Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts Remains the Hospitality Brand to Beat


Lest it be said that BrandCultureTalk has devolved into a raucous cacophony of screeds, we remind you of the diverse businesses and branding practices we’ve extolled including Costco, USAA, Thule, KitchenAid Mixers, Verizon, Johnny Walker,  Scion, Microsoft, (well, in fairness, we’ve also pilloried Microsoft too), BestBuy, Leavitt Group and many, many others.  For our first post of 2010, we present another positive brand experience!

But first, a confession.  Despite the life of genteel poverty that the noble profession of brand-building entails, among the BrandCulture team I developed a weakness for high-end hotels back when living a different and more remunerative life of advocacy in the legal profession.  Although regrettably not as frequent a habitue of  luxury lodging as the Wall Street Journal’s “Finicky Traveler” Laura Landro, to kick the year off on the right foot I snuck in a visit to the Four Seasons Aviara Resort in North San Diego, just a few short hours south of BrandCulture HQ .  Upon arrival I headed straight to the golf course with no reservation or other advance warning where Adam, one of the pros at the course, looked up from the till and greeted me by name with a warm welcome back.  Ever since Dale Carnegie pointed out in 1936 that there is no “sweeter sound” to anyone than that of his or her own name, it has been a no-brainer for any restaurant, hotel, recreational facility or business that interacts with the public to greet returning guests individually.  But this is not a small resort.  Aviara has 329 guest rooms and 240 villas spread out over 2,000 acres of land.  It has 78,000 square feet of meeting space, and regularly hosts conferences with up to 1,000 attendees.  In a high-end 300 room hotel, Barbara Talbott, the former EVP–Marketing for Four Seasons posits that guests and staff interact in aggreate over 5,000 times a day (with 5,000 times to make a positive impression, or the converse)!  The astounding aspect of my interaction with Adam was that I’d last darkened the door of the clubhouse over seven months earlier during which interval Adam undoubtedly greeted hundreds if not thousands of other golfers.

Dumbstruck, I couldn’t decide if Adam was some sort of  megasavant, if I was legendary for breaking the Tin Cup course record for number of balls hit into the water on hole #11 and the staff inexplicably had hung a photograph of me in their breakroom (like the employees of Harrah’s did with Terrance Watanabe) or if the winged chariot of time had simply transformed me into a dead-ringer for Ichabod Crane who stood out from all other guests.

After completing the round, I headed off for dinner at Vivace, the resort’s Italian restaurant, where I was coincidentally greeted by the same woman who had served me dinner seven months earlier.  “I remember you,” she noted and proceeded to bring over unasked the restaurant’s “secret” wine list that includes some California and other New World wines, recalling my intimidation with the restaurant’s regular wine list that features exclusively wines from Italy (I’m becoming less afraid thanks to reading the book Vino Italiano:  The Regional Wines of Italy where I’ve learned that Italy produces more wine than any other country).   But I find it unlikely that was the only hayseed rube in over seven months who couldn’t handle the gravitas of the Italian wine list.  Back to the Ichabod Crane theory.

And then . . . the final astonishment came at the Kids for All Seasons center, a program that provides a full day of activities and professional supervision for children for a cost of . . . absolutely nothing!  Providing free childcare so that parents can enjoy (i.e. spend money) the resort is a brilliant business strategy.  The Four Seasons forgoes the incremental $75 or so other resorts like The Phoenician and the St. Regis Monarch Beach collect, but their guests not only spend multiples of it on other resort services, they feel great about getting something for free!  (For more on how “FREE” can cloud rational decision-making, see Chapter Three of Dan Ariely’s book Predicably Irrational).  In any case, two workers staffing Kids for All Seasons looked up at the two children I’d brought (again with no reservation or advance warning), thought for a moment and casually proceeded to identify them by name . . . again after a seven month hiatus.  Short of the kids recapitulating The Ransom of Red Chief during their previous visit, I can’t imagine how they could have plucked the kids names out of the ether.  A mnemonic can work to remember a name for an afternoon, but not seven months and hundreds of children.  What makes this feat even more extraordinary is the fact that at least one of the staffers was a part-timer who is a local student who has not yet completed high school.

This level of hospitality, dear readers, cannot be forced no matter how comprehensive a property’s “Standards of Service” manual might be.  It can’t really even be institutionalized, it can only be inspired.  Why?  Because it requires a level of human engagement and interest that can’t be coerced or faked.  With sufficient staff and the right incentives, people can be taught to run out to greet a car within 30 seconds of pulling into the porte-cochere or say “good morning” when a guest passes within seven feet of a staff member (all Four Seasons standards, by the way); what can’t be taught is whether the people working at the resort actually, genuinely want their guests to feel like they are all VIPs.

Although travel writers and pundits rank resorts like Aviara on the quality of their facilities, amenities, sheets, beds that are more comfortable that Oprah’s own, 24-hour room service and whether there is a telephone in the bathroom (!), those are of course the far easier part to replicate — all they require is money (admittedly in much shorter supply these days) and upkeep.

It is the Brand Culture (pardon the expression) of not only giving a damn, but giving more than a damn that keeps the Four Seasons on top.  Best of all, unlike the stunning floral displays, acres of marble, top quality food ingredients, HVAC, and all the other hard costs of running a hotel, giving more than a damn doesn’t cost anything extra.  Restaurateur Danny Meyer points this idea out in his book Setting the Table:  ” . . . the hug that came with the food made it taste even better! That realization would gradually evolve into my own well-defined business strategy — the core of which is hospitality, or being on the guests’ side.”

The Four Season’s founder Isadore Sharp understands this as well and, as he details in his book Four Seasons: The Story of a Business Philosophy.  Mr Sharp built one of the world’s most valuable brands basically with slight variation on two biblical admonitions:  (1) treat everybody well, regardless if they are a potentate or poet (or golf hacker/brand-builder), i.e., the Golden Rule and, (2) the last shall be first, i.e., empower the front line/last mile — “the least motivated people . . . had to come first” because “they could make or break a five-star service reputation.”


Simple enough in theory, but devilishly difficult to pull off.  People often bring unreasonable expectations — some might say delusions of grandeur — to luxury lodging.  We’ve all encountered folks who book the cheapest room and demand the most sybaritic suite (I’ve checked in along side them a time or two).  And you sure can’t make everybody delighted all of the time.  But at Aviara at least, the resort’s managers appear to be “keeping their egos in check and let[ting] the people who work for you shine,” as Mr. Sharp admonishes.  The results are remarkable from the charismatic Surf Concierge to the winsome high school student providing childcare.

Given the still brutal hospitality market and the crushing debt service Broadreach Capital Partners faces on the underlying Aviara asset, it is unclear how long Aviara will stay a Four Seasons.  During the well-publicized kerfuffle last spring, Broadreach tried to oust the Four Seasons and install its own Dolce Hotels and Resorts as the property’s manager by changing the locks on the executive offices in the wee small hours of the morning.  The Four Seasons responded with barriers and checkpoints while contending it has the right to manage the property for at least eighty years.   Broadreach may find itself between the Scylla and Charybdis of Oscar Wilde’s admonition that “In this world there are only two tragedies.  One is not getting what one wants and the other is getting it.”

Aviara’s physical setting and facilities are undeniably magical.  But the people and the Four Seasons Brand Culture, not all the trappings, are what keep its brand in a category of one.

Aviara Update:

On April 20, 2010, the Arbitration Panel decided that following a payment of compensation from Broadreach, “both parties contributed to the demise of the business relationship between the parties and that the Hotel Management Agreement should be terminated and a transition implemented in accordance with a transition plan between the parties.” Hyatt took over management in of Aviara June, 21 2010.

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