Interviews

The tale of Four Seasons – rise of the grand luxury hotel

7 min read

20 October 2017

As Four Seasons has climbed from modest beginnings to its current luxury position, founder Issy Sharp has insisted that "nice folks" are central to brand success.

Isadore Sharp, the Canadian businessman who founded Four Seasons Hotels, does not come from remotely the same background as many of his luxury-loving guests.

Now in his 80s, Sharp is an industry legend – Steve Jobs is said to have been inspired by his focus on irreproachable service when conceptualising the Apple stores.

“Issy” Sharp started out as a real estate developer and architect. His father came from an even more humble background – forced to leave Poland in 1920 to escape the pogroms, Sharp senior emigrated to Toronto, where he transformed his skill as a plasterer and home renovator into a construction and real estate concern. Young Issy progressed from helping dad out over the summer to working at the company full-time.

He designed and built his first hotel (Motel 27) in Toronto for a family friend. But in the meantime, according to Jean-Pierre Soutric – who worked for 20 years in sales and marketing roles for Four Seasons before moving on to the Oetker Collection – Issy had spotted a niche.

He told himself that he was going to create the perfect hotel: great beds, effective sound-proofing, plumbing that didn’t look as if it came from the last century, air conditioning, swimming pool and, above all, nice folks to look after the guests.

That seems like a given today, but 55 years ago it was not the case. He was the first to professionalise the notion of good service.

Four Seasons 1961

A lot has changed since the first Four Seasons opened in 1961

The Four Seasons Motor Home opened in 1961. Buoyed by its success, Sharp built other hotels – but in 1974, when costs at a Vancouver establishment spiralled out of control, nearly bankrupting the company, he began moving out of the real estate, asset-based side of the business, and into management. Today, Four Seasons operates its hotels.

Because Sharp insists on a high ratio of staff to guests, profit margins are said to be lower than at rival groups. But over the years, as Four Seasons has climbed from its modest beginnings to its current luxury positioning, Sharp has insisted that those “nice folks” are central to the success of the brand.

Like Leading Hotels of the World, the group encourages each hotel to retain its distinct character. “When you wake up in Tokyo, you want to feel as if you are in Tokyo,” observes Soutric. “So you don’t need to be consistent in terms of room size or décor. But you do need to be consistent in terms of service.”

Indeed, the group furnishes its hotel staff with a list of around 120 quality standards. “You tend not to memorise them all; but you definitely know the ones that are relevant to your job.”

Issy Sharp Four Seasons

Customer service has been everything for Issy Sharp

Your problem is our problem

These include simple notions like making eye contact and not filtering phone calls. At the end of the day, though, great service is hard to systemise. “It all comes down to finding the right people,” Soutric says.

“When you’re filling a role at the hotel, let’s say it’s a chef, or a maître d’hôtel, you could see two people. One could be the perfect technician – faultless. But he’s a little moody. He doesn’t smile. Not a people person. The other might be minutely less skilled, or less experienced, but he’s open and charming. He’s the right guy.”

Not only that, but it can’t look forced. “People can tell when it’s fake – you have to engage in a genuine way. And that’s all about personality. It’s ironic that the most crucial thing about the hospitality business is the most intangible.”

Soutric points to something he calls “the moment”. This could be the time you’re drinking a sundowner on the terrace of a hotel with your companion, when the waiter informs you that there is a spare table at the restaurant with a magnificent view of the bay. Installed at the table, you proceed to have one of the greatest evenings of your life, purely because the waiter somehow divined what you needed.

“That’s the moment – it’s indelible, you never forget it. To give you another example, from a Four Seasons hotel in Istanbul. You go up to the top floor, you step out onto the terrace, and there it is, right there: the Hagia Sophia. It’s incredible. That moment, that experience. That’s what people come for,” he said.

Which is why, like Leading Hotels of the World, Four Seasons does little in the way of conventional advertising. It is, however, equally at home in the digital and social worlds. In June 2015 it launched a mobile app, a digital concierge that “enables guests to check in, check out, order room service, request a car from the valet or turndown service from housekeeping, and… ask for personal items like toothbrushes, earplugs, and razors without having to speak to a soul”.

Needless to say, it strives for faultless functionality and beauty, just like Four Seasons itself, with glamorous images drawn from the group’s hotels.

Mark Tungate is author of The Escape Industry: How Iconic and Innovative Brands Built the Travel Business, published by Kogan Page, priced £19.99. This extract by Mark Tungate is ©2017 and reproduced with permission from Kogan Page.

Image source: Four Seasons

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