Checking in

The CEO of Four Seasons Hotels, which is opening its first site in Dubai, says she plans to double the luxury brand’s properties in the next few years
Checking in
Service is clearly vital to Kathleen Taylor.
By Sara Anabtawi
Sun 01 Jul 2012 08:19 AM

One of Kathleen Taylor’s favourite stories describes the experience of a guest at a Four Seasons hotel.

Sipping her green tea from the comfort of a couch at the Armani Hotel in Dubai, Taylor fondly recalls a woman who checked into one of the Four Seasons, but who did not enjoy the music playing on the hotel’s clock radio.

“She did not pick up the phone to call the front desk to ask for it to be changed or to request a CD, but instead, she tweeted that she hated the music she was hearing on the radio,” says Taylor. “Fortunately, our social media manager at that hotel was monitoring everything that was happening on Twitter, so she picked up the tweet immediately, went to the guest’s room with a collection of CDs and offered her a different selection of music.”

That kind of service turns a negative into a positive. Not only was the guest content with the way the situation had been handled, but she immediately got back to the Twitterverse, praising the fact that there had been a service response to her previous rant. In fact, through the power of social media, the situation eventually unfolded into a positive story that was picked up by mainstream newspapers.

Service is clearly vital to Kathleen Taylor; she happens to be the CEO of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts worldwide — and the first person to hold that position after the founder, Isadore Sharp.

“Most of the guests’ best memories often come from something we call service recovery, where some mistake has happened. This is a business managed by hundreds of people every day, so something is going to go wrong,” she says.

But to Taylor, it is not about who to blame, should something go wrong. It is about what to do to better the situation.

“What did we do about the man who had coffee spilt on the sleeve of his jacket? Well, one response might be to give him a bottle of water to wipe it off…but we did not do that. We said, ‘Sir, can we have your jacket for half an hour, we will get it dry cleaned for you,’” she says.

In turn, the story he tells will not revolve around the server spilling coffee, but instead, it will shed light on his jacket being dry-cleaned. “So, [it is about] focusing on the positives, always getting guests to participate with us in service recovery and engaging in learning about how to make their stay better, whether is it social-media driven or otherwise,” she says.

To ensure service is on the front line of every Four Seasons brand, Taylor is always travelling from one city to another, in a bid to ensure top-notch quality. But, in a change of scenery, she recently visited sun-scorched Dubai, following an announcement of a deal with local firm Bright Start to launch the first Four Seasons property in the emirate.

Many have pondered why the hotel brand has not approached the vibrant city earlier, especially as Dubai is laden with some of the world’s most famous luxury hotel brands. But, as Taylor simply puts it, good things come to those who wait.

“It is not for lack of trying. Obviously, Dubai is one of the great cities in the world. We have had our hearts set on being here for a long time… but ultimately for us, it is not about being first in the destination, it is about being the best in the destination,” she says.

“And so, this opportunity to work with Bright Start in this destination, with this particular location, right on Jumeirah Beach with easy access to all that Dubai has to offer both from a leisure and business perspective, is the exceptional [chance] we have been waiting for,” she adds.

In addition, Taylor does not rule out additional Four Seasons hotels in the UAE in the near future.

“It would be our hope that in the very near future, we will be able to work on some other things. Dubai is a very vibrant and very diverse city, with a lot of different areas to serve clients. We operate more than one Four Seasons in most major cities in the world — whether that is Singapore, Los Angeles, Chicago or London, and many other destinations, so we see Dubai in the same way,” she says.

Taylor goes on to confirm that the hotel brand plans to set up shop in several other locations, broadening its footprint within the region.

“We have plans to be in a lot more places. There are projects in the development pipeline, such as Abu Dhabi, Oman and Kuwait City. We have just opened in Marrakesh, but are still under construction in Casablanca…so there is a lot on the development schedule in this part of the world,” she says.

But, as pleasant as the outlook seems to be on the Four Seasons horizon, there is no firm grasp on the future when it comes to the performance of hotels in countries that have been hit hard by the Arab Spring.

When last year’s protests first hit Egypt, for instance, it had a very dramatic effect on the country’s economy, particularly in terms of inbound international travel.

“Obviously, everybody at the moment is waiting to see what the outcome of the presidential election means for the future of Egypt, but it is such an important country in the Middle East… and we are very hopeful for a brighter future,” she says.

Turning towards the Four Seasons Damascus-based hotel in Syria — a major landmark in the city — Taylor does not seem quite so optimistic. “Syria remains extremely troubled. While the violence has touched Damascus much less than the rest of the country, it still has had a huge impact on inbound travel to the country. Our hotel remains open [in Damascus], and obviously, we are eternally grateful for our employees who are doing such an amazing job, continuing to service guests who are there under such dire circumstances. Like everyone, we are hoping for a quick resolution to that conflict,” she adds.

While occupancy rates in Egypt dipped after the revolution, there has been a dramatic increase in business since then, particularly in terms of regional travel. Even when zooming out and looking at the global picture, there are other storm clouds on the horizon. These include the Eurozone issues, the US election, polls in Mexico, Greek elections, and even worries on China and India’s growth rates.

“There are a lot of things that people are pointing to as reasons to be circumspect about global growth. Having said that, at Four Seasons, we are seeing really strong demand for our hotels and resorts. We are seeing business travellers who are looking to make most of their time, and so, investing at a stay in the Four Seasons is what they are looking for,” she says.

“And leisure is quite strong as well. Travel experiences have become very important to people and everybody is out there trying to get to places on their travel itinerary,” she adds.

Overall, the Four Seasons had a double-digit revenue per available room (RevPAR) growth last year at around twelve percent and is feeling very good about the dynamics in hotels based in unaffected areas.

In fact, Taylor’s strategy over the next ten years is to continue growing the business significantly, and in turn, keep spirits high.

“We are 86 hotels today, we will try to double the number of hotels that we run globally, over the coming years,” she says, adding: “But, growing bigger is not enough. Lots of companies in the hospitality arena have simply gotten bigger, but have actually lost their first-place ranking. Our job is to grow bigger, but to also maintain that quality and at the very highest level.”

Despite the obstacles businesses face in today’s world, Taylor still feels that she has a lot to offer to the Four Seasons brand.

“My personal ambitions are lofty. I am the first CEO of this great company after its founder. So, with that, it brings a whole lot of responsibility to make sure that the foundation of the company remains solid, that the vision, philosophy and culture of the business is preserved and maintained,” says Taylor.

Wherever one may go, be it North America, Central and South America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East, or Asia and the Pacific, the Four Seasons has made its presence known, building itself on that very same culture Taylor is so passionate about.

And despite the fact that she is clearly an expert in the hospitability business, there are still a couple of questions that she finds tough to answer. When asked which of the Four Seasons properties was her favourite, her response is typically diplomatic.

“It’s like asking somebody which child is their favourite. That one, I’m afraid is very difficult to answer.”

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