TAKING A BREAK FROM HIS DUTIES chairing a meeting of the Hotel Sales & Marketing Association International Foundation Board in Florida in mid-July, Bruce Himelstein, senior vice president of sales and marketing for The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co., LLC, Chevy Chase, Md., spoke to us about Ritz-Carlton's renewed interest in the meeting and incentive market.

Corporate Meetings & Incentives:

How was the opening of the long-awaited Ritz-Carlton, Orlando Grande Lakes?

BH: Unbelievable. It surpassed everyone's expectations. We had to cap reservations the first weekend because we were sold out. As you go through the resort, you can feel how special it is.

CMI: Is it difficult to find the right approach to marketing two Marriott brands side-by-side?

BH: Not really. Ritz-Carlton is the only brand positioned separately. And JW is defining its niche. It's classic Branding 101.

CMI: Is there anything that Ritz-Carlton can learn from its brethren Marriott brands?

BH: Certainly. The resources are incredible. We can, and have, learned a lot.

CMI: Is there a renewed interest in the meeting and incentive market? Just a few years ago, for example, Ritz-Carlton created a policy in which they would not pay certain third-party site selection companies the 10 percent commission that other hotel chains were paying.

BH: The group segment [which Ritz defines as meetings, incentives, groups, entertainment, and sports and media room blocks] is our largest single market. We are very interested in group meetings, and we are actually doing quite well. In terms of the third-party payments, we pay the full 10 percent now, and we are preferred partners with both HelmsBriscoe and Conference Direct. Times are totally different.

CMI: Does the prestige of Ritz-Carlton ever work against you perception-wise? Some planners have told us that their procurement and purchasing agents might dismiss having a meeting at the Ritz because of a perception among shareholders that it is “too-ritzy.”

BH: We feel that more and more group planners kind of “get it.” Some may say the prestige is hurting us. On the other end of that spectrum, the economy is working to the advantage of the meeting planner. We are cautiously optimistic about signs we are seeing for the latter half of 2003 and into '04. The smart planners are trading up. In 2002, we were named No. 4 in Forbes' top 20 most recognized luxury brands in the world. Our closest competitor is No. 19. We'll never apologize for that brand equity. The planners and purchasing executives who are deciding where to meet or hold an incentive realize it's all about value.

CMI: So are you saying that meeting planners are getting five-star hotels at four-star rates?

BH: No hotel chain sets or dictates rates; each hotel makes its own decisions based on the market. But, based on an analysis of our competitive set, no one is not being competitive, regardless of the segment.

CMI: Has the emphasis on the meetings and incentive marked changed at Ritz-Carlton?

BH: We have stepped up our group effort globally. Simon Cooper, our chief operating officer, and I are about to embark on a trip to Asia, to Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Singapore, to welcome back our employees. [That was soon after the final SARS advisory had been lifted.] We are also in talks [of opening properties] in Tokyo and Beijing.

CMI: What else differentiates Ritz-Carlton from the rest?

BH: The design of our newer hotels. The Lake Las Vegas property is designed after Lake Como, so the hotel resembles something you'd see in Italy. The designs are making people sit up and take notice. The Georgetown property, Orlando Grande Lakes, South Beach (opening at the end of '03) and Coconut Grove are turning peoples' heads.