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Ritz-Carlton's Simon Cooper Talks Asia, Upcoming Hotels, and Rewarding Loyal Consumers

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Simon Cooper is no stranger to relationships and rebounds. As President of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, Cooper is front and center with consumers in his hotels and on Twitter (he tweets @simonfcooper), and always has his sights set on enticing the luxury traveler. As the worldwide economy battled its ever-growing blaze over the past few years, Cooper focused on the recovery and rebound efforts -- a strategy that's proven well in growth markets like Asia and the South Pacific. But there's a lot of work to do at home, and even Cooper knows that keeping consumers happy is number one to keeping the brand top of mind.

I chatted with Cooper last week to get his insights on emerging markets, new hotels and important bond between consumer and brand. Not surprisingly, Ritz-Carlton is on track to end 2010 with a bang -- thanks in large part to the opening of the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong as the tallest hotel in the world -- and head into 2011 with a new take on the hotel industry.

MN: There's been a lot of emphasis on Asia as the top growth market for the hotel. Can you share some insights into the next big market you're looking into for hotel expansion?

SC: The Middle East continues to move quite actively. There is a fair bit of action on north coast of Africa -- Morocco and Libya, for example -- and certainly Asia, for two reasons. One, the economic growth of Asia and two, the trends we are looking at are how do we expand in China and how do we develop resorts for outbound Chinese travel. The resort areas in China are no different than an American consumer heading down to Caribbean, so we're focused on resorts in Bali, Sanya is always popular, and there will be more.

MN: The global economy is starting to turn around - we've seen this most obviously in the Asia market, but also here in the U.S. more people, especially in the luxury market, are starting to travel again. How did the Ritz-Carlton survive the storm?

SC: Asia really didn't have a storm - it just lost a bit of wind. Asia didn't really miss a beat and their recoverage was almost instantaneous. In North America we stepped backward. Here, this is a jobless recovery and it will remain that way for quite a while. However, the leisure traveler is the one who has held up the best, although they are more discerning about the price of their rooms and how much they spend.

MN: This year marked the opening of the co-branded Ritz-Carlton/JW Marriott at LA LIVE. Can we expect more of these to come? How do you continue to differentiate the brands - are you worried about a blurring of the lines?

SC: I wouldn't call it a co-brand. It happens to be a building with two hotels in it, and there are great benefits to this. In the back of the house, it works out very well. Forty percent of the groups in the hotels use both hotels, and since a lot of groups have different levels of participation they like the fact that they have options between the two hotels.

MN: Speaking of Marriott, one of the questions I'm always asked is: When will the Ritz-Carlton offer their own loyalty points program? There's been speculation of this to come ... any insights?

SC: We look at this every single year and also look at consumer attitudes toward loyalty in the luxury market, and at rewards versus recognition in the luxury market. We've ask our consumers, 'would you prefer to be recognized or be rewarded?' The last 18 months has shown that consumers said 'it would sure be nice if you recognized me.' The soil is much more conduscive to us sowing the seed and we believe now is the time to reward our guests. A loyalty points program may be in place later this year."

For more on Ritz Carlton, read my exclusive post about their Hong Kong property here.