|By Douglas Hanks, The Miami
HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
May 14, 2007 - Ezzat Coutry has an enviable territory. He's the top Ritz-Carlton executive for the Southeast, Caribbean, and Latin America.
Coutry has presided over this area during a boom time for Ritz-Carlton in South Florida. Since 2001, RitzCarlton has opened hotels in Coconut Grove, Key Biscayne and South Beach. A fourth -- a fractional property (the marketing term for a luxury time-share) -- is on its way at the site of Miami Beach's shuttered Seville hotel.
And Ritz-Carlton is negotiating with Fort Lauderdale's Lago Mar resort to convert that property into a RitzCarlton.
It's quite an upgrade for the Marriott veteran, who opened the Harbour Beach Marriott in Fort Lauderdale 23 years ago as its debut general manager. Born in Egypt and a graduate of Cairo University, Coutry worked for Marriott from 1976 to 1997, when he left the company for three years to become CEO of La Quinta Inns. After taking a year off, he rejoined Marriott in his current position in 2000.
Today, Coutry oversees the four development projects Ritz-Carlton has in the Caribbean and Mexico, along with about six more in the pipeline throughout his territory. Meanwhile, he also supervises the 21 Ritz-Carlton properties up and running throughout the region.
But the tropical winds have shifted on Coutry. A once booming real estate market has turned cold. That could hurt condo-hotels, a financing mechanism used to fund luxury resorts, including three Ritz-Carltons underway in Coutry's territory.
Coutry sat down with Business Monday at his office inside the Coconut Grove Ritz-Carlton to talk about the company's prolific brand that is bringing luxury to island towns and sleepy French vacations far from the trappings of a Ritz.
Q: Does an island lose its island charm when a Ritz-Carlton or a Four Seasons moves in?
A: I don't think so. Because you bring something that hasn't been there before. We're building to fit the environment. [A luxury resort] brings credibility to the island. When Ritz-Carlton goes to a place, I think people feel we have a destination.
Q: How did the condohotel trend affect the fractional trend?
A: When you buy a fractional, you're buying a second home. Some of the condohotels are perceived to be an investment. And I want to underline "perceived." Because it's not an investment in most cases . . . There are some condo-hotel programs that are very successful today. But there have been so many coming into the market that it's really difficult to measure the success of all these new entries.
Q: You're in charge of the Caribbean in terms of development. What's your take on the potential for Cuba, postembargo?
A: We keep watching. We'll just have to wait and see, to be honest with you. We're not preparing anything right now. We'll just wait and see. We can guess as much as anyone else can guess. I've never been there, so I can't give you any insights about our interests. But I'm sure some of our people have been there historically, or from other countries.
Q: The Seville will be the fourth Ritz-Carlton property in the Miami area. You're apparently looking to open one in Fort Lauderdale. At some point are there too many Ritz-Carltons?
A: The reason we have three hotels -- I want to separate out the Seville because the Seville is not a hotel at all -- [is] we identified three distinct markets.
South Beach is really different from Key Biscayne. There are very different demand generators that go to each market. Some people cross.
In Coconut Grove we still have a lot of leisure business, but primarily it [has] the business address. So [people on business trips go] to Brickell Avenue and all the businesses downtowm come to us here [in Coconut Grove] much quicker. All three are running extremely high occupancies.
Q: When you vacation, do you always go to a RitzCarlton or do you never go to a Ritz-Carlton?
A: I rarely stay at Ritz-Carlton. We have a home in France. My vacation is usually in Provence. It's a historic home. It's built in the 16th Century. We've been there about nine years. It's a small village of 900 to 950 people. We've gotten to know a lot of them now, after nine years. There's a couple of small restaurants and cafes and grocery stores.
I don't have Internet [there]. It's a great place for me to relax. Everything is different. The language is different. The culture is different. We speak English at home, and that's about it.
Copyright (c) 2007, The Miami Herald
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