Sixty years ago, Isadore Sharp founded Four Seasons, one of the world’s foremost luxury hospitality companies. He tells Can Faik about the changes he’s seen in the company over that time – and explains how it has maintained its unique place in luxury hospitality since 1960 …
Many years ago, Four Seasons set out to create a corporate mission statement that would guide the actions of everyone in the organisation. Its goals, beliefs and principles are the foundation of the work it does every day. Its objective is to be recognised as the company that manages the finest hotels, resorts and private residences wherever it locates. Four Seasons creates properties of enduring value using superior design and finishes, and supports them with a deeply instilled ethic of personal service.
What was your background prior to launching Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts?
I grew up in a poor immigrant household in Toronto. After graduating from university, I went to work for my father as a builder, making it a two-man company. I had no grand plans to create a luxury hospitality company – I was just trying to put one deal together to combine the best of a motel and a hotel. And when the very first Four Seasons opened in 1961, my vision of the future was just to make enough money today to pay yesterday’s bills.
What does your current position involve?
In 2010, I stepped down as CEO, but since then have remained active in the business in my role as chairman, working closely with the executive leadership team and our board of directors. One of the areas I remain involved in is in the design concepts and aesthetics of our hotels, as it is a passion of mine.
Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts has grown from its first hotel in Four Seasons Motor Hotel into one of the leading hotel groups in the world. What do you consider to have been the keys to its success along the way?
Four Seasons was formed out of a series of decisions and chance events, combined with strong relationships, that set us on a path that I never guessed would have brought us to where we are today.
One of those key decisions was to never put profit ahead of people. I believe a large part of what we have been able to achieve to date is built on the strong relationships we have with owners, partners, board members, and with the thousands of employees around the world who help make the company a success.
There were also the four strategic decisions I made over the years that formed the foundation of Four Seasons, now known as the four pillars of our business model – quality, service, culture and brand. These pillars evolved over 25 years, each supporting the one before and guiding our global teams to focus on mid-sized hotels of exceptional quality, to define true luxury by exceptional service, to create a service culture guided by the Golden Rule, and to grow as a management company and build a brand name synonymous with quality.
Together, the four pillars, along with our guiding principle of the Golden Rule, have created a service culture that is renowned around the world, and is brought to life by our incredible people. Our people are the ones whose genuine care and compassion have created the Four Seasons we know and love today.
“Four Seasons was formed out of a series of decisions and chance events, combined with strong relationships, that set us on a path that I never guessed would have brought us to where we are today. One of those key decisions was to never put profit ahead of people”
What role does Europe play in Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts’ growth?
Europe plays a significant role in the history of Four Seasons and will continue to be a key part of our future growth. Our first hotel in Europe, the Inn on the Park London, now known as Four Seasons Hotel London at Park Lane, opened in 1970, and gave me the insight as to what we should do as a company. The London hotel became a model for our future direction, which was to develop and operate only medium-sized hotels of exceptional quality, and to be the best in every market where we operate.
This philosophy continues to drive our growth strategy in Europe and around the world. Our development team is doing an excellent job at finding opportunities to open exceptional projects in the markets where we know our guests want to travel.
In 2019, we opened our first hotel in Greece, with the historic Astir Palace in Athens. Most recently, we opened an exceptional hotel in Madrid and announced our further expansion in Spain with the famed Hotel Formentor in Mallorca, and in Italy with a brand-new resort in Puglia. We’ve also just opened the San Domenico Palace in Taormina, Sicily as a Four Seasons hotel.
What is the biggest challenge you face in improving guest experience?
Another key to our success has been focusing on what our guests want and need. We ask them what would make their experience better, and we adapt based on real feedback. It’s a strategy that has enabled us to grow, evolve and constantly improve. And it’s what makes our relationship with our guests and customers so important. This approach has helped us shape the industry through innovations that have been adopted around the world.
We were the first hotel company to rethink the sleep experience, the first to provide in-bathroom amenities, the first to offer 24-hour room service, and many, many other firsts. And more recently, we launched an award-winning digital app that has set the standard for the industry, as well as a brand-new private jet and an online retail platform that allows our guests to enjoy a little bit of Four Seasons at home.
We also ensure this is the lens we use across all touchpoints of the guest journey, whether you are staying with us at a hotel or resort, living with us in one of our residences, dining with us, or even from the moment you start dreaming of your stay and engaging with us on our digital channels.
We understand that in today’s world, so much happens digitally, and so we have an opportunity to extend our service culture on these platforms. No matter how a guest is engaging with us, whether through our app or on our website, we want to create a highly personal experience, always with a human touch. This has been a crucial part of Lead With Care, our enhanced global health and safety programme. Through our digital platforms, we’ve been able to safely reassure guests that all of their health and safety concerns are being managed seamlessly so that they can travel with confidence.
“This focus on emotional intelligence, both in hiring and in our day-to-day practices, is what ensures we have the best leaders and employees in the world”
How does design play a role in driving customer loyalty?
Luxury is often associated with beautiful decor and architecture, and so this must be a given at all of our hotels and resorts globally. Design allows us to create a welcoming and comfortable environment for our guests, to connect them with the culture and history of the destination they are visiting, and so much more. But most importantly, thoughtful design and architecture acts as the stage on which our people shine. The way the design and service intertwine is what creates true luxury, and is what will result in exceptional experiences and memories that keep customers coming back.
When Four Seasons is mentioned, everyone has an image that comes to mind. Usually it’s about great service and leadership. What makes a good leader, and what makes you good at what you do? Do you think the concept of leadership has changed over the last few years?
As with the success of any business or relationship, I believe trust, integrity and optimism have always been key components of effective leadership. Finding people that you trust to work with, but also instilling trust in your employees and empowering them to do their job. This is why we based our company culture on the Golden Rule, as we knew that if our people were motivated by this one simple, universal truth, that we could trust that they would act in a way that we could all be proud of.
This focus on emotional intelligence, both in hiring and in our day-to-day practices, is what ensures we have the best leaders and employees in the world.
Once again, luck comes in to play, as I have been very lucky to work with people who I trust and who are equally dedicated to creating a company and service experience grounded in trust, kindness, and empathy.
“By the time we celebrate the 100th anniversary, I hope that our company will have grown, allowing us to touch even more lives, and create more careers and greater opportunities for our guests to travel and experience Four Seasons”
How do you define great service?
Great service is about knowing what our guests want and need before they know it themselves, and delivering it to them with care and kindness. We are always trying to stay one step ahead of our guests, and to deliver those moments of surprise and delight that will leave an impact on them.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
My greatest joy of my job today is working with our incredible team from around the world and seeing all that they have been able to accomplish over the years, in good times and bad. And while I have not been able to travel this past year, I always enjoy visiting our hotels and resorts around the globe and getting to know the people who bring the Four Seasons experience to life.
What plans and aspirations do you have for Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts?
Our goal has always been to be unequivocally the best hospitality company in the world. We celebrated our 60th anniversary this year, and I think we’ve achieved that goal. By the time we celebrate the 100th anniversary, I hope that our company will have grown, allowing us to touch even more lives, and create more careers and greater opportunities for our guests to travel and experience Four Seasons.