Four Seasons Hotels, an exciting future led by EVP Christopher Norton

I met Christopher Norton in 2010 during his tenure as Regional Vice President (EMEA) and General Manager of the Four Seasons George V in Paris, his contribution having been instrumental in cementing, to this day, an unbeatable top position for a global flagship property of the Four Seasons chain.

His innate abilities to forge, motivate and manage exceptional teams, his nurture of creativity and audacious spirit, his understanding of how to exceed the expectations of the most discerning guests both through service and product – are truly unique in nowadays luxury hotel industry. His erudition in the most diverse fields – from fashion to Spas, from wines to linen, architecture and technology – coupled by his utmost attention to detail, which always have translated into exceptional business results for his hotels – must have played a crucial role in the trust he earned from the owners of the company.

In 2012, Christopher was promoted to President, Hotel Operations, EMEA and this April, my early predictions came true, with Christopher reaching the pinnacle of his career, promoted to the company’s headquarters, in a strategic global position - Executive Vice President, Product and Operations, a newly created role, which encompasses responsibility across multiple areas of the business.

Earlier this month, I caught up with Christopher over an exclusive interview. Despite his tremendous load of work, including incessant global travels, he has remained unchanged, with the same down-to-earth attitude and manners which are rare for an executive in such a high ranking position.

He sounded happy and excited ‘’It is a dream job!’’ he told me, adding ‘I have been spending a great deal of time on planes, these days visiting our hotels, but my work cannot be more fulfilling’’. Being in charge of both product and operations, at a global level for 90 operational hotels, Christopher is, nowadays, probably one of the most influential executive with Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts. In his new position, he has taken on the challenge to create that ideal balance between product & operations on the one hand, and the Company’s relationship with owners – ensuring the essence of the brand remains paramount through physical product and service delivery supporting growth- on the other hand (all Four Seasons Hotels are owned by third party investors, with the company acting as a long term third party operator).

Christopher’s promotion within Four Seasons was preceded, earlier this year, by the appointment of a new CEO for the company, Allen Smith, – a top executive with finance and real estate experience. . With the two strategic decisions, the three owners of the company (Bill Gates, HRH Prince Al-Waleed and Isadore Sharp – also Founder) seem to have secured a leadership capable not only to anticipate and overcome today’s challenges generated by the fast changing global environment, but also to ensure Four Seasons maintains its position as leader rather than a follower in the international luxury hospitality market.

For Christopher it’s an exciting opportunity to work with the new CEO as he highlights that “Allen’s skillset adds great value to Four Seasons especially his ability to analyze and distinctly articulate a long term strategy providing clarity to business priorities in a complex environment.  In addition, he brings the perspective of an owner/investor which deepens our understanding of a key component of our business model.”

I went on to raise with Christopher the issue of why the Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts has been so ”silent” from a marketing point of view in the past years. ”Our award winning marketing division   has always taken an understated and more subtle approach to promoting the brand.  While this has garnered success in the past, there are many new and exciting initiatives on the way that will add a new dimension.” ”

In their hunger for fast global expansion, many luxury hoteliers are building their brand awareness through celebrities, Michelin-starred Chefs, collaborations with luxury brands from other sectors, fashion designer branded suites etc. Christopher’s retort came firmly: ”Our reputation has been built on service and that is why, we shall continue to be very strategic with any such associations, which have to be relevant to our brand and growth in the long term. While we have launched the Four Seasons Jet experience we have no intention of being in the airline or cruise ship business.” He went on to say:  “As a company we will continue to focus on running luxury hotels and residential developments and focus on many of the upcoming renovations, product innovations, repositioning of the brand in key markets while ensuring that our brand continues to be part of people’s lifestyle.”

With approximately over 60 new projects under development, I asked Christopher about the company’s approach to development. ‘’In addition to new builds a heightened focus has been on conversions and multiple hotels in primary destinations. ’’. As for, the geographical reach, he confirms: ‘’We have several exciting new hotels coming up in the U.S. – a second hotel in Miami, a second hotel in New York city, Napa Valley, Philadelphia and Boston.  But there are also some extensive renovation and refurbishment plans for several of our hotels, including Washington D.C., Atlanta, Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles and our resorts in Hawaii. As for international expansion, we are adding more hotels in Africa, South America and Asia, which are markets that hold great room for growth.  Exciting upcoming openings just around the corner include iconic properties in Moscow, two in Dubai, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi and Casablanca.’’

I then asked Christopher whether the company will become more flexible in order to speed up development. ‘’In our over 50 years in the business we have established very sophisticated and trusting relationships with investors, many of whom own multiple properties.  We will continue to listen very carefully to their needs while protecting the brand, which is mutually beneficial, as we pursue our very aggressive growth agenda.”

In regards to emerging markets HNWI travelers, Christopher said: ‘’We have not experienced a significant slow-down for our Russian consumer base. Brazil remains a key market for us’’. On the controversy that Chinese wealthy travelers spend more on shopping than luxury accommodation, he added: ‘’China has tremendous potential, it is just a matter of time. As markets evolve, luxury consumers always move toward a desire for a luxury experience adding to the excitement of purchasing luxury goods.”

interview conducted by Oliver Petcu

Christopher Norton, Executive Vice President, Four Seasons Hotels