If you have an impression of luxury hotels as identical, interchangeable, and pressed in place by the same massive cookie cutter in the sky, I have good news for you. Times have changed.

To wit: I'm on the lower level of the achingly beautiful Ritz-Carlton hotel in Kyoto, thousands of miles from home, watching my 13-year-old son swing a 3-foot sword alarmingly close to his vulnerable toes as master-well-trained, I hope and trust-puts him through his paces in a lesson arranged by the hotel.

After my son hangs up his samurai robe and surrenders his sword to the instructor (without, to my surprise, having drawn blood) it's time for dinner, a Kyoto-themed traditional meal bookended by cherry blossom tea made here in the hotel's Michelin-starred restaurant, and then to bed in our room overlooking the Kamo river, the most iconic natural feature of the city. (On the way to bed, we end up walking on water, or close to it, for our pre-bedtime stroll: We're able to step right out of the hotel and onto the chiseled stepping stones that span the Kamo, passing the famous stone boat sculptures that decorate the way.)

All of this follows yesterday's much more urban, much more Tokyo-ish day 318 miles away at Ritz-Carlton's gleaming midtown tower, where the staff energetically connected us with everything Tokyo, from Studio Ghibli-related discoveries to some hands-on moments in the care of a sushi master at the Tsukiji Fish Market (more on this later). And will be followed tomorrow by a street-food-themed visit to the Ritz-Carlton in Osaka, home of the Tenjinbashisuji Shopping Street, which has to be the longest, funkiest food-and-shopping court in Japan, and, for all I know, the world.

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Once upon a time, it's true, one size pretty much fit all in hotel facilities. Although the great hotel companies have always personalized their service to accommodate each distinct guest, their hotel properties, as you moved city to city, property to property, even continent to continent, could often feel interchangeable.

This didn't happen by accident. In the formative days of a brand like Ritz-Carlton, as its leadership mulled over the best way to spread its brand essence globally, the decision was made to standardize what guests traveling to any point in the world could expect. "Naples [Florida] was supposed to feel like Laguna Niguel [California], was supposed to feel like Cancun," says Lisa Holladay, the company's Global Brand Leader. The calculation at the time (the 1980s; although Ritz-Carlton has branding roots that stretch back nearly a hundred years, 1983 marked the start of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company as a modern organization) was this: A luxury brand could only expect to serve the deepest-pocketed 3% or less of the traveling public on a regular basis; although travelers on tighter budgets could be expected to splurge from time to time, it would be this tiny, top percentage of travelers who'd keep the company's lights on. If this well-heeled 3% could learn to count on one brand for reliable standards worldwide in both service and facilities, it would go a long way toward building a sustainable position in the market.

Herve Humler, longtime President and COO of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company (emeritus as of January), has been involved from those formative days through the present, and spoke to me about this for my new book, The Heart of Hospitality: Great Hotel and Restaurant Leaders Share Their Secrets,to which he also contributed the foreword. He updated his thoughts for this article.

In the early days, standardization was seen as a positive goal in our property-development activities. The Ritz-Carlton of today, however, is committed to local authenticity, property by property. While the service standards for which we are legendary remain consistent wherever you go in the world, the flavor, the essence, of each hotel is intended to reflect its environment.  

We accomplish this via design, employee selection and training, and, above all, creative empowerment: Our Ladies and Gentlemen understand that it is their job to share their knowledge and passion for what makes their locality unique in creative ways that they, locally on the ground can do better than anyone sitting back in a corporate headquarters, could ever do.

 The Localization of Luxury Hotels

According to Humler, this change in strategy came in response to feedback from guests, who, in increasing numbers over time, have come to express a desire for travel experiences that are more locally authentic, more in tune with what I call, in my writing, terroir. (I find terroir, in the sense that I use the term, to be one of the most important signifiers of authenticity that the traveling public looks for today. This is the French term for the convergence of factors--location, geography, climate, and so forth--that go into creating what is unique about a particular wine or piece of produce, but I find value in applying it more broadly.) In response, the Ritz-Carlton organization made the decision to differentiate each property they built, moving forward, from every other.

Within a single country like Japan, where Ritz-Carlton's presence includes four distinct properties, you can see this play out in. Take, for starters, the Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto, where my son was learning to be a miniature samurai and I was chewing my nails to the quick on his behalf. This is Ritz-Carlton's most recently opened property in Japan, and it couldn't feel more at home in this city of legendary beauty and history if it had sprung up organically centuries ago. (Although the hotel is newly constructed, the architect and builder have incorporated the actual first-floor dining room of an industrialist's historic two-story villa that previously stood on this location. The room, constructed in part of wood that is some 700 years old, provides a serene refuge in a quiet part of the otherwise-bustling La Locando restaurant located just off the hotel's lobby.)

Other local touches include lighting fixtures used throughout the Kyoto hotel that were custom-made for the hotel by the local, ninth-generation family business that hand-makes the parasols for the famed Kyoto geishas. "As you can imagine," says Holladay, the Global Brand Leader, "that's not exactly a growth market," and the parasol maker was racing against time to reinvent itself. Now, they "take what used to be handmade parasols and turn them into beautiful lanterns. All of that history and heritage now inform a simple furnishings detail that for us localizes our Kyoto property."

Back in Tokyo, you can see this localization at play within Ritz-Carlton's towering luxury property in the heart of midtown. The hotel includes a 200+ year-old tea house that was moved there and reassembled-board by board-high up in the skyscraper (on floor 45!) as well as multiple other touches throughout the hotel. Some of my favorites are the unusually beautiful interior woodwork to be found in various public spaces, the work of master craftsmen making such perfect joints that, for long stretches, there's not a single nail to be found.

The fourth Ritz-Carlton in Japan, a golf-oriented resort in Okinawa, is defined by the landscape itself, in particular its views of the China Sea, and its design and furnishings enhance the sense of place through touches that include red Ryukyuan tiles and traditional white castle walls, details that were inspired by Shuri Castle, a historic local Okinawan landmark

The drive toward local authenticity is also embodied in the food service at the properties, from the Michelin-starred Tempura Mizuki in Kyoto to the newly-opened Towers restaurant within the midtown Tokyo property. Even the informal food presentations for guests staying on the club levels, an option offered at the larger hotels, aim for local authenticity. (Though not rigidly. We enjoyed a winkingly non-authentic culinary moment in Tokyo when Ms. Kanae Hiraoji, a club level chef, showed us the secret of her uniquely fluffy waffles: build a croissant and then, instead of baking it, squeeze it into a waffle iron and let it cook.) 

The power of programming: It's all in the (local) experience

One way that these hotels embrace local authenticity is by arranging uniquely local experiences in which guests can actively participate. These can be within the hotels themselves, such as the Samurai lesson my son enjoyed at the Kyoto hotel, or the impromptu lesson in Japanese (including the latest slang) we received from the attentive employee serving our hotel breakfast in Tokyo. Just as often, though, the hotels encourage their guests to venture beyond their sliding doors and experience more of the locale.

At the Ritz-Carlton, Tokyo, the Ladies and Gentlemen (as they refer to themselves), including Chief Concierge Masako Ito and the tireless Maaya Arakawa, had us visiting-in the wee small hours before the throngs arrived-the legendary Tsukiji Fish Market, sending us there in the care of a notable sushi chef, Hisashi Udatsu. We then headed over to Chef Udatsu's tiny-but-lovely Sushi-To restaurant, where Mr. Udatsu, late of the Michelin-starred Ginza, schooled us in sushi-making, in a lesson that incorporated the morning's fish purchases.

(The upshot, I confess, was discovering my son to be a natural at the skills involved: slicing the fish, manipulating the rice, and rolling the seaweed-and finding myself to be monumentally, comically hapless at the same. The sushi I made was not recognizable as such, though it tasted fine-if I closed my eyes-and I am perversely proud of the chef's jacket they gave me as a souvenir.)

Often, when providing for locally authentic programming outside the hotel, a hotel will partner with a locally knowledgeable guide. In Kyoto we were connected with the plucky and learned Duncan Flett, whose knowledge and doggedness connected us with discoveries we would never have made on our own. These included a visit to a 1,000-year-old mochi maker (curling up by the mochi maker's coal fire in the chill of the day was as magical as the mochi itself) and the chance to share an authentic tea ceremony with a Japanese family in a traditional pre-war wooden house.

In Osaka, the local experiences that hotel employees connected us with centered on the local street-food scene, where we were helped to discover delicacies and curiosities that included an assortment of plum delicacies created to honor the local Shinto shrine (most of which were to our taste, though one or two were best described, as my son put it, as "interesting") and indisputably delicious treats such as Taiyaki, the famous fish-shaped dessert pancakes.

Which brings me to the Osaka property itself. This is the hotel with which, in May of 1997, Ritz-Carlton first came on the scene in Japan. It's the property that made a name for the brand with a style of luxury that was new to the country (although pretty much in line with what the hotel company was setting out as standard elsewhere in the world). The look and feel were distinct from anything in the Japanese market at that time, with rich-hued woodwork, a roaring fireplace, and a genteel china and art collection, and the Japanese market rapidly embraced the hotel. At Osaka today, a recent renovation has been undertaken that is true to those roots while incorporating updates that show how guest tastes have evolved in the years since opening day; throughout the hotel-in the art on display, decor, landscaping, and cuisine-today's guest in Osaka will find notably more local details than would have been in evidence two decades ago.

Micah Solomon is a customer service consultant, customer experience consultant, keynote speaker, trainer, and bestselling author. Click for two free chapters from Micah's latest book, The Heart of Hospitality, or click here to email him directly, for an immediate response.

Published on: Apr 16, 2018