The Ritz name is synonymous with luxury and elegance, and as the London hotel celebrates its centenary, these words have never been more apt in describing the institution that first opened its doors to the public on 25 May 1906.
Since Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay acquired the 133-bedroom hotel in October 1995 for about £65m, the hotel has reached new heights of splendour. While it had been the intention of the previous owners, Trafalgar House, to close the hotel for an overhaul, the Barclays have carried out a £50m renovation of the Grade II-listed building in discreet stages.
For the hotel's general manager, Stephen Boxall, the dedication put into carrying out the refurbishment - and ensuring it is an ongoing project - indicates that the determination of César Ritz, the hotel's founder, to never compromise standards is being maintained.
The French château design and Louis XVI interiors of the original architects, Charles Mewes and Arthur Davis, has been faithfully preserved, uncompromised by the installation of triple glazing, individually controlled air-conditioning in every bedroom, flat-screen televisions or broadband internet services.
"We are the benchmark for luxury hotels in London," argues Boxall. "We maintain our position by adopting the highest levels of standards and service and by being above, not pandering to, fashion."
This includes the maintenance of one of the strictest hotel dress codes in London: a jacket and tie are required attire for men in the restaurant and Palm Court, while just a jacket must be worn in the Rivoli Bar.
The very best service, of course, is paramount in ensuring a luxury experience for every guest. A ratio of two staff to each guest room helps, as does the fact that nearly 20 staff at the hotel have worked at the Ritz for more than 30 years (see panels). "That makes a huge difference to guests. They like to be welcomed by a familiar face who will know their every like and dislike," says Boxall.
As the Ritz enters its second century, a new period in its history begins following the purchase last year of William Kent House, an 18th-century property adjacent to the hotel. What will become the first expansion of the hotel has, in fact, been 100 years in the making. At the time that the Ritz opened the then owner of William Kent House, Lord Wimbourne, was asked if he would consider selling. The reply was: "I am thinking of enlarging my garden. How much will you take for the Ritz?"
Ever since the Ritz ballroom and the grill were transformed into the Ritz Club, the hotel has been short of function space. There are currently just two private dining rooms, the Marie Antoinette Suite and the Trafalgar Suite. The transformation of William Kent House, originally built for the prime minister, Henry Pelham, will allow the Ritz to offer a choice of lavishly decorated banqueting rooms.
Due to open in September, following a multimillion-pound refurbishment, the six new ground-floor private dining rooms will include the Music Room, which will cater for 80 covers at a sit-down function. Meanwhile, the Marie Antoinette Suite will become a new lounge area, while the Trafalgar Suite, on the first floor, will be transformed into a new bedroom suite.
The next stage of development involves the building of an extension (in a style to match Mewes and Davis's original design) that will create a further 50-60 bedroom suites, expected to be open by 2009.
"The new development provides us with a wonderful platform to be able to hold large events and welcome new clients to the Ritz," says Boxall. "The building has also been granted a wedding licence, which will enable us to cater for a whole new generation of young people in the future."
The Ritz, London
150 Piccadilly, London W1J 9BR
Tel: 020 7493 8181
General manager: Stephen Boxall
Executive chef: John Williams
Average room rate: £335
Average occupancy rate: 80%
Markets: 70% leisure, 30% business; 45% USA, 30% UK, 15% Russia, 10% others
Some celebrated guests In the early years of the Ritz, King Edward VII frequently entertained his mistress, Mrs Keppel, in the Marie Antoinette Suite.
Forty policemen were required to escort Charlie Chaplin into the Ritz in September 1921. The presence of cheering crowds throughout his stay in a first-floor suite made the hotel wary of film stars for many years, but those who were discreet - such as Douglas Fairbanks Snr - were always welcome.
The restaurant has continually been a popular haunt for the famous. Table 39 was Harold Macmillan's favourite, Jackie Onassis sat at table nine by the window and the Aga Khan always chose table one.
The Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker-Bowles, now the Duchess of Cornwall, chose the Ritz as the location of their first public appearance together in January 1999. In 2002 the Ritz became the first hotel to receive a royal warrant for banqueting and catering services from the Prince of Wales.
Former US president Bill Clinton is a regular guest. His security men are among the few who regularly enjoy breakfast at the Ritz wearing jeans.
When Baroness Thatcher, a regular diner, leaves the Ritz restaurant the pianist always plays A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square at her request.
Introducting some of the staff
Michael De Cozar Head hall porter
33 years' service
"My father, Salvador, worked here for more than 20 years as assistant room service manager and his passion for the place has rubbed off on me. I didn't want to let him down.
"I arrived at the Ritz at the age of 17 as a page boy and was appointed to head hall porter when I was 24. I've now been in charge for 25 years and run a team of 21 staff. We're like one big, happy family. My brother Louis is a senior luggage porter and my two sons, Michael and Robert, have been here on work experience.
"As concierges, our job is to help clients with their requests, however bizarre they may be. We say we can get anything for them, from a drawing pin to a battleship - but we don't deal in women or drugs, although we do get asked. One Christmas a guest told us that he usually stayed in Brighton over the festive season and liked to take a dip in the sea. He asked if we could arrange to collect some sea water from Brighton for him. We duly obliged, and a page-boy was dispatched to the coast to fetch the water which, to the delight of the guest, filled his bath.
"For me, the hall porter desk is the hub of the hotel. I can see who is arriving, who is coming down the grand staircase or out of the lift, and who is coming down the long gallery. I wear an earpiece so I know exactly what is going on all the time and am able to be ready for whoever is coming through the door.
"We pride ourselves on our contacts and our ability to remember faces and names. I never keep a diary, I just store numbers - all the top restaurants and theatres - in my head. With 130 years' service between us, myself and my four assistants are a formidable team."
Josie Suzier Executive housekeeper
Nearly 30 years' service at the Ritz
"I came to England from the Seychelles, where I had worked as a nurse. I knew I wanted to work at the Ritz as it had such a famous name. I joined as a floor housekeeper and aimed to do my very best and reach the top - an ambition that I achieved six years ago on becoming executive housekeeper.
"I work with two assistants, six floor housekeepers and five maids. It takes between 35 minutes and one hour to clean and service each room.
"I have seen many changes at the hotel. For us housekeepers, the most significant one has been the increased quality in maintaining the standards of decor since the Barclay brothers took over 11 years ago. Painters
are constantly snagging the rooms - considerably helping us in the job we do.
"This suite is my favourite because of the wonderful view over Green Park. As the scenery changes throughout the seasons, so the feel of the room alters."
John Sanbar Director of purchasing
36 years' service
"I joined the Ritz in 1970 as a wine buyer, and I am now the longest-serving member of staff. After Trafalgar House bought the hotel in 1976 the cellar was completely reorganised. For me, that meant tasting between 50 and 60 different wines every day for six months.
"Initially, the hotel held an enormous stock of wine - probably worth around £2m. Today we don't hold much more than £200,000-worth.
"Over the years, my role changed, and I gradually become involved in buying silver and china, until eventually I become responsible for buying everything except the food. Today, I work with one assistant. One minute we might be buying toilet rolls, and the next, bottles of Cognac worth £1,400.
"The wine cellar is my favourite place in the hotel, as it is the area where I think I have made my mark."