[Please see my comment at the bottom about newspapers giving free rides to bigots in comments attached to legitimate news stories online]
Just as higher-end travel is coming back and five-star hotels are reporting a small rebound, the swanky Ritz-Carlton hotel in Naples, Fla. has a sticky situation on its hands.
Alas, there's a lot of rushing to judgment online about this, compounded by the predictable onslaught of people shooting mouths off in comments before the facts are clear.
This much is clear:
A 15-year employee at the hotel -- a Haitian-born U.S. citizen -- has sued for emotional distress. He says he was blocked by supervisors at the hotel restaurant from serving a British couple who had specified in their instructions before arrival that they not be served by "people of color" or people with "foreign accents," according to a report first published in the Naples, Fla. News.
According to the Naples newspaper, the complaint states that a guest-profile entry in the hotel computer system, which is consulted by staff, said: "As per Mr. Staros, this couple is very, very prejudice(d) and do like like (sic) ppl of color or foreign accents."
The reference, by the way, is to Edward V. Staros, the top executive at the hotel and, ulp, a co-founder of the Ritz-Carlton chain in the U.S. during the 1980s. (Ritz-Carlton was bought by Marriott International in the 1990s).
Staros is one of the lions of the hotel industry and, frankly, I'm not buying any assertion that a person of his stature would have been so crude, let alone so dumb, as to promulgate a bigoted directive at the behest of some racist slobs from the UK.
Hotel people are the smartest and most cosmopolitan people in the travel industry; they were practicing diversity before it became something that corporations had to do -- it just doesn't add up to me that a guy like Staros would given any such guidance to staff. I repeat: It doesn't add up.
More likely, the low-ranking staffer who made the vile profile entry -- if the lawsuit complaint's citation is accurate -- was merely invoking the boss's name. That's the general assumption among hotel people I talked to today, by the way.
Furthermore, Staros himself also spoke with the British guests after the initial commotion and instructed them, speaking for the company, that they are no longer welcome at any Ritz-Carlton in the world, said Vivian Deuschl, the Ritz's highly respected spokeswoman.
Ritz-Carlton is a well-managed company that is intensely focused on staff training and has a solid record of international diversity. But the company needs to move decisively to deal with this and keelhaul those responsible, because this story has legs.
Here's the official statement from Ritz-Carlton:
"Ritz-Carlton is in the process of investigating the facts underlying the lawsuit. While we do not comment on ongoing litigation, we believe it is important to convey several points. We absolutely deny that Ritz-Carlton in any way condones discrimination by its guests against its employees or discrimination in any form.
"We value our guests and employees and their diversity in all respects. The guests in question stayed at the hotel in March 2010 and were barred from the hotel and other Ritz-Carlton Hotels shortly after their stay ended, as information about their conduct and comments came to light. We are in the process of reminding all of our employees of Ritz-Carlton’s strong non-discrimination policies."
And by the way, the editors at the Naples Daily News need to use better judgment in the kinds of comments they're allowing to be posted with their story on this incident. People have the right to say whatever they want, within the legal bounds of libel and slander. Anyone can start a blog or buttonhole their neighbors. But newspapers shouldn't give bigots and ignoramuses a free ride on the tails of a legitimate news story.