Fifty Seasons of FOUR SEASONS and counting !

For fifty years, the FOUR SEASONS brand has become synonymous with the very best of luxury hospitality, establishing itself as one of the top best companies to work for worldwide, as voted for more than 10 years in a row by the Forbes magazine, making it the only hotel company with such a high ranking. 

For me, Four Seasons is about service (genuine), comfort (rooms, bathrooms), pampering (top SPA), location (always the best in the city) and above all, its amazing people, whom I consider my friends!

The company owes its success as much to its founder Isadore Sharp as it does to its amazing team worldwide, in my view a true family of professionals sharing the same ideals, values and passion to provide the best service for customers. Whether a modern building or a classic palace, Four Seasons’ DNA has two key elements: consistency (product and service) and respect (customers and employees).

Isadore Sharp’s vision of understated luxury remains unmatched by any other luxury hotel chain worldwide and this comes from within Mr Sharp himself. To understand, one should read his book, see any of his interviews, or, as I had the privilege to see him in person at ILTM Cannes earlier this month. His polite, yet firm manner, his genuine care for his team which I could see in his eyes, the way he speaks about customers have all made Four Seasons a business model impossible to replicate.

One of the biggest strengths of Four Seasons, in my view, is the way the company has developed its relationship with the property owners. Today, the Four Seasons is predominantly a hotel management company, owning less than 5% of its 89 hotels worldwide. Isadore Sharp understood from the very beginning how vital it is that the actual hotel developers and owners share the same vision with the Four Seasons. In many cases, having grown at the same time with Four Seasons (almost together, if I may say), owners and developers have understood and embraced in a natural way the Four Seasons philosophy and vision. Human resources are vital! By investing in human resources and creating a unique set of motivational factors such a very well-run internal mobility program Four Seasons have not only ensured employee loyalty but have also made the Four Seasons one of the most desired companies to work for.

To illustrate, I would provide two very different examples – as the Four Seasons Park Lane, Four Seasons’ first international hotel had been preparing for its re-opening early this year, the Arab Spring political turmoil was starting in North Africa. While the Four Seasons Park Lane would receive a record number of applications having had to organize several open career days and other Four Seasons hotels such as those in Cairo and Damascus would prepare a very tough rest of 2011. Caring, as always for its team, ”behind the scenes”, Four Seasons would relocate staff from the Damascus and Cairo properties, and at the same time, maintain an uncompromised level of service at its properties in both cities, despite the very tense political and economical environment.

In his acceptance speech of his lifetime achievement award at this year’s ILTM, Isadore Sharp proudly spoke about his company’s achievements especially in times of economic hardships. And indeed, the financial crisis may have forced Four Seasons like many other hoteliers, to cut costs, for instance in advertising, but he insists his company has always succeeded by not making any cuts that could have the smallest impact on customer service. 

Irrespective of world financial struggles or political unrest, the coming years will certainly present even more challenges to a chain like Four Seasons, especially given the size of the company, to reach 100 hotels within the next two years. I believe most of the challenges Four Seasons will face will be related to its relationship with owners and developers. With competing chains speeding up international development (Park Hyatt, Mandarin Oriental, Ritz Carlton) as well as very strong competition coming from smaller chains such as Peninsula and Dorchester Collection, owners and developers of luxury hotels now have a much more complex offering of management services. 

In this respect, personally, I believe that service cannot make up for a tired property! Therefore, hotel chains such as Four Seasons are expected not only to keep up by delivering a fresh product but also to introduce the latest innovations competing hotel chains might have come up or introduced in the meantime, for instance: technology, eco construction standards etc. Among the best examples are: the Four Seasons George V in Paris which has been undergoing an impressive renovation and refurbishments, to ensure it preserves its leadership position in Paris, one of the world’s most competitive luxury hotel markets, despite strong new competitors such as Mandarin Oriental and Peninsula or even existing hotel such as Le Bristol which have re-emerged following extensive renovations and improvements. The same strategy has been implemented over a very short amount of time at Four Seasons Doha, the hotel unveiling a crisp and fresh, crisp look, being months ahead of several major luxury hotel openings announced for Doha in the next two years (St Regis, Park Hyatt, Mandarin Oriental) Both examples illustrate the very sensible strategic approach in anticipating customer needs once offering get diversified.

There are also examples of very important destinations such as New York, Singapore and Tokyo where Four Seasons hotels are no longer among the top three luxury hotels in the respective cities. While I am sure the company is addressing product issues at the three properties, competing hotel chains, especially Mandarin Oriental have gained a considerable lead. A reversed example is the case in London, where Four Seasons’s Park Lane property has emerged as an undisputed market leader virtually days from re-opening, with a service level and product offering close to perfection, almost like the hotel was never actually closed (more than three years), surpassing tired properties such as The Dorchester and The Mandarin Oriental. 

Other areas of improvements at Four Seasons are definitely related to development and expansion, Four Seasons being absent from key international markets such as Germany, Spain, Brazil. At the same time, I am watching with great excitement, Four Seasons’ entry into Russian, with the inauguration in May 2012 of a heritage palace property in St Petersburg and I am eagerly awaiting the opening, next year, of the brand new Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto, 400 yards from the very first Four Seasons hotel location, Toronto being the home town of Four Seasons. My new year resolution includes travels to Four Seasons in Seychelles, Los Angeles, Maldives, Prague and St Petersburg.

I could not end this short review without mentioning some of my friends at Four Seasons, whom I consider my family: Chris, Caroline, Jean Pierre (Paris); Raul, Marion, Dora (London); Simon, Hazem, Can (Doha); Rebeca, Sandra (Buenos Aires); Mauro (Provence); Tamer (now Hawaii), Sven, Nagham (Damascus), Bob (Seychelles), Andrew, Yogesh (Mumbai), Patrizio, Vito, Lucia (Florence), Gianni (Hong Kong), Felix (Istanbul) and many more !

Oliver Petcu