Ritz-Carlton CMO reinvents luxury

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Chris Gabaldon, Ritz Carlton CMO
Chris Gabaldon, Ritz Carlton CMO
Once Chris Gabaldon, chief sales and marketing officer of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. starts talking about his brand, it's hard for him to stop. He gets on a roll, effusing about how the company has navigated the recession, or its recent brand repositioning, or the launch of its loyalty program, The Ritz-Carlton Rewards. Gabaldon's enthusiasm is, as they say, contagious.

Then suddenly, he catches himself. 


"That was a long-winded answer, but that's sort of where we have been with the launch of our new platform," says Gabaldon, amused by his own excitement.


Gabaldon is speaking of the company's new marketing platform, launched in mid-September, which encourages guests to "Let Us Stay With You." The platform (which Gabaldon prefers to the more limiting "campaign") flips the typical request of "Please Stay With Us" in favor of emphasizing how personal memories of times spent at a Ritz-Carlton property, whether for a family vacation or a business trip, can stay with guests for years to come, or even a lifetime.


That theme has been woven into every aspect of Ritz-Carlton's current marketing strategy, including print ads, which play on how memories of a luxury trip can come flooding back with just the slightest hint. The ads also promote the newly redesigned Ritzcarlton.com, showcasing eye-catching photographs of Ritz-Carlton destinations and narratives of guests' most memorable moments, dubbed "Stories That Stay With You."


The site allows for visitors to filter content based on their interests, including culinary or spa and wellness, with a simple field in which they can sign up for email promotions and news. 


"Eventually what you're going to see is more interactive content: the ability for guests and customers to participate with Ritzcarlton.com and hopefully be able to share their own user-generated content," says Gabaldon.


The "Let Us Stay With You" concept crystallized shortly after Gabaldon took over as CMO last summer, rising from VP of sales, a post he had held for five years. One of Gabaldon's first challenges in his new role was to reframe the word "luxury" for the brand, which had come to simply mean "expensive." 


Rather than sending email blasts offering free nights and discounts, he worked with his team to develop a personalized message about the richness of individual experiences.


In September of last year, Ritz-Carlton introduced its first-ever loyalty program, The Ritz-Carlton Rewards. Since then, it has surpassed 150,000 members. Gabaldon describes it as "the foundation of our CRM efforts for the future." Through the program, Ritz-Carlton promotes "access to the extraordinary," including experiences such as a photography expedition with a renowned National 
Geographic photographer or a complimentary membership to Abercrombie & Kent's luxury travel group.


In June, Ritz-Carlton partnered with JPMorgan Chase & Co. to launch the Ritz-Carlton credit card (also a first for the company), targeting the affluent global traveler. The card is being promoted through direct mail, email and print. Along the way, Gabaldon has helped the chain combat its stuffy image, making it more accessible to a broader swath of consumers.


"With recent changes in the way the luxury affluent behaves, Chris has been at the forefront of the luxury rebound, embracing new channels on which we converse with global travelers and breaking down perceived stiffness about our operation," says Herve Humler, president and COO of Ritz-Carlton. "The demographics of our guests are multigenerational, multinational and multicultural, and it takes a truly global-minded leader to lead a truly global brand."


Under Gabaldon, Ritz-Carlton has also embraced digital in a major way. Like other marketers, the company has shifted its budget from print to digital advertising in recent years, at a rate of about 10% to 20% per year, according to Gabaldon. Digital and social efforts now account for more than half the company's marketing budget, he says. Expect that shift to accelerate. 


"The ability either to target the right client and follow them around the Web or put the right ads in front of them at the right time is such a cost-effective and direct way of reaching the consumer that I would see this evolution only continuing," says Gabaldon. 


Still, he adds the chain will continue to follow a multichannel approach. "I don't see us moving completely away from traditional media," he explains. 


The power of rich, memorable consumer experiences in hospitality was evident to Gabaldon right from the start of his hotel career, when he was a room service waiter at Marriott International. Over the last two decades, Gabaldon would move into strategic sales and marketing roles in the industry, first with Marriott, then with Ritz-Carlton in 2000 after it became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Marriott. No matter how high up the ranks he would rise, however, he would never forgot how small acts of service could enhance the guest experience. 


Gabaldon says his background has given him an appreciation of the role each of Ritz-Carlton's 35,000 employees plays in creating happy customers and bolstering the brand's image. "We are professionals delivering professional service, and it's a relationship of equals and of res-pect," he says. "We take a lot of pride in it."

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