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Chairman Emphasizes Service : Four Seasons Hotel Chain Likes Its Room at the Top

Associated Press

Isadore Sharp, founder and chairman of the Four Seasons luxury hotel chain, isn’t troubled by the growing competition at the top end of the market.

“We’ve evolved over 25 years,” he said in an interview at corporate headquarters here. “They look at us and copy a lot of what we’ve done.”

Indeed, the move by several major hotel chains into the luxury market has actually helped Four Seasons by putting huge advertising budgets to work promoting quality and whetting the public’s appetite for the kind of services that have made a name for Sharp.

“We decided a long time ago what we thought was going to be our strength,” the trim and fit executive said. “The other companies still don’t do it--and that’s the service. It’s the consistency and quality of the people you hire.”

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Four Seasons--with 21 properties in Canada, the United States and England--has helped set the standards by which the luxury hotel business is judged these days. Among the amenities it introduced are concierge service, twice-daily maid service, formal afternoon tea and full secretarial and translation services.

The company has also emphasized fitness for its guests, both in health centers and in its menus, which feature an “alternative cuisine” lower in calories, cholesterol and sodium.

In testament to its efforts, Four Seasons hotels claimed more “Five Diamond” ratings from the American Automobile Assn. this year than any competitor.

Worked in Construction

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In his elegant office at the headquarters for the chain, Sharp recalled fondly the origins of his business at the outset of the 1960s with a small Toronto motel.

Although he studied architecture, he was working in construction and built a 14-room motel for a client.

“It sparked an interest, I guess, in the idea,” said Sharp, in shirt sleeves. “The idea comes quickly . . . yet something finally concrete took six, seven years.”

“You never anticipate that it’s going to take you that long.”

His own first hotel opened in 1961 in what was then a somewhat marginal downtown neighborhood, so he designed it to look inward and create a comfortable interior environment.

“My idea was that it had to be something distinctive,” he said. “The idea of it married the motel feel with hotel services.”

Sharp said the basic principles remain the same today.

“Each step along the way carried with it that same idea, of giving the customer something that was special,” he said.

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Sharp’s office, flooded with natural light, is a stunning example of his ability to combine comfort and style. Although the office is sparsely furnished, each piece makes an impact from the large, red and blue Oriental rug to his imposing desk. He took obvious pride in showing off the entire headquarters building, located in a renovated printing shop down the street from the chain’s modern Inn on the Park.

Narrowed Focus

As Four Seasons grew, Sharp said he realized that it was acquiring a motley collection, everything from his first motel to a giant convention property since divested.

“It wasn’t until 1972 that I decided to concentrate on one end of the market totally and to make sure that all the hotels would be consistent,” he said.

Decisions since then have been made carefully. Sharp said, for example, that Four Seasons spent 10 years looking at New York before entering the market there with the Pierre on Fifth Avenue.

“You make a list of all the cities that you consider primary destinations of the business traveler,” he said. “I guess what I was able to do was not just grab and take everything.”

He said expansion also has been cautious so that retreat is possible if problems crop up.

“We’ll take it slowly,” he said. “We’re not going to do more if it jeopardizes the existing operation.”

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Sharp said Four Seasons did just that at the outset of the 1980s when he decided that not enough people had been trained to handle the next level of expansion. Growth simply stopped until the staff was ready for the next phase, he said.

His goal for the next five years is to open at least two hotels annually.

“Where we’ll go over time is the world--literally,” he said.

Deal With Japanese

Four Seasons is moving slowly into resorts. Its Maui resort in Hawaii is scheduled to open late next year, and Sharp said he believes that about half a dozen are possible in North America.

The company is also entering the Far East in partnership with a Japanese company, and the first Four Seasons hotel should open in Tokyo in 1991.

“There’s nothing driving Four Seasons other than to do the right thing for the company,” Sharp said.

Industry analysts say Four Seasons is well positioned, generally enjoying the highest occupancy rates in its cities and often charging the highest rates as well.

“That’s not something that happens by accident,” said one, speaking only on condition that he not be identified. “In the niche of the luxury hotel sector . . . . they are arguably the most successful chain.”

Sharp said the chain’s yield factor, or occupancy rate multiplied by room rate, is “substantially more” than the competition.

“As a company we are the largest operator of luxury hotels in the world,” he said. “There isn’t another company that is as obsessed with customer satisfaction and consistency. . . . We sell what we can guarantee we can do all the time.”

The corporation announced earnings of $5.3 million for the first six months of this year, up 14.6% from $4.6 million in the first half of 1987.


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