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Breaking Travel News Interview: Ritter on 35 years at the top

Shortly after celebrating his 35th anniversary with Rezidor Hotel Group, (making him possibly the longest serving CEO of the hospitality industry), Kurt Ritter is on excellent form. BTN caught up with the hospitality chief to find out how this extraordinary milestone has impacted on his vision and to discuss the newly announced strategic alliance between Carlson and Rezidor to form the Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group.

BTN: Can you comment on some of the milestones you have witnessed in the hospitality industry as well as within the Rezidor group over the past 35 years?

KR: It has been an exciting journey for me, and a development from a “cousin from the countryside” to a global player for Rezidor. I could mention a number of milestones – the most important personal one was my time as General Manager of the Radisson Blu Hotel in Kuwait in the late 1970s where I met my wife Lara.

From a business point of view I’d like to mention our Master Franchise Agreements with Carlson (1995 for Radisson Blu, 2002 for Park Inn by Radisson; both for Europe, the Middle East and Africa), our IPO in November 2006, and most recently our announcement of the Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group, a strategic alliance between Carlson and Rezidor that was launched in January 2012. Our business has become truly international; but at the same time it is equally important to me that our business still is a people business and all about service to our guests.

BTN: Your contract has now been extended until 2015. What will be your priorities going forward?

KR: Certainly the strategic partnership with Carlson. Together, we aim to generate more than 400 MUS$ additional revenue until 2015 and increase our RevPAR Index by more than 9 points. It is also key that we align our brands globally; our guests should experience the same standards and services across the globe – whether they stay with us in Atlanta or Athens.

Carlson has already started to bring the sophisticated Radisson Blu brand that we have developed in Europe to the Americas and Asia. Last week, I stayed at the brand new Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel in Chicago; a fantastic hotel that made me proud and impressed me. If we look in more detail at Rezidor’s daily business, it will be all about our “Route 2015” strategy; this is an initiative we announced in December and which includes key activities that shall increase our EBITDA margins by 6-8% by 2015.

The Radisson Blu brand is being brought into Asia and Asia develop

BTN: How are the brands within the Rezidor Group (Radisson Blu, Park Inn by Radisson and Hotel Missoni) fairing? What booking trends have you noticed in the current economic climate?

KR: During the global downturn (2009/2010), we have seen a “buy down” phenomenon: 5 star guests started to book 4- and even 3-star; 4 star guests came to 3- and 2-star hotels. Today, things rather go back to normal, and we also see that despite the still tough times the luxury segment grows and develops a “new luxury consumer” – guests who are not looking for pure pampering, but for an exclusive, sophisticated and yet authentic experience. Our brands do well in their respective segment, and I’m especially glad that Hotel Missoni is on the right track and a huge success.

Hotel Missoni is on track and has been a huge success

BTN: Rezidor currently focuses on luxury to mid-market with the three brands it operates. Are there any plans to branch out into the economy and budget market?

KR: No, not at the moment. Country Inns & Suites is still part of our portfolio (and extremely successful in the US) – but we have put any active development in Europe, the Middle East and Africa on ice because we want to focus on Park Inn by Radisson first.

This is a relatively young brand that still needs to grow brand awareness. We develop the brand via key flagships in top destinations (e.g. Amsterdam Schiphol, London Wembley), go deeper into existing markets and capture additional growth in new markets where and when appropriate. Also Park Inn by Radisson gets ready for the next guest generation and is working on an updated brand profile that will be launched during the year.

BTN: Which new emerging markets are you targeting in 2012? Do you see much potential in the Middle East? Will you look to Asia?

KR: Rezidor’s key development markets remain Russia/CIS and Africa. We are the leading international hotel operator in Russia/CIS, and have the largest pipeline of hotel rooms under development in Sub-Saharan Africa. We aim to further strengthen these pole positions.

The Middle East will grow as well (we think that mid- and long term, the Arabian spring will open new doors and businesses), but slower than our key emerging markets. Asia is not a region of Rezidor’s portfolio – Carlson operates and develops the brand there and has ambitious plans e.g. in India.

Radisson Blu in Cannes

BTN: You currently operate over 400 hotels and 87,000 rooms in 62 countries across Europe, Middle East and Africa. Can you comment on new hotel openings in the pipeline?

KR: Our pipeline is one of the strongest of the industry and features 100 hotels with more than 20000 rooms under development.

BTN: Is technology a priority for the Rezidor Group? In what ways are you embracing / planning to embrace social media and mobile technologies in coming months?

KR: New technology is definitively important. When we launched our loyalty programme Club Carlson in early 2011, we also introduced iPhone and Android mobile applications for Club Carlson that feature express booking for all hotels, GPS mapping and the ability to redeem points, as well as linking to “Explore Destinations”, a best-in-class feature that stores more than 4.4 million points of interest from key tourist attractions to local restaurants.

Social media might not be a hot topic for us at corporate level (our approach was always to personally talk to our business partners, and I think we are quite strong in this regard), but it is of major importance for our hotels – communication between the guests and the hotel teams is lively!

BTN: Will you be rolling out any other new developments / products in coming months?

KR: We will keep you updated!

BTN: What advice would you offer to professionals who are planning a career in the hospitality industry?

KR: Today’s hospitality business requires a lot of different knowledge – sales, marketing, finance, legal,... just to name a few. But whatever somebody learns, he or she should never forget that the right attitude is basis and key: You have to enjoy it to be a host, you have to enjoy it to take care of people, and you have to enjoy it to serve.

Park Inn

BTN: Which is your favourite property within the Rezidor group?

KR: Hotel Missoni Kuwait. I like Missoni’s luxury lifestyle so much that I recently designed my own apartment in Switzerland with Missoni furniture, fabrics and accessories – a dream!

BTN: A number of Radisson Blu hotels have been recognised by the World Travel Awards? What does this type of recognition mean to you?

KR: The World Travel Award for the Radisson Royal Hotel, Moscow was one of my highlights. It is such a fantastic and unique property, the owners have invested so much money and personal engagement in the project (and still do so), and the team has worked so hard from the beginning on. Awards like this are a thank you and motivation to the employees, they mean a lot of PR and industry recognition, they are very important.

Radisson Blu 1919 Reykjavic was named Iceland’s Leading Hotel in 2011