Position - President and Chief Executive Officer
Kurt Ritter was born in Switzerland in 1947. He was educated at Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne in Switzerland and completed the INSEAD Advanced Management Programme at Fontainebleau in France. He has been at the head of The Rezidor Hotel Group as President and CEO for more than 20 years. Highly acclaimed as the longest serving CEO in the hospitality industry, he has been with the company for 35 years. Under his leadership, Rezidor has become one of the fastest growing hotel companies in the world. Its portfolio includes Radisson Blu, Park Inn by Radisson and Hotel Missoni. Winner of two Lifetime Achievement Awards, from the prestigious MKG Group (2008) and the International Hospitality Investment Forum-IHIF (2004), he was also awarded the title of “Corporate Hotelier of the World” in 2002, received the “Brillat Savarin Plaque” in 2005 and was named a “Carlson Fellow” in 2006. In July 2009, he received an honorary doctorate from Oxford Brookes University in the UK. He is married to Lara Ritter, has three grown-up children and lives in Brussels.
Green Hotelier asks
You began your career in the hotel industry when you were very young, working in your parents’ hotel. What did “sustainability” look like then, and what do you think has been the most important shift in this area of thinking?
Indeed, I was very young—as a boy I helped my parents in our family hotel in Switzerland. Sustainability was a concept that did not really exist at that time. Nevertheless, some hotel practices were by their very nature sustainable. We purchased the ingredients for our restaurant locally, for example. And, at the time, most hotels did not offer private bathrooms in rooms—guests shared communal bathrooms. So, even though hoteliers did not measure it specifically, I’m pretty sure less water was used than in today’s hotels. Sustainability as a concept was only “born” in the 1970s with the publication of a report by think tank The Club of Rome highlighting the limitations of global growth; companies have integrated it into their business strategy since the 1990s. In fact, thanks to our Scandinavian roots, Rezidor has been a forerunner in sustainability, introducing an environmental policy as early as 1989. Today, sustainability is on every company agenda, and is core to many businesses, including the members of the International Tourism Partnership. At Rezidor, we’ve developed our Responsible Business initiative into a balanced programme focusing on three main areas: minimising our environmental footprint; taking responsibility for the health and safety of guests and employees; and respecting ethical and social issues in the company and the community.
As a graduate of the prestigious Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne and a recipient of two honorary doctorates, how important do you think a formal education is in providing a foundation for future sustainability leaders?
It is key that hotel schools integrate sustainability into their curricula, but it is not happening as much as it should. It is the reason that members of the Rezidor team regularly speak about sustainability at the leading hospitality and management schools. Sustainability is truly a coordinating function in the company—it needs generalists who can support responsible business policies and practices in every aspect of our business. That’s why I think every larger hospitality company needs a sustainability expert with a good understanding of how the hospitality business works. As CEO, my role in sustainability is to promote it at top management level and inform the board of our progress. I want to be an example—as are many of my CEO peers—of how to integrate sustainability at senior management level.
How have the skills required to be a successful hotel CEO changed over time?
A wise man once said, “Nothing is forever, except change.” Flexibility is a characteristic that every CEO needs, particularly in an industry like ours, which is very susceptible to general economic trends. Secondly, when you are one of the fastest growing hotel companies in the world as we are, you need the skills to make the organisation structures and processes grow simultaneously. Hiring people with the right attitude and experience—for example, the recent appointment of Wolfgang Neumann as Rezidor’s Chief Operating Officer and Eric De Neef as Senior Vice President Park Inn—has been an important focus for me. A modern CEO needs to understand a lot of different areas, including development, operations, marketing, communications and legal matters. I think the scope of the CEO’s role is much wider now. Leadership requires multiple personal skills to deal with the changes happening around you, such as your team growing or the market changing. However, I also want to emphasise the one aspect of a hospitality CEO’s role that has never changed: our business is still all about the guest and the service they receive, and a good hotel CEO needs to be a good host.
Rezidor has been voted one of the ”World’s Most Ethical Companies” by the Ethisphere Institute for the past two years. How have you ensured that Rezidor's sustainability policies have developed and improved over the years?
From the launch of our first environmental policy in 1989, our policies gradually developed into a true Responsible Business programme in 2001. By monitoring our progress against targets set out in our annual Responsible Business Action Plan, which is made at a corporate, regional and hotel level, we continue to make improvements. Since 2006, we have been reporting on our responsible business activities and future plans in our annual Responsibility Report. In the past couple of years, we have even taken our successful achievements beyond Rezidor properties into our Carlson network of hotels. For example, our risk management programme TRIC=S—designed to guide people to make the right decisions at the right time in order to keep their business, their customers and themselves safe and secure—is now applied by Carlson and Rezidor worldwide, as are the Living Responsible Business and Leading Responsible Business training, an ongoing and mandatory activity for all our employees.
Rezidor has been a public company for more than five years now. How and to what extent have you had to adapt your focus on sustainability as a public company?
Our focus on sustainability has not changed; it has been the same since 1989. What has changed is the way we communicate our responsible environmental and social business policies. Investors in general, but particularly Socially Responsible Investors (SRIs), are requesting information about our sustainable practices and plans. With our many environmentally focused initiatives helping to reduce our costs, they are also demonstrating that responsible business is good business. A good example of that is replacing traditional lighting with LED or compact fluorescent lights. Many of our hotels have gone through the process. Park Inn Hotel Heathrow, London, for example, has undertaken the huge task of changing all its light bulbs to long-life, energy-saving ones. This project alone results in a reduction of 948,761kWh of electricity and a financial saving of $80,000 per year.
Rezidor is one of the fastest growing hotel companies in the world. How do you reconcile rapid growth plans with environmental impact?
We are conscious that our hotels have an environmental footprint. One of the pillars of our Responsible Business programme aims to minimise our impact. Our hotels report their monthly environmental key performance indicators (energy, water and waste, per m2, per guest night, etc.) to measure the environmental performance of our business. This allows us to closely monitor our performance and to benchmark comparable hotels. Based on this data, we are reducing our environmental footprint by:
- Rolling out best practices across our countries of operation;
- Integrating the newest environmental technology in our hotels. Radisson Blu Waterfront Hotel, Stockholm, for instance, has a three-storey, double-glass facade, which captures heat energy to heat the hotel’s water. The Radisson Blu Hotel, East Midlands Airport, which opened at the end of October 2011, has an on-site combined heat and power plant (CHP) with a pure plant oil (PPO) tri-generation energy centre. This innovative system will deliver an 87% reduction in CO2 per year, compared to an average hotel [BREEAM data]; and
- Setting clear technical guidelines related to responsible construction and renovation. We also report Rezidor group’s overall CO2 footprint on an annual basis. In some countries, such as in the UK, we even report the individual CO2 footprint of every hotel.
As the longest serving CEO in the industry, how do you account for your own “sustainability” in this role?
I have always been passionate about my job and other people. I guess they are both elements that have contributed to my 35 years service at Rezidor, with 22 of those years as CEO. It’s exciting to see how our employees carry the core values of the company through our “Yes I can” service philosophy. Because we involve all our employees in our responsible business practices, you can really sense their commitment.
Finally, what is the best piece of advice you can give to those hoteliers just starting out on their responsible business journey?
Support it from the top, hire a sustainability specialist, or develop someone within your organisation with a solid interest in the subject and set targets and show all your employees how they can contribute. Small things can make a big difference.