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How Four Seasons became the #1 ranked luxury hotel in the world

[Photo credit: Four Seasons Resorts Lana’i, Hawaii]

The votes are in from the one per cent, the Four Seasons reins supreme. The luxury hotel chain was recently rated as the number one hotel brand amongst the wealthiest travellers, according to the 2016 Luxury Travel report by Vancouver-based destination development and marketing consultancy firm Resonance.

The hotel brand was followed closely by Ritz Carlton, Hilton and Marriott – which ranked 2, 3 and 4, respectively.

While the Four Seasons ranked highest in elements like hotel design and business services – ability to host events and last minute dry cleaning – the company’s real differentiation comes from the intangibles says Chris Fair, president at Resonance.

“The programming and experience, that’s where I think the most innovation is,” says Fair. “And that’s the greatest challenge when you’re catering to the top one per cent of travellers, they’ve been everywhere and done everything so how do you create what could be perceived as a once in a lifetime experience on a consistent basis for clientele?”

One of the ways is through crafting unique experiences surrounding the local environments.

At the Four Seasons Punta Mita in Mexico, guests can take a half-day free-diving and octopus excursion.

“They learn how to catch octopus and bring it back and learn how to clean it and cook it for dinner,” says Fair adding that the Four Seasons in Papagayo, opened 15 years ago, is another prime example of innovation. “That was one of the first luxury hotels that took a very unique approach with its entire design rooted in the environment its in and reflects the materials and culture of Costa Rica.”

He says that drive to guide trends as opposed to follow is why the Four Seasons comes out on top.

What made luxury brands appealing in the past was consistency – whether you were in a Marriott or Hilton in Tel Aviv, Shanghai or Vancouver, walking through the doors always carried some sort of consistency.

“It’s a very American interpretation of hospitality,” says Fair. “The Ritz Carlton initially did the same thing but Four Seasons has been a little bit ahead of the curve as it develops new properties – the pendulum has swung the other way towards creating something that is unique and authentic to the environment that it’s in.”

Not to say that the little consistencies aren’t as important, says Dr. Gabor Forgacs, associate professor at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Hospitality and Tourism Management.

“In every Four Seasons hotel on the nightstand next to the bed there’s a telephone and in front of the telephone there is a notepad and on the notepad there’s a pen… it must be placed in a diagonal fashion between bottom right and top left corner of the notepad with the corporate logo facing,” says Forgacs. “The point is that’s the level of detail they’re willing to go to – how they set the thermostat, what radio station the alarm is tuned to – that’s how they do it.”

He points out Four Seasons was the first chain to offer lotions along with shampoo and the first to make it standard to put phones in the bathroom. They’ve also put in place a corporate policy to ensure every phone gets answered promptly.

“Doesn’t matter if you call the back of the house extension or call reservations, every phone must be answered within three rings,” adds Forgacs.  

But there’s a part of the formula Four Seasons has got down pat – the number of rooms. While a Ritz Carlton will typically have around 300 or 350 rooms, Hiltons and Marriotts are upwards of that.

Four Seasons made a decision to focus on properties that have fewer than 250 rooms, explains Forgacs.

“The luxury is not in the architecture, the gold plated door knobs or the red marble, the opulence of architecture and design… that’s easy to copy,” he says. “Real luxury is in the service – they understand that a very detailed, high-touch, personable service can only be done at that size.”