By Pam Daniel Photography by Barbara Banks August 1, 2010

It's Not About A Bottle of Dom Perignon

Twenty-one years ago, James E. McManemon Jr., joined the Ritz-Carlton organization, just as it was beginning a period of worldwide growth. Soon McMamenon was opening dazzling new Ritz-Carltons in places like Bali, Egypt and Japan. It was “fun and glamorous,” he says, introducing him to other cultures and new friends; but after missing “too many lacrosse games and school events” of his young son and daughter, he returned home, first to Atlanta and then to the two-year-old Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, in 2003. During his tenure, the hotel has won many prestigious awards, including being named one of 2010’s World’s Best Hotels by Travel + Leisure Magazine.

The fit, intensely focused McManemon, affectionately described as an “activator” by his employees, is in his element at the hotel’s 9 a.m. “line-ups,” as the staff assembles to get fired up for another day of fulfilling, as the famous Ritz-Carlton credo expresses it, “even the unexpressed wishes and needs of our guests.” Those guests and their expectations have changed significantly in recent years, says McManemon, 47. We asked him about those changes and about how, even in challenging times, he and his employees manage to continue to deliver the Ritz mystique.


What initially attracted you to the Ritz-Carlton?

A few years after college [undergrad in finance and business at University of Florida and a graduate degree in hospitality from Florida State], I was working at South Seas Resort in Sanibel. The Ritz-Carlton had just opened in Naples, and I would take my team over to benchmark what they were doing. Everything I saw was such a fit with my personal values—the way they defined service, selecting the best people and having employees who think like owners. I felt, “Wow! It would be just great to work for an organization with those values.”

You were a pretty young guy to feel so strongly about values. Where did that come from?

My parents. My first job was going around the parking lot of my father’s business and picking up trash. He gave me a big broomstick with a nail on it, and walked around with me, explaining that I needed to do the very best I could, to put my heart and soul into it, even if it was picking up trash. That really has defined my approach to life.

The Ritz-Carlton is known for the quality of its “ladies and gentlemen.” How do you select the right employees?

We look for people who are caring and genuine and want to be part of a team. You can teach a person how to make a bed, cook or fix an air conditioner. But you can’t teach them how to care. Before the recession, the average turnover in our industry was 70 or 80 percent; now it may be down to 40 percent—32 percent is considered good. We have 600 employees and our turnover is 9 percent—among the lowest in the entire Ritz-Carlton company.

What do you credit that to?

Creating an environment where people want to do their best, where there’s a contagious passion about our mission. And even with the recession, we invest from $5,000-$7,000 in every new employee—you can’t afford not to. Then we empower them to make decisions and recognize them in all sorts of ways.

For example?

I’ll give a “First-Class Card” when I see an employee doing something great—there’s no money or prize, but every employee keeps those cards. I have one from the president of the company right here on my bulletin board. Another example: “lightning strikes.” When an employee goes above and beyond, they might get $200 cash or Sunday brunch for two. We just did that for an employee who works in security; she got a call from a guest who lives in New York who was frantic because she had left some treasured jewelry in our safe. That employee works part-time for an airline, and she actually got a free ticket and flew up to deliver the jewelry in person.

How has the recession affected the way you operate?

We operate the business for three stakeholders—the guests, employees and owners. And their interests do not always go hand in hand. To succeed, you can’t just do things the way you did in the past; you have to listen to your employees’ ideas for innovation. You have to create a culture where a line employee who cleans the floors knows he can offer an idea that will be heard.

Does that really happen?

Absolutely. An engineer at the beach club [The Ritz Members Club on Lido Beach] saw we were wasting electricity and saved us $50,000; an employee in the residences [the condo tower at the hotel] realized we could save on elevator service by using the same company for the hotel and the residences. A bellman suggested that we have music in the bathrooms as well as the rest of the hotel. Now when his family comes here, he can say, “That music you heard in the ladies’ room—that was my idea.” It gives them such a sense of ownership.

In this financial climate, some say that luxury is no longer fashionable. Do you agree?

Luxury is being redefined. It’s gone from conspicuous consumption—a bunch of things—to being experiential. It goes beyond the physical plant and the amenities, although those are still important. Real luxury is personal; it’s about what thrills you.

But how can you know what might thrill an individual guest?

A caring employee will listen and observe. She might notice that you ordered tea yesterday and offer that to you today. For a guest who was bringing her dog along, our employees brought in pictures of themselves with their pets and created a welcome card. A businesswoman felt guilty about missing her daughter’s piano recital; we learned about that and were able to put a picture of her daughter on her nightstand. Today it’s not about just opening a bottle of Dom Perignon; it’s about figuring out what will touch someone’s heart and create a meaningful experience.

How has the Ritz-Carlton guest changed?

Our guests used to be the top 1-5 percent of the traveling public—sophisticated, wealthy, older. Then we began to get younger, more aspirational customers—maybe people who had come to the Ritz-Carlton for a business meeting and said, “Wow, I want to have this experience again.” During the boom years, they may have come into a lot of money from real estate or technology. They still want luxury, but casual elegance—not the formality the older, sophisticated traveler expected.

How else are your guests changing?

They ask us, “What are you doing to protect the environment?” They don’t like to see us throwing things away or wasting energy. Our new water bottles are made from 100 percent plant materials. We now save all our unused soap and donate it to charities and give leftover food to the animals at Big Cat Habitat. Even our children’s programs have changed. In the old days, we had “Ritz Kids” and might do arts and crafts with them or show movies. Now we teach them about the environment, take them for turtle walks.

Any changes ahead for the hotel?

We’ve just redone the guest rooms and we’re renovating the lobby lounge. Seven years ago, when I arrived, the hotel was considered one of our most modern, and I thought, “Oh, how gorgeous!” But now, even though it was elegant and luxurious, it seemed too heavy. We’re making things airier, more tropical and colorful. The lobby lounge will have a center bar, with more emphasis on light, ambiance and music. People want more bustle and life now, and we want it to feel like the place to be.

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