After retiring in 2001 as the longtime president and chief operating officer of Ritz-Carlton, the hotel company headquartered in Chevy Chase, Horst H. Schulze went on to found Capella Hotel Group, a line of high-end boutique getaways with nine locations around the world.
In February, Schulze plans to open the company’s newest outpost in Washington. The hotel, which will be on the C&O Canal in Georgetown, will have 49 rooms and suites, as well as a rooftop pool and a spa.
Capital Business caught up with Schulze to discuss the soon-to-open Capella Hotel in Washington and the rise of “ultra-luxury.”
At Ritz-Carlton you were known for maintaining consistency and uniformity throughout the brand’s hotels. How did you get the idea for Capella, where you’re doing the opposite: Creating something that is unique and personal?
My vision for Capella came out of my time, of course, with Ritz-Carlton. It was very clear when I retired, that the luxury segment was splitting up again into new segments — affordable luxury and ultra-luxury, if you will. It turned out that [the wealthy] were really looking for a different product — more personalization, private accommodations. We looked at that and said, how can we deliver that?
How do you deliver that? What personalized services does Capella offer?
We don’t have check-in times or check-out times. There’s no front desk. The doorman greets you and takes you to your room. You sign [the bill] on an iPad.
When a business traveler gets in early for a meeting, are we going to tell them you can’t check in until 3? No. When a guest comes to Cabo and finds out check-out is at 11 but their flight isn’t until 6, what are they supposed to do? Sitting at the beach with their suitcase is silly.
Because we’re so small, we call every guest after they make a reservation and ask, “What do you want when you get here?” We ask them about diet, allergies, ask them if they want private shopping or museum tours. I couldn’t do that if we had a 300-room hotel where 200 people checked in every day. But when there are only 15 people checking in every day, it’s possible.
How do you juggle the logistics of different check-in and check-out times?
Believe me, we were worried about that — we said, how are we going to do this? But we just started scheduling things differently, staggering maid service.
We have some maids start at 6 o’clock. As soon as a guest leaves, they prepare the room. We make it to the guests’ convenience. We have enough people arrive very late that it always works out. In general, it’s a non-issue.
Why did you choose Georgetown?
First of all, there was an opportunity there. The rest of Washington is more of a five-day-a-week business with business travelers and politicians. On the weekends we wanted to be a tourist hotel, and Georgetown has both of those things.
I knew [focusing on small, upscale hotels] would limit me, mind you. I could've owned Ritz-Carltons in 2,000 locations but Capella could only open in maybe 100 locations. With a 600-room hotel or a 750-room hotel, I would make much more money. Luxury hotels like the Ritz-Carlton and the Four Seasons make more business sense. But we are unique, we are small. For me, it’s a work of love to do something exceptional.
Did the recession affect Capella?
During the recession three years ago, we were hurt. The ‘up-buyers’ — the people who say, ‘Gee, it’s my anniversary, I really desire something special’ — were gone. We lost that.
How have luxury hotels changed since you started working in the industry?
[Ultra-luxury] is a new phenomenon that has evolved over the past 10, 15 years. Forty years ago, luxury meant a big lobby with a glass elevator. Thirty years ago, that ended and luxury was a lot of marble and chandeliers. Today, it’s all about personalized and individualized attention. People see luxury as taking care of them the way they want it.
What was the biggest thing you learned during your time at Ritz-Carlton?
I worked at Ritz-Carlton for 20 years, nearly all my life. Everything I know, I learned there.
When I was hired, people thought I was crazy — I was managing 65 hotels [at Hyatt] and going to a company that had no hotels. But they promised me I could do what I wanted — I got to dream, so I dreamed.
Up to that point, I did what I thought was right for the guest. Then I realized, no, no, no. You have to ask the customer what’s right for them. To be honest, I thought I was a great hotelier — I have a European accent, I worked at great hotels in Europe. But I wasn’t. I didn’t listen to the customer, and that’s the biggest thing I learned to do.