Dishing It Out in Style
Four Seasons service is unstinting-and priced accordingly
I hate it when people mispronounce my name. So imagine my dismay when the front-desk manager at California's posh new Four Seasons Hotel Westlake Village mangles it right off the bat.
"Welcome, Mr. MAR-kles," she says. "Did I say that correctly?"
"No, it's Mar-KELS," I reply wearily.
"Oh, yes. Thank you, Mr. Mar-KELS."
In a hotel where it's de rigueur for staff members to address all guests by name, I figure I'm in for more of the same miscues.
But the bellman who shows me to my room gets my name right. So do the hotel operator when I call to schedule a wake-up call and the hostess who greets me in the restaurant. Even the Spanish-speaking maid wishes me "Good night, Meester Marrr-KELS," after placing a pair of cushy terry cloth slippers at my bedside and turning down the Egyptian cotton sheets for the night.
Over the course of my three-day stay, I'm never called Mr. MAR-kles again, thanks-I learn later-to the luxury-hotel manager's "recognition" service standard, which requires workers to match names with faces and pass along proper pronunciations to ensure that any initial slip-ups aren't repeated.
Having one's name pronounced correctly might seem a minor perk compared with the hotel's grander luxuries-the Romanesque indoor pool and opulent spa; the resplendent waterfall, Chinese pagoda, and on-site orchid greenhouse, the choicest blooms from which adorn the 270-room hotel's guest suites. That's on top of the plush Persian rugs, massive flat-screen TVs, sunken marble tubs, custom-designed mattresses, and dreamy goose-down pillows.
Top shelf. Yet that seemingly small act of personal respect says far more about why Four Seasons is consistently ranked among the world's pre-eminent hotel brands. It's one sought out not only by a highfalutin clientele willing to pay for the privilege but also by a who's who of property owners eager to sign costly, decades-long management contracts for the chance to hang the vaunted Four Seasons insignia on their hotels. And the privilege doesn't come cheap: The Four Seasons in Washington, D.C., and San Diego recently sold for about $800,000 per room, or $170 million and $250 million, respectively.
Indeed, one devoted group of hotel owners was so enamored of the brand that it recently purchased the company for $3.37 billion. Approved by shareholders earlier this month, the deal puts Four Seasons-which includes long-term management contracts for 73 hotels and full ownership of one-into the hands of a private partnership among Microsoft's Bill Gates, billionaire investor and Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal (both of whom already own multiple properties managed by Four Seasons), and company founder and chief executive Isadore Sharp, who retains management control and a 10 percent stake.
Nearly scuttled by some shareholders, who believed the company could fetch more if the chief executive had been willing to consider other bids (he wasn't), the deal speaks volumes about the 75-year-old Sharp's steely resolve to stay true to his longtime strategy: to deliver superior service-everything from getting guests' names right to having been the first to offer 24-hour room service, one-hour pressing, and overnight shoeshine-even to the detriment of short-term profits.
"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.
He cites as an example the company's opening of its first hotel in Hawaii in 1990, the Four Seasons Maui at Wailea, where workers with relevant experience were hard to recruit. "We signed up a lot of laborers from the sugar-cane and pineapple fields, workers carefully screened for positive attitudes," he recently explained. "And within a year, they made Four Seasons Maui No. 1 on the island," according to a ranking in Condé Nast Traveler magazine.
Pursuit of happiness. To that end, all job applicants are first subjected to at least four rounds of interviews, the final one by the hotel's top managers. Rather than poring over résumés or drilling candidates on their skills, "the question we try to answer is, 'Are you an innately friendly, happy person?'" regional Vice President Thomas Gurtner says of his queries for the 4,000 people who applied to Four Seasons' Westlake Village hotel before it opened last November (only 10 percent of whom were hired). "I can teach you to be a doorman or a bellman or a bartender. But if your mama didn't teach you to be nice, then I can't either."
Of course, the company's ethic of reciprocity gives new hires every reason to keep on being nice. For starters, Four Seasons typically pays 10 percent or so above what other hotels do for similar jobs, and its benefits include not only health and dental insurance for all full-time workers but also free meals and even complimentary stays at Four Seasons properties around the world-up to 20 days a year for those with the most seniority.
Those with as little as a year of service are free to apply for transfer to other properties-in choice spots like Paris and San Francisco. Such freedom has given rise to a generation of what Gurtner calls "Four Seasons gypsies," many of whom are tapped to open new hotels and train new staff members.
"They got some crazy-ass places!" a new bellman at Westlake Village whispers excitedly as he walks past a long row of photographs of Four Seasons properties in exotic locales like Egypt, Bali, and Costa Rica. "I could definitely work there!"
Coup de grâce. But it's often the subtler niceties that affect new arrivals the most. Take the time Mercedes Simon applied for a job cleaning the public bathrooms in the Westlake Village hotel. "People were very polite, but I didn't really get it at first," she says of the four successive rounds of interviews she was asked to undergo.
But then, as she sat down for a break in the cafeteria on her first day,the hotel's manager walked up to her.
"May I bring you something, Mercedes?" he asked with a smile.
Stunned by his graciousness-let alone by the fact that he remembered her name, "I said, 'Oh, no, thanks,'" she recalls sheepishly. "But that's when I realized this place really is different. It made me want to work here."
Such positive attitudes make things easy on people like Chetna Patel, the hotel's training manager. Charged with bringing the latest group of recruits up to speed on the hotel's exacting service standards, she spends well over an hour on "recognition" strategies for sleuthing out guests' names, then addressing them accordingly.
"It's better to say the name incorrectly than not at all," she says as she leads the group in an exercise in which trainees try greeting imaginary guests with hard-to-pronounce surnames, such as Czerzinski and Nguyen.
"Good morning, Mr. ... uh ... Win," says one recruit. "Did I say that correctly?" (She did.)
Posted on a white board at the front of the room, that last sentence is key, "because even if you get it wrong, it makes them feel special," Patel explains.
Even better, it quickly extracts the correct pronunciation, which can then be passed on, like the way the front desk manager asked the bellman to show Mr. Mar-KELS to his room. Or how she'd then typed the correct pronunciation into a computer file kept on every registered guest, all but guaranteeing a happy customer the next time around.
THE PRICE OF ADMISSION
Four Seasons $295-$3,500 a night Westlake Village Executive physical: $4,500
Four Seasons Austin $375-$1,700 Rita Suprema Margarita (mixed tableside): $95
Four Seasons Los Angeles $525-$7,500 (Beverly Wilshire) Spa treatments: $385-$990
Four Seasons New York $695-$15,000 Lemon ricotta hot cakes at 57 restaurant: $22
Four Seasons Paris $979-$14,762 "Stroll Through Versailles" spa treatment (with body scrub, massage, and facial, all "inspired by Marie Antoinette's beauty secrets"): $403
Four Seasons Maui $440-$11,500 8-ounce Kobe beef steak at Duo restaurant: $200
Four Seasons Nevis, West Indies $655-$5,950 Scuba "Dive & Dine" package (with private chef): $1,900 per couple
Source: Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts
This story appears in the April 23, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.