On a rather cloudy spring day, Maud Licari, Regional Sales Director for ten European countries, is on a stopover in Benelux. She has an appointment at the offices of Seauton and finds the time to also give us an interview. “If you're organising a meeting, clearly the content and structure need to be well defined. But, beyond that, our aim is to ensure that a bit of ‘magic’ comes out of these meetings.”
There's a lot you could say about the Four Seasons luxury hotels and resorts: their unique locations - from divine beaches to ski resorts to city hotels - their historic buildings, the best in modern architecture and, of course, the service.
Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts traces its humble beginnings to just one hotel in Toronto, Canada, a little over 50 years ago. Founder Isadore Sharp, now in his eighties, remains chairman to this day. He started with a simple idea: guests staying with Four Seasons should feel at home. His company now has 95 hotels in 40 countries and employs 44,000 people.
Maud Licari: The first thing that springs to mind when I think about Four Seasons is the passion of our people. We stand for seamless service. Whether our guests have joined us for work, with their family or for a wedding celebration: they should feel at home. We do everything we can to understand what they are looking for so that their stay with us exceeds their expectations.
How does Four Seasons differ from other high-end hotels?
To start with, we have both luxury hotels and luxury resorts in our portfolio. We also have a unique approach to Human Resources. The service we provide could not happen without people. These days service is a somewhat devalued concept, but what does the term really mean? It's not something you can define in a Powerpoint presentation. You can only offer good service if you treat your own people properly too. Mr. Sharp calls it the ‘Golden Rule’: treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself. Service is not about speaking five languages or the studies you have completed. It's about empathy, our business is first and foremost about people. Service is about what happens every second of the day, and so we appoint people on the basis of who they are and then give them the tools to grow. We now have 44,000 employees, but we still feel like one big family.
Four Seasons is very choosy about locations, you don't have any hotels in Belgium or in the Netherlands, for example.
We are looking, you know... Our approach is a long-term one - we need to find a good property partner and the building should be typical for the destination. In our eyes, Europe is traditional. For example, in Paris it's got to be a traditional building, in Milan a palazzo or monastery, in Saint Petersburg a renovated palace. Guangzhou in China, on the other hand, we associate with futurism. Our hotel there is an ultra-modern, high-rise building.We try to match our hotels with the essence of the destination.
Where do you hold most business meetings: in the city hotels or in the resorts?
The city hotels. You can only promote the exotic resorts for an incentive trip, not for meetings. What we are seeing at the moment is city destinations with a ‘leisure’ component becoming increasingly popular. Our hotel in Casablanca is a good example: a city hotel that looks out onto the ocean. That is easy to sell in a business: you're going for work, but you can eat with a view of the sea.
How does Four Seasons approach the strong competition in the meeting industry?
Competition keeps us on our toes. I believe surprise is an important element. You need to take time to think; simply cutting and pasting events will get you nowhere. Clearly, you need to have the basics (perfect rooms, meeting rooms and technology), but just having a beautiful room will not make you a market leader.
Current trends show a preference for an ‘informal approach’, even in luxury hotels. Is this something you approve of?
Certainly, luxury is not a synonym for dead serious, it's about understanding what people need. Two years ago I was at the opening of our hotel in Dubai. It's a fantastic hotel, but the first evening the events were held on the beach. It was very relaxed: everyone in white and food trucks on the beach with barbecues and ice cream. Very often it's about details too. Take the coffee breaks, for example: these are usually fairly predictable. In Dubai, each coffee break had a different theme. One break had an amazing range of sweets, you felt like you were child in a sweetshop again, one coffee break with ice coffees and another one with smoothies. Whenever a break came round everyone was wondering: what is it going to be this time?
You used the word ‘magic’ in relation to the outcome of business meetings. Could you explain that a bit more?
Organising meetings on location demands a great deal of investment. So, as a business, you want to be sure there are plenty of opportunities for networking, you want to fire the creativity of your people and enable new ideas to come to the fore. Finally, you want to see some organic growth… We want to make sure some magic is generated at the meeting.
How do you do that?
We have got plenty of examples. The hotel's location always plays a role in this: our people at the destination have the right contacts in the local community. I'm thinking about our hotel in Lisbon. It's a beautiful hotel with everything you'd expect: excellent meeting rooms, a terrace… One evening during the multi-day event we were put on a coach that took us downtown to a small, out-of-the-way plaza with people sitting at outdoor cafés. At the entrance to the façade of a church we were greeted with a glass of champagne. Once inside, you were standing in the middle of the ruins of a church destroyed by an earthquake. Among the ruins, there was a fado singer and beautifully laid out tables. And, when you look up, there are the stars above you. It was a moment to give you goose bumps and one none of the people there will ever forget. You can only create magical moments like this because the hotels are embedded in the destination. Some business people travel so much, they have become spoilt and just a little bored. But, if you can surprise them, they will stay loyal to Four Seasons.
Note: since pictures speak louder than words, a journey of discovery through their website more than repays itself.