Christopher Norton, the new President Europe, Middle East and Africa at FOUR SEASONS Hotels & Resorts
In an exclusive interview, Christopher Norton has spoken to CPP-LUXURY.COM about his vision and strategic approach, as he takes over as President EMEA at Four Seasons & Resorts.
How has your role changed as President EMEA of Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts? What motivated you to take on such a challenge?
I always loved being a General Manager and will miss the day-to-day buzz of running a hotel such as the George V. I am extremely proud of what we have achieved and the hotel is a benchmark of excellence worldwide. In addition to looking after the George V, I was fortunate enough to have enjoyed a senior regional position in the company for the past 13 years. Consequently, I feel well placed to take on this new role as I know most of the hotels in my region extremely well and all the senior teams. It is an extraordinarily vibrant and exciting region. Most hotel groups do not have the mix of properties group-wide that we have in the EMEA region alone, ranging from a 15th century palazzo in Florence to a towering landmark in Riyadh. My passion is producing results with great attention to creative detail and I will strive to bring excellence, magic and wonder to the region. I want to inspire an already outstanding and proven team to stretch their boundaries and challenge the conventional.
You are taking over the EMEA region during an unstable economic and political environment. What are your views on the recovery of Europe and the stabilization of the Middle East, especially Egypt and Syria?
There is indeed worrying economic fragility in Europe and continuing political uncertainty in the Middle East which has impacted on some of our business. However, other hotels in the region have had record years. After 39 years in the industry, I try not to be phased by the cyclical nature of business. I am an optimist by nature and see these challenges as part of wider and significant global changes that face all businesses in all markets. We need to embrace uncertainty, recognise that these are interesting times and ensure the company is well placed to adapt and evolve flexibly and appropriately. We already employ the best people in the industry and in the more challenging countries where we operate, we believe our role is to show that with hard work, clear focus and total integrity, there is always the opportunity to be part of positive change.
In 2012 Four Seasons opened its very first safari lodge in Tanzania, the sixth property on the African continent. How important is Africa for Four Seasons and where shall we expect future openings?
Given our North African presence in Egypt and more recently Morocco, we had been looking for the right opportunities in other parts of Africa for a while. Tanzania is a vibrant and stable country that offers us the ideal spot to open our first safari lodge. We are bringing something very different to the safari market which will be particularly attractive to families and guests who would like to combine a safari and a resort experience with all the guarantees of service and quality that goes with Four Seasons. We are adding a mobile safari and a beach hotel in Zanzibar in the next two years. Overall, we believe Africa has incredible potential.
With an ever growing competitive luxury hospitality market, especially in major destinations, do consumers expect properties to be renovated faster than in the past?
Today’s customer is a highly sophisticated consumer and we never take anything for granted. If you compare a hotel with a theatre, the physical aspect of the hotel is the stage, but not the play. We build gorgeous theatres to perform in, but first and foremost we must be playwrights. Some companies rely solely on the stage. Without an emotional connection to the guest, there is no play. Four Seasons is known for the best service, but we are also constantly investing in our hotels. One of my earliest mentors, Raymond Pjares gave me invaluable advice, “always be ahead of the renovation game. By the time the customer notices, it is already too late.” One of my roles will be to demonstrate to our owners that continual intelligent investment with a return in the hotels is essential. But Four Seasons’ partners and owners have very high standards in any event and we have on-going renovation programs in place. Four Seasons George V in Paris invested close to 60 million euros in the past five years alone to keep step with one of the most competitive and sophisticated luxury markets in the world and the hotel opened brand new just 13 years ago.
Can service make up for a ”tired” property? How and if, do you think a long time un-renovated property can damage the reputation of the hotel brand?
I think when a property is faded, guests often make allowances if the service standards are first class. The reverse is absolutely not the case – discerning guests do not like hotels where the décor takes priority over the service. Service makes up for almost anything, but that doesn’t give us permission to let our hotels get “tired.”
The luxury hospitality spectrum worldwide has changed, with new, smaller players emerging such as the Dorchester Collection, Oetker Collection or Cheval Blanc (LVMH). What is your view from a competitive point of view?
The worldwide spectrum has changed. I have watched many of these brands with great interest and admiration. Only recently, I enjoyed a stay at the Bel Air in Los Angeles and I think they have done a good job reviving an old classic which had been in serious need of a make-over. I welcome competition as it pushes us to innovate and stretch our standards to even greater heights. We know when a hotel brand is focused on competing with us when they start to call our staff. We are proud that Four Seasons is still seen as the benchmark for excellence.
Luxury fashion and accessories brands such as Armani, Missoni, Versace, Bvlgari, Ferragamo, Moschino and LVMH have all ventured into hospitality in the past years. Other luxury fashion brands such as Bottega Veneta, Dior or Tiffany have designed suites for hotel chains (i.e. St Regis Hotels). Which of the two business models you consider more feasible on the long term?
Fashion hotels seem to be the story of the moment and offer a great PR opportunity. However, I believe the jury is out on their long term sustainability. Yes, many of them are very beautiful but image alone is not enough to ensure loyalty from guests. Some of our guests like to try what’s new which we would expect, but feedback is often mixed. A strong brand name does not guarantee a good service experience. Luxury brand partnerships on the other hand is something very different and if done correctly is something that can be very effective by offering interesting guest experiences. In Paris, we asked Hermes to finish the inside of our Rolls Royce Phantom to give it a French touch. It’s the only one of it’s kind in the world. It’s understated elegance at its best. In Milan we have a Brioni suite and I hear the Missoni pool cabanas in Maui have gone down a treat with our guests.
Luxury hotel operators have been stressing the importance of SPAs in both leisure and corporate destinations, however, most of them have relied on a third party to operate and/or brand their SPAs. Is there a risk of such SPA brands to have a negative effect on exclusivity? Do you think there is also the risk that consumers coming across the same brand at many hotel chains will consider it being ”less luxury” or even of lower quality?
Four Seasons is the largest operator of luxury spas in the world. We have always been fairly low key about our spa business despite its success and last year alone, we won two major awards as The Best Hotel Operator of Luxury Spas Worldwide. It is a significant and profitable part of our business and there is a direct correlation to the average rate of a hotel. We have exceptional talent in the company. Rather than carrying a single brand throughout the spas, our approach is to offer guests a choice of at least three products: one local, one natural (chemical free) and one high tech. I have personally been heavily involved in developing the Four Seasons spa business and I will continue to be. Six years ago, a significant number of our spas were managed by third party operators, but we have taken the strategic decision to manage all our own spas as we believe we can deliver the best spa experiences in the world. I think there are some excellent spa management companies in the market, but this is not our model. We deliver better margins.
How has corporate travel changed in the past 3 years and which are the direct effects on luxury hotels?
Some business hotels have to become commodities and we appreciate that. But we recognise, that today’s business travellers are under tremendous pressure and that their most precious commodity is time. Generally, they appreciate value and of course need excellent technology to maximise efficiency. Our role is to ensure we minimise our guests’ stress levels and maximise any precious down time on their business trips, so even a spare half hour is enjoyable. When the stay is flawless and every minute enjoyable, price tends to become less of a priority.
An increasing number of wealthy travellers from the BRIC countries have been making up for the lower number of wealthy travellers from mature markets, especially in the past years. How different are these ”new” luxury hospitality consumers?
We love and embrace these new guests. They are full of energy and enjoy life. For a number of our hotels, the average age of guest is now just over 40 rather than the previous 50 thanks to these new markets. However, it is very important not to generalise. A Brazilian guest has very different requirements to an Indian guest. Four Seasons doesn’t stereotype and is all about being open and flexible with our hospitality to each individual to ensure everyone feels at home and as comfortable as possible. The hotels are very good at helping each other understand the guests from these emerging markets. Luxury is becoming more closely connected to the notion of customization. That is where our focus must be. 11. Four Seasons is opening this Spring its first hotel in Russia, in St Petersburg. What is the significance of this new opening given the challenging Russian market but also from the point of view of most luxury hotel chains opening modern properties? The Russian market is key to many of our hotels, particularly in the EMEA region. There is tremendous anticipation around the opening of our St. Petersburg project. It has been our most challenging renovation project to date, but will be worth the wait. We know from experience that when we open a hotel in a new country, it has a huge impact on brand recognition. The Moscow hotel is also back on track so watch this space. We hope to introduce Russians to a level of service that we do not believe they have experienced in their own country. We are already recognised as the leading luxury hotel brand in Russia. Part of this is due to many years of investment in this market from a sales, marketing and PR perspective. Our focus has been to really engage with and understand our Russian guests. In 2012, we launched a Russian digital magazine, Four Seasons Travel Notes, to help with this process.
Four Seasons has announced a third property in London, however, at the same time it is no longer managing Four Seasons Provence. How has the relationship with owners / developers changed since the economic crisis?
Four Seasons has grown substantially in the last decade and we now have over 90 hotels. It is a natural process that some properties will drop out of the group. When that occurs, we have historically replaced them with better hotels for our ever more demanding guests. We are in a fortunate position to enjoy a hugely diverse ownership portfolio from investment funds to private individuals and this will always be the case. Owners, just like guests, are different from one another and it is our brand responsibility as operators and managers to represent their long-term business interest as well as protect their capital investments better than any other hospitality operator in the world.