and well known around the world. The mystique was great, but there was no trace of anything except an iconic name. So that was the turning point in our company. We had to define the company and, in the process, we redefined what luxury is.

Ladies and Gentlemen
I’m not in the business to sell food or to sell rooms. I’m in the business to give service to people. It’s not the chandelier or the carpet or the beautiful furniture—I see a lot of brand-new hotels with all the bells and whistles in the world. It’s people. It’s people who make the difference. At the Ritz-Carlton, we are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen. I tell my people, “You are not servants. You are the top professionals in the world.”

I remember when we opened our first hotel in China 15 years ago. It was a hotel that we had taken over from another hotel company, and as I was walking through the hotel with the previous owner, I asked, “Why don’t people look at you when they say hello?” The owner said, “They are paying respect.” I said, “From now on, you are going to look at the customer. I don’t care which nationality they are. I want you to enjoy doing your job.” Because if you engage, and if the guest doesn’t forget, you create a customer for life. Today, 15 years later, that hotel still has the highest customer engagement of any other hotel in the world. It’s an old hotel. It has smaller rooms. But it still runs at the highest occupancy as well as the highest rates.

Memorable Moments
A few years ago, when people traveled around the world, they traveled to accumulate possessions—a piece of art, say, or a fine pair of shoes. Today they travel for the experience. They want to know about the culture. They want to know about what to do in that city. It’s important for us to give the customer a great value by exposing them to that sense of place. If you are staying in Beijing, I want to be able to tell you where the finest noodle restaurant in the world is. Maybe it’s a hole in the wall, but the food is terrific. That’s what they bring back, that’s what they remember, and that’s what they share with everybody when they go home.

Exclusive Reservation
Six years ago, I like to say that I connected with paradise. I went to someplace called Krabi, [Thailand]. I had never seen Krabi on a map. It was a beautiful day. I was about 100 feet above this big limestone formation, like something from [The Island of] Dr. Moreau or James Bond. I said, “Here. This is it.” But it was obvious that a Ritz-Carlton would not work. Ritz-Carlton is big, and at the end of the day, Ritz-Carlton is a commercial name. It’s exclusive but not exclusive enough. And that’s why we created the Reserve brand.

The Reserve is an evolution. Of course you have your plunge pool. You have all the amenities and some that you can’t even think of, but the Reserve properties are authentic experiences too. We’re not trying to overproduce something here. The Reserve brand is about a great sense of space and privacy. But the product itself is small. It’s all for the destination. We’re always going to have the big-box Ritz-Carlton, but true, true luxury is going to be the Reserve brand.

Brave New World

There are no boundaries for the hotel business, and that’s a beautiful thing. I’m going to Vietnam. I’m looking at Cambodia and the coast of Malaysia. I’m going to Kazakhstan. In fact, in 10 or 12 years, Kazakhstan will be the kind of place where you have the Winter Olympics. You can ski for miles and miles there. It’s so beautiful, and yet there isn’t a single chalet there. It’s all about the sense of place, the rich culture, the access to the extraordinary. There are so many gorgeous places in the world out there. The possibilities are unlimited.

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