Simon F. Cooper
President and CEO, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company
As president and chief operating officer of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, L.L.C, Simon F. Cooper oversees the operations, development and strategic positioning of 66 Ritz-Carlton hotels in 21 countries. He is also responsible for the development of Bulgari Hotels, a joint venture between Marriott International, Inc. and Bulgari S.p.A. Since joining Ritz Carlton in February 2001, Simon Cooper has headed the successful opening of 33 hotels worldwide and has grown The Ritz-Carlton brand extensions of 13 Residences and four Ritz-Carlton Clubs. Under his leadership, Ritz Carlton earns the highest accolades including designation of AAA Five Diamond for 22 hotels, named by Travel Weekly's Readers Choice Awards as Best Luxury Hotel Company, and Most Prestigious Luxury Brand by the Luxury Institute.
Simon Cooper was born in England, immigrated to Canada, and now works in Washington D.C. at the corporate office when not traveling. He has both a Canadian and British passport.
MARGIE GOLDSMITH: In your business travels, what are some of the places which standout?
SIMON COOPER:It's tricky because I don't spend a lot of time anywhere--it took me eight visits to Beijing to ever see The Great Wall. We did spend a long weekend in Istanbul last year, and I like Istanbul because it's just such a melting pot. Japan is an interesting place to travel; I don't go there enough.
MG: Out of the year, how many weeks would you say you travel?
SC: Fifty percent.
MG: Is there a travel experience that has changed you?
SC: I never want to be back in one of those capital cities where the tanks are in the street. I don't think it changed me, but let's put it this way--I couldn't wait to get out. Also, when we re-opened Ritz Carlton Battery Park in Lower Manhattan after 9/11 in January '02, that was an incredibly emotional experience--seeing all the ladies and gentlemen (the Ritz Carlton's terminology for hotel employees), and the Statue of Liberty from the windows.
We have an annual event, which before 9/11, we always held at Windows on the World atop the World Trade Center. In summer of 2001, I had changed the date of our New York reception from September 11th, to September 12th. Had I not switched the date, we would have been setting up for Windows on the World that morning.
MG: Do you prefer to read travel articles or guide books?
SC: Travel articles. I read a guidebook to find out what day the market's on.
What makes a destination memorable to you?
SC: People create memories, not things. And even in the most stunning places one goes to visit, it's about whom you go with and who interprets it for you that's really important. When I'm traveling with my wife, we always take a guide, and of course the hotels always have the best guides. Even if we're only in Rome half a day, we'll take a guide. We were in Istanbul and we took a guide for a couple of days. Guides interpret places. I learned this when I was captain of charter boats. I sent my charters ashore to the best taxi driver in the world, and he took them on a five-hour tour. It was okay, it was a pretty good experience, but what they really wanted to do was see the islands through my eyes. So, even though I hated not staying with the crew to clean up, get ready, wash down the varnish, I knew that I should be ashore with the charters, interpreting the island to them. I think the crew liked it anyway--they got rid of the boss for a while.
MG: Do you miss chartering?
SC: No, there are many things I enjoy, but I make it an art form to never missing any of them.
MG: Where are you most at home? Mountains? Desert? Ocean?
SC: Probably the ocean, but I don't get there that much. I'm also very at home in the desert. I used to tell a security guy where I was going, and head off for a walk in the desert. You can go straight down to the Dead Sea through the desert--it's fantastic.
MG: What Inspires you to go on vacation?
SC: Usually articles or friends. My wife and I have a little place in France that's our real chill out place--not on the coast, not Saint Tropez. but in a valley in the Avignon area. She will go for there for two months a year (she's threatening three months), and I will for a couple of weeks. We don't have a garden because we're at the top of the village, but we have a lovely courtyard. I speak French, and my wife is French Canadian, so she's puzzled by some of the different words they use in Provence. I enjoy watching the struggle.
MG: If you could give one word of advice to the nation's top 3 travel editors, what would it be?
SC: Trust. You have to really engender trust in your readers. It's not just about the trip--it's also about the trust, the confidence they have in your magazine.
MG: It's been said that different places--especially where a second language is concerned--bring out different parts of our personality. In what country are you most unlike the way you are in England or Canada?
SC: Probably France, when I'm on vacation. I don't shave--you won't have a clue who I am. I never let anybody know. We have a little place, and went to a restaurant for our 8:30 reservation. When we arrived, it struck me that this place was fluttering a little bit more than it should. The Maitre d' came up and said "Welcome, Mr. Cooper." I was looking around--it's a very nice, simple and elegant place--every side table was spotless--next thing I know, a guy comes up to me who worked with us at the Ritz on Central Park--he was one of the owners! He said, "I saw the name Simon Cooper, I saw the 703 area code--it had to be you!" So my little sort of low-key foray turned out to be very nice.
MG: Do you have a Canadian passport?
Yes, and a British one as well.
MG: As an international traveler, tell me what you think about American Tourists? Any complaints?
SC: Number one is when they tell everybody they're Canadians and they're not. Especially in France--all my American friends, they all say they're Canadians. And second, American tourists are less likely to appreciate a culture that's not the same as theirs. I think Europeans are more in tune with and appreciate a different culture because of how they live and because they only have to drive an hour to arrive at another culture. There's still a percentage of the American traveler that looks for a world on a plate--their plate.
MG: What do you like about American tourists?
SC: The volume. And they stay in five-star hotels, they stay in luxury. The Europeans tend to spend more money on their experiences in terms of culinary and spend less on a hotel room.
MG: With jet lag, is it hard adjusting to a new environment? Not just the hotel, but what's around you--the food, the language, the customs?
SC: No, not at all. (According to Vivian Deuschl, corporate PR, who has been at the Ritz 20 years and has worked with Simon Cooper since he was hired, Cooper gets off the plane, changes into his clothes and starts his meetings. He can also fall asleep easily on a plane with no sleeping aids).
MG: And why is it you aren't jet-lagged as the rest of us are?
SC: I always keep my watch on Eastern Standard Time and never change it, no matter how long the trip.
MG: When you're at a cocktail party, what is the question about your job you dread being asked the most?
SC: What's my favorite hotel?
MG: How about this then--If you were the guest of a municipal leader in China and were offered dog at a formal dinner, would you accept or decline?
SC: First off, they probably will not tell you what it is. I eat everything that's put in front of me, but if somebody said it was dog or monkey brains, I would probably try and avoid it.
MG: How would you decline?
SC: Very gracefully, I'd probably try and stuff my face with the eel that they just served and say "that's the best thing I ever had, can I have more of that?" You've got some very tough culinary traditions in different parts of the world--I would say that China is a little easier than most places. Except I still haven't figured out why the older the abalone gets, the more valuable it gets, because it just gets more and more rubbery.
MG: What can't you live without when you travel?
SC: I have to have my Blackberry, my workout clothes and workout shoes, and I mustn't forget my Ritz Carlton cufflinks.
MG: Speaking of the Ritz-Carlton, when creating a new resort, are you inspired by places, by landscapes?
SC: Very much so. When we create a new Ritz, we're always looking for: what is the inspiration? What's the story? Because you've got to have a story. We have another mission, which we've been working on which is called scenography, which is the idea that every hotel needs to develop a story. You create a statement about your hotel and then you try and look at everything that that statement involves--in other words, all the places that guests touch or feel in a hotel--so every hotel has a story. We create that story in every hotel we build, though some are easier than others. Doha, Qatar, for instance, is easy to create a story about. That hotel is two stories high, fourteen rooms in a low-rise and with a very warm Arabian feel in downtown Doha. When you get something like that, there's an architectural and emotional story, and it's very easy to figure out what your scenography is. Some destinations are a little tougher.
This Ritz Carlton in Doha is the Emir of Qatar's dream hotel. There used to be a big tree, and in the early days, the caravans would come through and stop underneath this tree--trees in this part of the world are a big deal. The Emir came to do an inspection--he wanted to see the hotel before we opened it. In the Gulf: dates, you always offer hospitality and coffee to anybody coming in. So, we had the gal with the dates and the guy with the coffee--that's traditional in Qatar. The Emir didn't like the dates because they were too big and weren't sweet dates, so, he insisted we get the dates from his plantation. Here we are getting the Emir of the country's own dates because they're sweeter.
MG: As CEO, Is there anything you regret?
SC: Yes, on a corporate level, we're dealing with sustainability, but for my generation, that's one thing we have not done enough of--environmentally. Yes, we're probably better than your local copper mine, but that shouldn't be the test. We as an industry can do much better than we are--we've failed in that. We've done a lot of things right, but we've failed in that so far. We're going to correct that.
MG: What's your next adventure? Tell me somewhere you've never been where you would like to go.
SC: I want to go to western China--I'd never been to Xian. It's a long list: I'd like to do the trans-Siberian Railway, Tierra del Fuego, that whole southern end of Chile, New Zealand.
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