PARIS — When luxury consultant Natalie Bader Messian was approached to join the board of the Ritz Paris with a mission to burnish its brand and diversify its revenue streams, she decided to visit the hotel incognito to get a sense of what challenges she might face.
The French executive, who has helmed brands including Clarins and Fred, was met at the door by a staff member who politely inquired about her reason for coming to the hotel. She was initially denied access and then chaperoned by another staffer for the duration of her visit — giving her the impression that the Ritz had something of a fortress mentality when it came to non-guests.
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“I saw a superlative hotel, remarkable service, but I also saw that the Ritz was relatively closed in on itself,” she recalled over a soft drink at the hotel’s plush Bar Vendôme. “Actually, I think Parisians had been slightly forgotten at the Ritz.”
Since she joined the board in 2020, the hotel has undergone its biggest transformation since reopening in 2016 after four years of renovations.
Helmed by general manager Marc Raffray since 2019, the Paris institution took advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to open a second entrance on Rue Cambon, as part of a broader strategy to become more accessible to locals. That pivot took on added urgency when lockdowns brought global travel to a halt, turning luxury hotels into ghost ships.
In parallel, Bader Messian has led a drive to rev up the Ritz brand with the launch of a new entity charged with product development and licensing, as well as a division that will open local and international branches for its Ritz Paris Le Comptoir pastry shop, run by François Perret, the star of the Netflix series “The Chef in a Truck.”
Among the most visible signs of the branding drive is a collaboration with Los Angeles-based lifestyle label Frame on a capsule collection spanning from $140 baseball caps to $2,200 varsity jackets, all featuring the logo of the Paris hotel, which will celebrate its 125th anniversary next year.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. A new Switzerland-based entity, Ritz Enterprise SA is developing a host of Ritz-branded products, ranging from tableware to toys and gourmet food, and on Oct. 6 opened its first shop-in-shop at the Galeries Lafayette department store in Doha, Qatar.
With experience working for the world’s leading luxury groups, Bader Messian knew that she had gold in her hands. “The brand is insanely powerful,” she said, noting its ubiquity in popular culture, including “Puttin’ On the Ritz,” the classic song written by Irving Berlin in the ’20s.
“The word ‘ritzy’ is part of the American vocabulary,” she marveled.
Nonetheless, she felt that the brand was underdeveloped. “The Ritz is always delightful, but we have to keep delighting and offering new experiences and new venues to keep it in the conversation. Competition is fierce, unfortunately, and there’s a lot of noise around us, so we have to cut through that,” she said.
Although she was a newcomer to the hotel industry, the executive was undaunted by the challenge of tackling a new field.
“In my career, I’ve had the opportunity to work in beauty, in high jewelry, which was also new to me at the time, in fashion and even in pure retail, because when I left Chanel to join Sephora, it was a huge shift in culture. But I love discovering new worlds,” she said.
“And obviously I also love drawing inspiration from my previous experiences to bring in new ideas to different sectors,” she added.
“When I was at Sephora, my job was to transform a retailer into a brand. When I was at Clarins, the brand was very well-known but it was getting a little dusty, so we had to modernize it. Fred was a brand that had lost its identity a little bit, so we had to bring it into focus and relaunch iconic products like the Force 10 bracelet,” she recalled.
“So I’ve always felt passionate about working on brands and this is one of the world’s most beautiful brands,” Bader Messian said.
Next to its new door on Rue Cambon, considered less “intimidating” than the hotel’s grand revolving entrance on Place Vendôme, the hotel last year unveiled a new concept: Ritz Paris Le Comptoir, a street-facing pastry shop selling treats including 3-euro croissants, and cake-infused milkshakes in takeaway paper cups.
“It was right when Chanel opened its new offices across the street and the planets aligned,” Bader Messian said. “It’s performed beyond expectations and we’re especially pleased since we achieved those results during a period when tourism was still below average in Paris. Asian visitors have yet to return, so we know we can do even better.”
In June, the hotel hired Damien Couliou, an executive who previously headed French chef Alain Ducasse’s chocolate division and spent a decade with high-end caterer Fauchon, as managing director of Ritz Paris Le Comptoir, a separate legal entity that will oversee the food and beverage store’s international expansion in partnership with chef Perret.
“From 2023 onward you’re going to see new Comptoirs open outside of the Ritz,” said Bader Messian, adding that the hotel has fielded requests from the Middle East and Asia.
Among the other new hires is Philippe Margueritte, a former Coty Inc. executive who took over as chief executive officer of Ritz Enterprise SA in May, charged with developing products.
“The brand is so aspirational and so strong that we picture all kinds of things,” Bader Messian said. “We want to deploy this in a very chic, elitist way, without trivializing the brand. It’s a tricky but interesting exercise.”
A big part of the job has been to track down and eliminate unauthorized uses of the Ritz name. For historic reasons linked to the founder, César Ritz, the brand is legally used by several separate entities. The Ritz-Carlton, owned by Marriott International, licenses the name for its chain of luxury hotels.
The Ritz London belongs to Qatari businessman Abdulhadi Mana Al-Hajri, and there is a Mandarin Oriental Ritz in Madrid, Spain, and a Four Seasons Hotel Ritz in Lisbon, Portugal. But the Ritz Paris, which was acquired by Egyptian businessman Mohamed Al-Fayed in 1979, is where it all began.
“The brand was not sufficiently protected in the past,” Bader Messian opined. “Some people took advantage of that to put a foot in the door and have opened locations or registered the word ‘Ritz’ for product categories, so we’re doing a big cleanup and we’ve started taking legal action to protect our brand, which had become a little diluted.”
It has also hired a director of heritage, Arnaud Leblin, who is charged with structuring and expanding the hotel’s archives and shaping its legacy for the future.
Also this summer, the hotel unveiled the renovated Ritz Club & Spa, with a separate entrance directly on Place Vendôme. “It’s part of this same strategy of opening the Ritz to local life, to Parisians. The Ritz does not belong just to its clients. It belongs to everyone,” she explained.
Under the direction of Nathalie Delclos, who joined from the Hôtel George V in July, the spa offers Biologique Recherche facials from 240 euros and signature Ritz Paris massages named after flowers from 220 euros.
On the food and drink front, following the opening last fall of its new Ritz Bar, with a menu of zodiac-themed cocktails, the hotel is preparing to reopen its gastronomic restaurant L’Espadon next year under new chef Eugénie Béziat.
“We are in revolution at the Ritz,” Bader Messian summed up. “And we have a little surprise in store for next year, which will open in September 2023. It’s a huge project that is already underway, and that will bring more life to areas of the hotel that are less visible and less animated today. So there is always something happening at the Ritz.”