Sense of Place

A strong sense of place has never been a hallmark of the Ritz-Carlton chain. The perception was that the Ritz in Marina del Rey, CA had the same look and feel as the one in Cleveland. But as the demands of luxury guests have changed in recent years, Ritz-Carlton has responded by creating new hotels and recasting existing ones with vital links to their communities and local cultures.

Nowhere is that more visible than at Maui's Ritz-Carlton Kapalua, which recently completed a $180-million renovation that captures the native Hawaiian culture of the island while maintaining and enhancing Ritz's unsurpassed legacy of luxury facilities, f&b and service.

“Our guests are different today than they were in the 1980s and '90s,” says General Manager Tom Donovan, a Ritz veteran who returned to the property last August from a GM post at the Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch in Colorado. One stop in his 17-year Ritz career was as rooms executive at Kapalua. “Back then, it was all about consistency, particularly consistency of service. Today's guests still want the consistency, but when they're here they want to feel as though they are in Maui. That's what our renovation was all about.”

The sense of island culture greets guests as they enter the property's spacious open-air lobby, which features native Hawaiian artwork, koa wood panels and a lava stone bar. The redone guestrooms and suites have dark hardwood floors, area rugs with Kukui florals and Hawaiian print artwork framed with koa wood.

The Ritz's spa, which opened in June, is a focal point of the property's embrace of local culture. The design is based on an ancient Hawaiian belief in healing waters captured by the leaves of taro plants. This concept of Waihua is visible throughout the 17,500-square-foot, 15-room facility — from wood panels carved with images of taro plants to a dry stone riverbed design on the floor. Many of the spa treatments incorporate natural ingredients indigenous to the islands, and staff members are trained to share local lore with clients.

Beyond design and furnishings, the hotel takes its connection to Hawaiian culture very seriously and expresses it through a number of cultural programs overseen by an in-house cultural advisor, Clifford Nae'ole. Twice a week, for example, Nae'ole conducts a Sense of Place program for guests that combines film and discussion as well as a walking tour of a preservation site on the hotel's grounds.


The hotel closed for six months during renovation and reopened in January with more than 90 percent of employees returning. The renovation covered all areas of the hotel, from guestrooms and meeting spaces to restaurants and spa. The architecture and design team included SB Architects, Philpotts & Associates, EDG and EDSA.

The guestrooms received technology upgrades to include LCD flat-screen TVs, iPod docking stations and wireless Internet access. Restaurant designers from EDG updated the property's f&b outlets — The Banyan Tree, The Terrace and Kai Sushi — and added a new lobby lounge. The overhaul of the hotel's three-tiered pool included a new children's pool and the addition of seven poolside cabanas tricked out with flat-screen TVs, iPod docks, ceiling fans and refrigerators. The $250-a-day tab includes service from a personal cabana attendant.

As part of the project, the hotel's room count dropped from 548 to 463 to accommodate 107 new residential suites. The full-ownership units sold for an average price of nearly $2 million, with the presidential suite going for $6.4 million to a Japanese buyer. (For those of you doing the math, the sales of the residential suites more than covered the price of the renovation for the hotel's ownership group, which includes Gencom, Highgate Holdings and Whitehall Street Global Real Estate.)

In addition, Ritz is developing a Club and Residences property not far from the hotel and part of the 23,000-acre master-planned Kapalua Resort. The project, the first phase of which opens next spring, features 84 private residences and 62 fractional ownership units.


The marriage of local culture and hotel is not unique to the Ritz in Kapalua, says Paul Westbrook, the chain's senior vice president of product and brand. Following extensive research with its customer base, the company implemented a chain-wide strategy around the sense-of-place concept.

“Our customers want experiences as well as outstanding service,” says Westbrook. “It's a concept that cuts across age lines. Baby boomers find it pleasantly surprising, while Gen Xers expect it.”

Ritz refers to the process as synography or, as Westbrook defines it, “themes and the actions that activate them.” One example is found at the Ritz in Bachelor Gulch, where an outdoor fire pit evokes the themes of the Old West. To enrich the experience, a “cowboy” staff member ceremoniously lights the fire and invites guests to make smores. “It's all about relevance,” he says, “and it applies to both business and leisure guests.”

Employees are key in making the sense of place a reality. Since most associates live in the areas surrounding their properties, they're able to enhance the sense of culture for guests. “The definition of service has changed,” says Westbrook, “from standardized to individualized. Our associates are able to enliven the culture of each property.”

Adds Kapalua GM Donovan: “Our associates bring a sense of ohana, or family, to this property, and that's what hospitality is all about.”

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