Dishing It Out in Style
Four Seasons service is unstinting-and priced accordingly
"He does not compromise on service ... even when it costs him," hotel consultant Bjorn Hanson of PricewaterhouseCoopers says of times like the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks, when Sharp famously refused to cut back on service-or room prices-despite pressure from property owners anxious to lower costs and fill rooms. Even during the best of times, the fancy orchid arrangements, hyperattentive room service (which guarantees your food will arrive within 30 minutes), and all the rest come at a premium. Despite some of the highest room rates in the world, operating costs-including steep management fees that take up to 11 percent of gross revenues-tend to keep owners' profit margins thin.
But while the cash flow from, say, a Westin or a Marriott might offer better returns in the short run, the Four Seasons brand often makes hotel owners more money in the end because of its prestige factor. For all the costs associated with its panache, "it does have a powerful effect on real-estate values," Hanson says of strong appreciation rates that extend not only to the hotel properties but to the real-estate developments that increasingly surround them, including private residences, shopping, and other amenities. By having a Four Seasons as the cornerstone, "you take everything else up a notch, too."
And with so few hotels around the world-almost all in prime locations-Four Seasons is also attractive "because they don't exploit the brand and dilute the experience like some of their competitors do," says Steve Kisielica, principal of Lodging Capital Partners, who purchased the Four Seasons Hotel Austin in 2006. "There's only one Four Seasons in New York and only one in Austin, which means there's only one place to go if people want best-in-class service."
To be sure, almost everyone who stays at Four Seasons has a personal testament to the service: the concierge who donned fins and a snorkel to find a wedding band lost in a lagoon; the hotel operator who spent 45 minutes on the phone directing a lost guest all the way to the hotel's entrance; the man who asked room service for a martini shaker, only to find a tuxedoed server standing at his door-accessories in hand-ready to do the shaking.
Then there was the time Arthur de Haast took his wife to the Four Seasons George V Paris to celebrate the couple's 21st wedding anniversary. When they arrived in their room, they not only found a bouquet of red roses waiting, "but there were exactly 21 of them," recalls de Haast, chief executive of investment adviser Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels. "My wife counted them."(Only later did he admit to her that the idea wasn't his.)
Four Seasons is hardly the only hotel operator to track customer histories and preferences in order to bolster service. "But most fail to deliver," says de Haast, "because their people don't pay enough attention to detail or follow through with the same level of consistency."
In an industry that suffers worker turnover that can approach 100 percent annually, Sharp learned early on that the only way to achieve such consistency is to "hire for attitude, not skill," then train workers thoroughly and treat them with the same respect he expects them to show hotel guests-a golden rule he calls the company's "ultimate secret" to success.