Simon Casson, President Hotel Operations – Europe, Middle East & Africa, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts
Simon Casson has willingly given 30 years of his professional expertise to Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. He tells Can Faik about the changes he’s seen in the group over that time and explains how it has maintained its unique place in hospitality since 1960…
Founded in 1960, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts is dedicated to perfecting the travel experience through continual innovation and the highest standards of hospitality. Currently operating 111 hotels and resorts, and 41 residential properties in major city centres and resort destinations in 47 countries, and with more than 50 projects under planning or development, Four Seasons consistently ranks among the world’s best hotels and most prestigious brands in reader polls, traveller reviews and industry awards.
What was your background in hospitality prior to working for Four Seasons?
I began my career washing dishes as a teenager in a local restaurant but started properly at Eastwell Manor in Kent and, when I finished my training scheme (having been awarded ‘Management Trainee of the Year’) I ended up at The Castle Hotel in Taunton with Kit Chapman and Gary Rhodes. Since I had a strong desire to work internationally and for a major luxury hotel group, I was advised by Kit that the best in the world was Four Seasons. Soon after, I joined Four Seasons Hotel London at Park Lane (Previously Inn on the Park, a Four Seasons Hotel) in 1989 as an assistant manager and have been with the company ever since in various roles around the world. Proud to be celebrating 30 years this year!
Where are you based?
I have been based in Dubai since 2014. In 2005 I opened Four Seasons Hotel Doha and led our Spa Task Force for a number of years before I opened our first property in Dubai, Four Seasons Resort Dubai at Jumeirah Beach, as Regional Vice President. I became President of Hotel Operations EMEA in 2016, based in our regional office in Dubai.
What does your current position involve?
As President of Hotel Operations EMEA, I oversee our operations across the European, Middle Eastern and African portfolio, ranging from Middle Eastern skyscrapers to hideaway beach resorts. I work closely with the hotel teams to ensure that the Four Seasons culture is embodied in all aspects of the property and the guest experience, and work with them to drive success in their businesses. I am also involved in the training and development of our teams to ensure our service standards are always met, as well as critically important owner relationships.
What do you enjoy most about your role?
I enjoy the diversity of my role and how no two days are the same. I travel a considerable amount – either working with our developer partners on new projects or visiting our existing properties. Each property and their individual teams bring something unique to the table and I’m fortunate to spend time with these incredibly talented and creative people. It leaves me feeling inspired and I am continually amazed by what our hotels achieve. When I look back on my career, I remember the mentors who coached me to push myself and continually raise the bar on our product and service to our guests. My hope is to encourage the next generation of hoteliers with my own Four Seasons experience.
What are the complexities of meeting the demands of shareholders, fulfilling the growth of your management team and delivering the brand’s values to the guests?
Our shareholders are very supportive and long term value builders. They support us fully in our vision of being the world’s leading hospitality company. This fountain then flows down to both employees and guests. It’s a culture and mindset that is based on the belief that Leadership Behaviours influence and inspire employee behaviours, which in turn have direct impact on the guest experience.
What are the most challenging issues you are facing within your current role?
It would seem in 2019 that we will have a fair amount of economic uncertainty to deal with around the world. We work with hotel teams to be proactive in developing plans to protect our business while not affecting the guest experience. Also, opening hotels is always a real journey that involves immense work and commitment from the teams on the ground and we aim to support them every step of the way. Madrid and Athens are two iconic properties coming to market in 2019.
What do Four Seasons have to do to stay one step ahead of its competition?
As a brand, I feel that we have always led the market, not followed it. We remain one of the leading luxury brands in the industry because of our unmatched level of service. Each individual person working in our hotels, from the housekeeping to the concierge, general manager or recreation staff, chef to spa therapist, contributes to bringing our hotels to life. When it comes to opening a new hotel, every detail is carefully considered, reviewed, tested, discussed and we are continually on the lookout for the best locations and destinations to provide our guests with new experiences. Sometimes we have to wait patiently for years until we find a location that aligns with our vision. It is about striking the balance in our expansion into exciting new destinations and also ensuring our existing hotels are providing our guests with experiences that keep them coming back for years.
What is next for Four Seasons in terms of new openings?
We have several exciting openings to look forward to over the course of 2019. In Europe specifically, we are welcoming the highly anticipated Four Seasons Astir Palace Hotel Athens, opening on March 29th, situated on the glamorous Athenian Riviera, and Four Seasons Hotel Madrid in the very heart of the city in Centro Canalejas later in the year. Both these hotels mark significant milestones for us as they are our first entry into two new countries: Greece and Spain. I’ve visited both properties on a number of occasions, witnessing the hotels coming to life and realising our vision for these incredible destinations.
With a number of new Four Seasons hotels opening across the world this year, which one in particular are you most excited about?
I look forward to each individual opening, but to me, amongst the most exciting is the brand’s debut in Greece. The Greek mainland, often overlooked, is set to make a revival and I am proud that Four Seasons Astir Palace Hotel Athens will be part of leading this resurgence as it has such history and relevance. The hotel team is very busy making their final preparations ahead of the first guests arriving and there are some very exciting plans in store.
What are the personality traits that define a successful and happy hotel proprietor, in your opinion?
Our Founder and Chairman, Isadore Sharp, built Four Seasons over 50 years ago with a handshake and a simple idea that if you treat people well, the way you would like to be treated, they will do the same. This foundation still runs through the DNA of our brand today – it’s who we are and has been a fundamental part of ensuring not only our guests are happy, but that our teams are happy.
Have you noticed any particular trends in hotels in Europe and the Middle East compared to the US and Asia?
A major trend across all markets has been an increased focus on wellness and finding ways to ensure guests can still keep up a healthy and active lifestyle, despite busy schedules and travelling. At the end of 2018, we appointed internationally renowned fitness trainer and nutrition authority, Harley Pasternak, as our Global Fitness Advisor, to elevate our fitness facilities and programming across the portfolio. We are always looking for ways to give our guests access to the very best, and Harley has been a fantastic addition to our team, collaborating with us on everything from fitness programming to facility design and new wellness experiences for our guests and residents.
How important do you feel the overall design has become when launching a new hotel?
When launching a new hotel, the design is of course an important factor, however, it is all components of the hotel that come together to make the initial vision a reality and something we can proudly call a Four Seasons Hotel. We work with an array of hand-picked designers and cutting-edge architects to create this vision, which is headed up by Dana Kalczak, our Vice President of Design, at our corporate office in Toronto. The design team works very closely with the wider operations team to ensure that the physical hotel enhances and complements the overall experience we are trying to achieve.
What role does technology play in improving the guest experience?
Technology and innovation is something that is extremely important, however, for us it is a fine balance. We seek to use technology as a way to make things easier for our guests and enhance their experience, yet still maintain that human element. We have our very own Four Seasons Chat App, a digital concierge service that allows guests to send and receive instant messages with the property concierge before, during and after their stay. The service is 100% powered by humans and translates 100+ languages in real time, allowing for response times averaging 90 seconds or less. It could be anything from making dinner reservations, arranging childcare, asking for spa recommendations or simply ordering a nighttime snack.
What advice would you offer to aspiring hoteliers?
Find and follow your passion relentlessly. Discover yourself, know you, be you, accept and value you, and continuously work to become the very best version of you. This takes self awareness and a preparedness to change and grow. Be a keen observer of who is successful and why. Also observe who is not a great leader and why. Work the positive traits into your mix and the negative ones out. Read and learn from great leaders and their stories. Work tirelessly and want the next step more than the rest, be singleminded as you chase your goals. Have a vision and plan for your career. Be prepared to sacrifice a lot in pursuit of your goal. Be brave and embrace failure, using it to learn. Be focused on quality of experience vs position or money in the early years. Develop your humanity and the ability to naturally communicate and inspire. Be interested in people and listen as much as you talk, keeping notes on key truths and learning. Be kind to all whose paths you cross, help others but don’t allow yourself to be abused or taken for granted. Know your value. And work to be a servant leader, truly caring about people and striving to create an environment where your team can be the best versions of themselves. Develop a sense of wonder as well as valuing the gift of humour, see work as fun and your career as a gift; a treasure to nurture and cherish.
What keeps you motivated?
The people of Four Seasons are both my motivation and inspiration – it is they to whom I look for affirmation. If they think I am doing a great job, that’s enough! New openings are also a big part of my role and it is a huge motivator to be part of those very early discussions where concepts and projects are in their infancy, to working with our teams on seeing that vision come to life and our first guests arrive. I’ve been fortunate to be part of our expansion throughout Europe, the Middle East and Africa where we have achieved a great deal. Whether we are debuting for the first time in a country, or making our eighth appearance in a given country, it is always exciting to be part of the process.
What would you say are the three best places you’ve ever stayed?
So difficult to choose, it’s like asking which is your favourite child! I guess that great hotel stay experiences, the best, are driven by personal experience. I met my wife at our hotel in Florence and we married on the beach at our resort in the Seychelles. Super happy memories also of the Maldives when my kids were little. So, there you go… let’s go with those three!
Let’s finish with the issue of work-life balance. How do you aim to achieve a good balance and what do those closest to you think of your attempts?
What I have learned is that the pursuit of a balance that frankly does not ever exist in senior leadership is fruitless. Better to just get comfortable with the imbalance! Clearly, I occupy a privileged role that has many benefits but also means I am travelling a lot and pretty much ‘on’ seven days a week. Work and personal life tend therefore to blend into one. I am very fortunate to have an amazing wife and super kids who all support me and are my greatest cheerleaders; they really do get the pressures and what it takes for me to do this job and I frankly could not do what I do otherwise or without that love and support. Key is to live each moment with joy and, in the family moments, to be really ‘present and there’, enjoying with those who are most important.