280 Vanderbilt Beach Road, Naples, FL
NAPLES — In 1985, Kathleen Passidomo got her first taste of The Ritz-Carlton, Naples.
Ahead of the resort’s opening, the Naples attorney – now a state representative – attended several lavish, celebratory dinners.
“It was the best food I ever had,” she recalls.
Fast forward 25 years and she was there at the Gulf-front resort to mark its silver anniversary.
A year of celebration officially began on Friday, with Passidomo and more than 150 other business, government and community leaders gathered to recognize the milestone birthday – and to be honored themselves, along with the more than 1,000 “ladies and gentlemen” who work for the Ritz in Naples.
“Twenty five years ago, it really brought home to us that Naples was changing,” Passidomo recalls of the resort’s opening. “Pelican Bay was just starting. It was rural at the time.”
Back then Naples was known as a sleepy little town, with a year-round population of about 85,000. Passidomo was one of only a few female attorneys in Naples and there were only a few hundred lawyers in town, where now there are about 1,000. “You knew everyone,” she said. “We’ve really grown exponentially.”
The crowd snacked on bite-size pastries and sipped gourmet coffee, champagne and mimosas before hearing a string of speakers talk about the role the Ritz has played in growing Naples and boosting the local economy. There are now two Ritz-Carltons in Naples, with the addition of the golf resort in 2002.
Bruce Seigel, director of sales and marketing for The Ritz-Carlton Resorts of Naples, called it an “incredible day.”
During his speech in one of the resort’s grand ballrooms, he applauded the employees of the two resorts, who represent more than 40 nationalities. As he spoke, about 140 of them marched into the room, most of them having worked at the beach resort for at least 15 years. In the background, a pianist played “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”
Seigel also recognized the visionaries that dreamed up the Ritz-Carlton brand, including Ed Staros, who is now the vice president and managing director for the two resorts in Naples. “From the founding day, Ed Staros has stood for excellence,” he said.
Before the resort opened, Staros recalled driving north on U.S. 41 one summer after leaving Fifth Avenue South in downtown Naples and feeling rather lonely.
“I kept looking, looking, looking for another car,” he told the attendees. “There were no cars in front of me.”
Staros recognized other visionaries in the crowd, including Michael Watkins, the president of the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club, and long-time Naples Mayor Bill Barnett.
He told a story about Dick Lydon, who started Lydon Transportation about 25 years ago with a dozen cars mostly to service the Ritz and still has the business today. Lydon, Staros said, “saved us.”
Staros recognized Reggie Brown, manager of the Florida Tomato Committee, which has held its annual tomato conference at the resort for 24 years.
“There’s tons of people to thank,” Staros said. “But we’d miss lunch. We’d miss dinner. So I think I’ll just turn the page.”
He then turned the microphone over to Collier County Commissioner Georgia Hiller, who called the Ritz employees “the most amazing people in the world.”
“I’m really touched,” she said, her voice wavering as she fought tears. “Forgive me for being emotional. But this is a really special day.”
She said 25 years of business success is really worthy of honoring. She then officially announced a new name for the road running in front of the legendary resort – Ritz-Carlton Drive.
“You will never have an excuse again to say you don’t know where the Ritz is,” Hiller quipped.
The new signs for the road should go up in the next few days.
Peter Greenberg, a travel editor for CBS News, talked about his impressions of the Ritz as a world traveler.
“Anytime I have a problem, they save the day,” he said. “This hotel for 25 years has been saving the day.”
“The hotel is not just a part of the fabric of the community,” Greenberg said. “It is the community. It’s a shining light.”
A senior executive for Marriott International, the Ritz-Carlton’s parent company, presented the resort with a special commemorative stone for its 25 years of exceptional service.
In typical Ritz style, Seigel and other employees hustled quickly to move the speeches inside because of the chilly weather. No one seemed to notice, though it required moving a business meeting scheduled around a national furniture conference out of the way.
“Changing on the fly is what we do here,” Seigel said. “We’re used to it.”
Connect with Laura Layden at www.naplesnews.com/staff/laura_layden.