Online Extra: Keeping Ritz Carlton at the Top of Its Game

Marriott's Simon Cooper loves golf and loves providing first-rate courses for the guests of his resorts. The hotel chain is hot

By Roger O. Crockett

Simon F. Cooper's eye for a good golf course is helping the Ritz-Carlton hotel brand keep its spot at the top of the luxury hotel business. Three years ago, while site shopping in Portugal's Sintra hills northwest of Lisbon, the president of Marriott International's Ritz-Carlton Hotel visited an old hotel with a 27-hole course. The facility was nowhere near Ritz standards, but Cooper was more interested in the Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed golf track.

Appreciating the value of a first-rate course is something Cooper learned from Marriott CEO J.W. "Bill" Marriott Jr., who often emphasizes golf's connection to good business. So Cooper gave banking partner Deutsche Bank (DB ) the go-ahead to purchase the Sintra property and invest some $25 million in a makeover. "It's back to its former glory," Cooper says. "The course was a key reason we decided to operate the hotel."

Since spending $2.5 million to buy the Camelback Inn and Golf Club in 1967, Marriott has emerged as the world's largest resort golf management company, with 50 properties and 65 courses in more than 13 countries. Its golf business, including the Ritz courses, has been growing 10% to 15% a year for the past 20 years, adding $130 million in sales to the $11.1 billion in total 2005 lodging revenue, Marriott says.


  Not surprisingly, given the prestige of the brand, Ritz-Carlton's golf resorts are the jewels of the Marriott group. In addition to Sintra, Ritz operates golf properties in the Cayman Islands; Montego Bay, Jamaica; and Orlando, Sarasota, and Jupiter, Fla. The Jupiter property is a "fractional ownership" club, targeting golfers willing to pay several hundred thousand dollars for a deeded interest in a luxurious vacation suite, typically for three to five weeks. Ritz-Carlton also recently bought a half interest in The Abaco Club, a golf resort in the Bahamas.

What attracted Cooper to these locations in particular? It was a reputation for great golf or the potential for it. Abaco already had a course with a reputable designer, Donald Steel. His tree-less "links" style course, Cooper felt, would be a good fit in what he calls the "outer islands of the Bahamas" where it would complete a Ritz community that already has a great beach, fishing, and sailing.

Where Ritz doesn't manage a golf course of its own, it makes arrangements with nearby courses, such as the Naples Golf Resort in Naples, Fla., or a new facility in Marbella, Spain, and its Sanya resort under development on Hainan Island in China. Ritz management pays a fee for its guests to get preferential tee times.


  Why is golf so vital? Cooper explains that a high percentage of the upscale customers who visit Ritz hotels expect a course to be available for play. And not just any old public facility. Ritz guests demand to play immaculately manicured layouts, designed by the top course architects, including Tom Fazio, Greg Norman, and Jack Nicklaus. "They expect golf that mirrors what they get in a Ritz-Carlton hotel," Cooper says.

Corporate groups often book their meetings at locales that feature golf. Cooper says about 50% of the corporate group attendees include golf as part of their agenda. "But even if it were only 10%, they want it," he says. "So we want to deliver, and we want to deliver excellently."

At Ritz facilities, guests get the royal treatment. The defining touch comes in the form of an individual caddie or course "concierge," as Ritz staffers like to say. The caddies carry the golfers' clubs, offer tips on strategy, and locate wayward golf balls. Though they don't come cheap -- about $30 to $40 per round plus tips -- they're a relief to the well-heeled clientele, whose golf games are more recreational than tour grade. Chilled towels and refreshments are available throughout the round, and afterward, rejuvenating spa treatments. "Our clientele is willing to pay for that quality of service," Cooper says.


  Cooper, an affable 60-year-old with a self-made swing and a 4.5 handicap, is no stranger to quality golf resorts. Born in Guildford, Surrey, about 30 miles southwest of London, he is the son of woollen merchants who sold cloth to the famed tailors on Savile Row. Cooper was raised in a house on Worplesdon golf course, a legendary old public club where every autumn since 1921, the celebrated "Mixed Foursomes" competition takes place. As a young boy, Cooper played by himself after dinner until dusk nearly every day.

He never had a teacher, and owned just one club until his grandfather gave him a complete set. At the time, he played left-handed, and switched to righty so he could use the clubs his granddad gave him. He then spent hours honing a swing that serves him well today. It's somewhat abbreviated: quick and compact like Gary Player's rather than long and over-extended like John Daly's.

Cooper's leathery-face and gray hair betray his love of the outdoors. He played competitive rugby until he was 45. Before he left England in 1972, when he came to Canada and entered the hospitality business, Cooper made a living by sailing 85-foot charter yachts in the Caribbean. He left the seas behind to serve as assistant chief steward for Canadian Pacific Hotels & Resorts.


  By the late 1980s he had moved his way up to president of Delta Hotels, an exclusive Canadian chain, before Marriott recruited him in 1998. At Marriott, he started as president of the Canadian business, where he oversaw all of the hotel's brands, including Ritz-Carlton.

In 2001 Bill Marriott tapped Cooper to run the worldwide Ritz business, which Cooper admits is a "plum" job for a hotelier, especially since the luxury segment is the industry's fastest growing. In Cooper's tenure Ritz has opened 25 hotels, four Ritz Carlton Clubs, and 12 residential facilities. Even more is in store over the next four years, when Ritz expects to open more than 20 sites, mostly overseas.

This tailor's son turned hospitality exec is happy to enjoy a break on a gorgeous 75-degree day for 18 holes of golf at Camelback's 6,903-yard Resort Course. Though he counts a round with Nicklaus at the Ritz Jupiter course among his most memorable, Cooper enjoys leisurely rounds with friends most. At Camelback, he's thrilled that a couple of colleagues can join him: Pete Ells, general manager of the Phoenix Ritz-Carlton Hotel -- a large man whose golf game is good enough to solicit comparisons to a top PGA Tour player with a similar name, Ernie Els -- and Rob Bartley, Camelback's director of golf and a solid player himself.


  On the first tee, a difficult 482-yard par 4, Ells and Bartley bomb shots down the fairway. Cooper, who hasn't played in months, since having knee-replacement surgery (on both knees) last November, pulls his drive down the left hand side and punches a 4-iron into a trap fronting the green. Undaunted, he blasts out of the sand to within 10 feet of the cup, barely misses the putt, and cards a bogey.

Cooper plays quickly. Even with a noticeable limp, he walks to his ball with the same brisk pace he uses to speed through the halls of his hotels. Unlike most golfers, he rarely takes a practice swing. He simply steps up to his ball and hits.

The Ritz exec is as quick with his biting wit as he is with his strokes. Even though for most of the first nine holes his trusty fade isn't working, leading to five bogeys (the effect of rust, he says), he's constantly ribbing Ells and Bartley. On hole No. 8, a 189-yard par 3 slightly uphill and into the wind, the big guns miss the green with shots that fall short. But Cooper hits a piercing 4-iron that lands safely on the green. "Only real men can get there, eh?" he says.


  Cooper shoots a six-over 42 on the front nine. Not his best, but not shabby for a gimpy old rugby player. Then, like a sailor picking up the right wind, he finds his swing on the back nine. A birdie comes on the 553-yard No. 15, ranked the second toughest hole on the course. Cooper pushes his drive into the trees lining the right side of the fairway. Unfazed, he escapes by hitting a low, curling 3-iron to about 100 yards from the green. That leaves him the perfect distance for his pitching wedge, which he quickly knocks to about four feet from the pin. He strokes his putt into the right edge of the hole.

While Cooper is on a roll, Ells is off his usually stellar game. Cooper doesn't let him forget it. After Ells shanks his drive into a hazard lining the right side of the fairway on No. 15, Cooper barks: "Gamers go right, I just go for the pin." Cooper is not as merciless as he sounds. There's something about his English lilt that takes the edge off. Plus, "I felt bad," he whispers to me. He admits he has to be careful that his teasing isn't taken the wrong way. He realizes that employees can sometimes be nervous around the boss.

After the back nine is done, Cooper has managed a respectable three-over 39, and his team has won. But the victory is more in having fun with friends, members of his Ritz-Marriott team. Drinks, as always, are on him.

Crockett is deputy manager of BusinessWeek's Chicago bureau

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