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The jolly innkeeper: Pioneering Four Seasons hotel executive never said no

no0124Schwab
no0124Schwab

Greg Schwab was around 15 years old when the red rotary phone in the kitchen of his family’s Fifth Ave. apartment in New York City rang one afternoon. His parents George and Hilde were out, but the teenager and his siblings had been carefully instructed to always answer the red phone, and to do so without delay, since an inbound call might involve a crisis of some sort that required immediate attention.

“It was like the phone in the White House — the presidential phone,” Schwab said.

He didn’t encounter a crisis when he picked up the line that afternoon, but instead heard the voice of Sophia Loren asking for his father, because she wanted to say “hello.” Loren wasn’t the only famous person with the phone number.

Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, American presidents Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, Canadian prime ministers Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney, and a host of some astonishingly wealthy folks — and the people who worked for them — might call the red phone to speak with George Schwab while ensconced at The Pierre, the luxury hotel across the street from the family’s apartment.

 George Schwab, right, and former American president Jimmy Carter.
George Schwab, right, and former American president Jimmy Carter.

Schwab ran the hotel on behalf of his boss in Toronto, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts’ founder Isadore Sharp after having previously opened and managed properties for Sharp in Calgary, Vancouver, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Calif., and several other cities.

“George Schwab was an exceptional leader and general manager in the early story of Four Seasons,” the now nonagenarian Sharp said in an email upon learning of Schwab’s death at age 94 on Dec. 30, 2022. “His willingness to live the Golden Rule — the simple idea of treating others as you wish to be treated — transcended borders and enabled him to assist in the opening and management of eight of the first 10 Four Seasons hotels.”

Schwab’s interpretation of the golden rule involved never saying no to a guest, among other articles of faith.

“My father had to figure out how to take care of the client’s needs, no matter what the need was,” Greg Schwab said.

My father had to figure out how to take care of the client’s needs, no matter what the need was

Greg Schwab

Remember, these were not your ordinary, roadside-dive guests, but the global elite. Some of the needs Schwab and his staff fulfilled at The Pierre were prime ministerial in origin. For example, responding to Pierre Trudeau’s after-hours request for oatmeal cookies and orange juice.

Some requests were potentially scandalous, such as sourcing a private jet for a Saudi Arabian oil baron who was eager to skip town for a warm weather destination with his non-Arab mistress, while some were festive, like ensuring the entertainment glitz and culinary glam of a Wall Street tycoon were delivered to exacting specification to ensure his kid’s $500,000 bar mitzvah was: The. Best. Night. Ever.

The golden rule’s application extended beyond meeting the people’s wishes. Schwab started each day in the hotel basement, meeting with the housekeeping staff. He knew every cook, cleaner, dishwasher, doorman, concierge, bellhop and middle manager by name, as well as their spouses’ and children’s names.

A luxury hotel was like a grandfather clock, he liked to say, and if any of the gears were out of whack — such as whether any of the hotel’s flatware were blemished by soap residue — a five-star hotel couldn’t claim to be five star whatsoever.

My father could talk to anybody. He loved people

Greg Schwab

“My father could talk to anybody. He loved people,” Greg said.

Schwab, German by birth, studied the fine art of hospitality at the world-renowned Heidelberg Hotel Management School in post-war Germany. He apprenticed as a baker and was celebrated around Europe for his marzipan cake decorations before emigrating to Canada amid the tide of some 200,000 Germans that arrived here in the 1950s.

He and Hilde, who was also German, eventually settled in Toronto, which in those days was the city where fun went to die. Bars closed before midnight on Saturday and didn’t open again until Monday afternoon. Schwab ran the Walker House Hotel, a long since demolished hunk of hospitality industry history near Union station. Part of his mandate was to liven things up around the place.

To that end, the hotel had a German-themed beer parlour, a Swiss-themed lounge and an Austrian-themed supper club with an extensive European wine list that the one-time baker developed at a time when there was no such thing as wine lists at most Toronto establishments.

 Forever the bon vivant, George Schwab never lost his taste for the finer things in life, including a good glass of wine, a beverage he enjoyed until his death at age 94.
Forever the bon vivant, George Schwab never lost his taste for the finer things in life, including a good glass of wine, a beverage he enjoyed until his death at age 94.

There was also Granny’s, a disco featuring groovy gals in go-go boots. For a time in the 1960s, the Walker House was the place to be. Liz Taylor and Richard Burton hung out there when in town, as did the regulars: hard-drinking newspaper hacks, old money elites and anybody else willing to line up to get in on Fridays and Saturdays. The Toronto media dubbed the German extrovert the “jolly innkeeper.”

Sharp apparently picked up on the buzz around Schwab. According to Schwab family lore, Sharp approached the jolly innkeeper with an idea — a plan many others dismissed as crazy — to build an international luxury hotel chain headquartered in Toronto.

Schwab didn’t think the idea sounded all that far out. He understood the European luxury hotel scene was dominated by family-owned establishments — one-offs, in other words — and each had its strengths and flaws.

By scrutinizing the industry’s best and creating a bible of minimum luxury standards to adhere to — fresh flowers in the lobby, feathery soft mattresses and fancy soaps in the bathrooms, as well as great food and well-trained, welcoming employees with a can-do attitude — and copying the blueprint at each successive Four Seasons property, a five-star luxury hotel chain was born.

“George will be deeply missed for his contributions to Four Seasons,” Sharp said, noting he would also be missed for his “impressive jitterbug dance skills,” welcoming presence and for embodying the idea that great things can be achieved when people work together like clockwork.

Schwab was in his mid-60s when he retired from Four Seasons. Never one for sitting idle, he launched his own business, Elite International Luxury Hotel Representation based in New York, and set about marketing five-star European establishments to the high-end North Americans.

The apple doesn't fall far from the tree

Jeannie Schwab

Two of his children — Greg and his older sister Jeannie — run the business today while Robert, his youngest son, works as a catering director for luxury hotels.

“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” Jeannie said from Los Angeles.

Schwab enjoyed a dinner with family just a few days before his death in California. There was caviar on the menu and champagne. The red rotary phone seems to have been lost to time, but the pioneering hotelier’s children have received a steady tide of calls and emailed condolences since their father died.

“I’ve been joking that dad got to the Pearly Gates in good company, on the same day as Pope Benedict XVI, Barbara Walters and Pelé,” Jeannie said. “And I imagine him politely bumping his way to the front of the line — he had impeccable manners and class — and saying, “Excuse me, please stand back, I know really important people, and I will get us a guaranteed upgrade to a five-star presidential suite.”

And who could say no to that?

• Email: joconnor@nationalpost.com | Twitter: oconnorwrites