While most hotel chains are feeling the pain of the global recession, at the top end, the buzz is less of rate discounts and more of keeping staff motivated to offer top-notch service. Kathi Everden talks business with Four Seasons president of worldwide operations Jim FitzGibbon.
With 81 properties in 34 countries, Four Seasons is not among the giants of the industry but the Canadian-based company is committed to strategic development that aims to nearly double the portfolio within the next few years.
According to president of worldwide hotel operations Jim FitzGibbon, the current financial meltdown is having little impact on these plans.
"We signed more letters of intent during 2008 than in any other previous year and that's in line with our long-term goal to grow to 150 hotels in the next several years," he says.
We signed more letters of intent during 2008 than in any other year and that’s in line with our long-term goal to grow to 150 hotels in the next several years.
"We currently have 40 projects under construction or development and while we expect the pace of development may be affected by the current economic climate, to date we have seen little that would indicate that many of these projects will not proceed according to plan."
In the Middle East, Four Seasons most famously has yet to plant its flag in Dubai with the long-awaited Festival City project delayed again recently due to design issues, but overall in the region, expansion has been solid from the first hotel in Cairo opened in 2000 to eight properties currently in Egypt, Qatar, Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
To come this year will be Beirut, plus additional properties in the Gulf.
"We have Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and Kuwait on the starting blocks, and have identified a site and are negotiating in Oman," says FitzGibbon.
Add in a second resort in Doha and it represents a healthy spread in the region, no doubt helped by the influence and local knowledge of one of the group's key owners - Prince Al Waleed bin Talal, who upped his shareholding to 47.5% in 2007, partnering with Bill Gates' Cascade Foundation, which took an equal share, leaving the key 5% in the hands of founder Isadore Sharp.
Savvy investors and private ownership are two huge benefits in the world of investment in 2009, says FitzGibbon.
"We have no distractions with the public market in the current situation," he says, adding that the group's network of hotel owners have proved equally understanding of the law of diminishing returns in a downturn.
"Owners want to know that there will be no compromise throughout the network - we cannot dilute our business and make short-term decisions that would make us into a four-star operation or change the customer image of what we do."
At Four Seasons, image is paramount - not only the physical attributes of its 80+ hotels but also the culture of service that has become something of a legend in the hotel world.
"Our focus is on consistency," says FitzGibbon. "Physical consistency is not essential but we have to have service consistency as (for us) service is survival."
The service mantra is one that has helped keep Four Seasons at the top of its game during its nearly 50-year history.
Founded in Toronto in 1960 by Isadore Sharp, who came in to the industry from construction without preconceived notions of what and what was not done in a hotel, Four Seasons can claim to have introduced many ‘luxuries' now assumed as hotel standards - from in-room amenities such as free shampoo to robes, hairdryers and telephones in the bathroom, and 24-hour room service.
But, while current expansion is taking the name into weird and wonderful locations - palazzos and palaces in Europe, beach-front residences in the Indian Ocean, theme parks in the US and more - it is the service culture that now distinguishes Four Seasons from its equally sumptuous competitors.
While it is company policy to achieve the highest room rate in any destination - and Four Seasons does rank highest for revPAR through the Middle East - this aim can only be reached by delivering a consistent product that rewards both repeat and new customers.
And, expansion to the four corners of the globe has been made possible by using staff as ambassadors to expand that Four Seasons culture, according to Antoine Corinthios, president, operations, Europe, Middle East and Africa, citing the example of the Cairo launch when even the owner expressed doubt that good service could be imported to the Egyptian capital."Early on during our move into the Middle East, the Cairo owner wanted to see our (non-existent) training manual to discuss the contents since he felt that people would not have the ability to deliver in Egypt as in the rest of the world," says Corinthios.
Since that time, more than 250 staff have moved on from the Four Seasons First Residence to open other hotels both in the region and elsewhere, creating a mythology of the Four Seasons ‘college' in the Middle East. Family feeling
But, with global expansion a priority, the willingness of staff to commit to Four Seasons and move with the company to new destinations has stood the group in good stead in challenging environments.
"When going to out of the way places, our ambassadors are vital," says FitzGibbon. "It helps that the staff holiday with us, as they have 12 days a year free at any of our hotels and 50% discounts on F&B."
This commitment to people as a resource, the creation of trust, an open line of communication between management and staff and a very real corporate family dynamic is apparent both back and front of house.
At the Four Seasons at the Bosphorus in Istanbul, for instance, a typical back of house environment includes the restaurant and internet lounge used by both management and staff; great ideas board; media board displaying articles written about the hotel; cartoons of the management adorning the corridors along with staff party photos; a world map showing all group hotels (also known as the holiday board); a library of management and training books.
There, the concierge in an average day had fixed some glasses, glued a pair of cuff links and sourced a musical instrument, as well as buying a novel for a guest who was in the middle of reading it but had left the book at home.
The result, according to general manager Marcos Bekhit, is that a warmth has been created by his staff in just nine months that is already exciting letters of praise from customers.
"These are coming in not just for the product, but for the employees," he says.
"As general manager, I spent 15 minutes with each member of staff, but in talking about culture and hotels, they have heard it all before and to build the culture, we have to build trust and respect. We have 450 staff, half of whom are new to Four Seasons, but I tell them all that we are like pieces in a puzzle that is not completed without one piece."
And while the commitment to nurture and evolve staff to intuitively deliver great service is a staple ingredient of the Four Seasons product, the only downside comes in the real world.
"We aim to treat others as we would have them treat ourselves, both guests and staff, but the challenge sometimes is when we leave the hotel at the end of the day and go in to the outside with its rough edges," says a hotel employee.
It's a feeling many guests experience too...
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