Did Ritz Honor 'Whites Only' Request?

Ritz-Carlton allegedly granted a guest's desire only to be served by whites.

ByScott Mayerowitz
April 23, 2010, 1:49 PM

April 23, 2010— -- Luxury hotels aim to fulfill every guest's needs, dreams and desires. But what if that includes being served only by white employees who sound American?

One Florida beach resort allegedly granted just such a wish last month, entering into its computer system a guest's request that he and his family not be served by "people of color" or staff with "foreign accents," according to a federal lawsuit filed this week.

The posh Ritz-Carlton Naples is being sued by one of its current employees, a black man of Haitian descent who says the hotel discriminated against him by not allowing him to serve the family at its restaurant in March.

Wadner Tranchant, 40, says in the lawsuit obtained by ABC News that the upscale resort created a work environment that was "hostile or abusive." Tranchant still works at the resort, according to his lawyer Michel McDonnell, who would not comment on the suit, saying the complaint speaks for itself.

When reached on the phone by ABC News, Tranchant also refused to comment.

His suit, filed in the U.S. District Court in Fort Myers, Fla., seeks more than $75,000 in punitive and compensatory damages.

"Obviously we can't comment on pending lawsuit, however it is the policy of the Ritz-Carlton hotel company to neither condone nor tolerate discrimination or harassment of any kind by either our employees or our guests," said Vivian A. Deuschl, spokeswoman for the hotel chain.

But the family has since been banned from all Ritz-Carlton hotels worldwide, Deuschl added.

Deuschl said Ritz-Carlton is investigating the facts underlying the lawsuit and is reminding all of its employees of the company's "strong non-discrimination policies."

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Luxury brands like Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons and Mandarin Oriental take service very seriously, said Steven A. Carvell, associate dean for academic affairs at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration.

But, he said, there are some demands that just can't be met.

"I would presume that anybody at a management position at a luxury property in this country would understand that we do not accommodate requests based on racial bias because that would be an improper request," Carvell said. "It would also be improper to say: when you send my housekeeper up, send the pretty blond."

"The idea that the guest is always right has an asterisk attached to it which is: usually, but not always," added Bjorn Hanson, an associate professor of hospitality and tourism management at New York University.

California employment lawyer Keith A. Fink said blocking the waiter from working would violate civil rights laws.

"This Ritz single policy of a wholesale exclusion of a minority group or those with foreign accents from working in certain jobs in a place of public accommodations is so offensive I am sure the Ritz will settle this matter fast."

Ritz-Carlton Allegedly Agrees to Guest's Racist Request

According to the lawsuit, on Feb. 28, 2010, a British man and his family checked into the Ritz for a roughly two-week stay -- at a cost of at least $8,000 -- and told the hotel they preferred not be served by "people of color" or staff with "foreign accents."

Ritz-Carlton, like other upscale hotel chains, tries to meet guests' every need. The staff is known for bringing chilled water, fresh fruit and cooling damp towels to guests lounging at the pool and beach. In Naples, the Ritz rooms have all the amenities including Bulgari bath products and flat-screen televisions in the marble-clad bathrooms. Plush robes and slippers are in each room to help guests relax and each night the housekeeping staff again freshens up the room and prepare the bed for the guests sleep.

Rates at the Naples hotel during the peak winter weeks that the British family visited start at $600 a night for the smallest room and climb to $1,900 for a suite or $5,000 a night for the presidential suite. Other times of year rates can start around $230 a night.

For that price, the hotel prides itself in knowing what guests want. Everything from the way guests like their eggs cooked, or the type of newspaper they read is entered into the chain's computer system. If a Ritz guest likes to have chilled San Pellegrino in the room, that will be noted in the system and the sparkling water will be there for waiting upon their next stay at any Ritz hotel.

When the guest told the hotel about his racial preferences, that too was allegedly entered into the hotel's computer system at the direction of the hotel's managing director and vice president Edward V. Staros, according to court documents.

The note said "as per Mr. Staros this couple is very very prejudice and do like like ppl of color or foreign accents."

Staros declined to comment, referring all questions about the suit to the hotel's public relations team.

Sherie Brezina, director of Florida Gulf Coast University's Hospitality Management program, told the Naples News-Press that Staros is an ethics authority for the Ritz-Carlton chain, and travels to other hotels to train staff.

Discrimination at the Ritz-Carlton in Naples?

On March 12, 2010, the family came for dinner at the hotel's Grill Restaurant. Tranchant was working there but was prevented by immediate supervisors that night from serving the family dinner, the suit says.

Tranchant said in the suit that he "was humiliated, embarrassed, frightened, intimidated, subject to undeserved shame and suffered severe emotional distress." Tranchant says in his suit that he has sought medical and psychological treatment. He declined to comment.

New York University's Hanson said that generally the goal of luxury brands is to exceed guest expectations.

"The challenge is that achieving that goal can lead to sometimes impossible expectations," he said.

Some chains have daily staff meetings to review all arriving and departing guests for that day and whatever special needs they might have.

But sometimes a request is just either impossible, illegal or immoral, Hanson said.

In such cases, hotel staffers should repeat and acknowledge the request to show they are listening, apologize for not being able to fulfill it and then offer a substitute option, he added.

"I was a general manager early in my career, and my position at the time, which I think is the most common policy, is that employees are no less important than guests," Hanson said.

While he wouldn't comment on the specific Ritz-Carlton case, Hanson said that if he ever got such a request, he would tell the guest: "Our employees are all well-trained and are prepared to and look forward to serving all guests. We really aren't able or willing to compromise our service by granting that request."

"If the guest chooses to stay elsewhere," Hanson added, "it is actually is positive because word gets around to the employees that they are truly valued."

With reports from ABC News' Desiree Adib

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