When Dimitrios Zarikos moved to Toronto from France in 2009 to become the regional VP and GM of the Four Seasons Hotel Toronto, he knew it wouldn’t be an ordinary job. After all, leading the luxury chain’s flagship property in the city in which the hotel chain was born is a big deal. But the job would be even more challenging given that the Four Seasons Hotel, a fixture on the Yorkville neighbourhood landscape since 1979, would soon be closing and moving down the street.
The truth was not lost on company execs who undoubtedly chose Zarikos because of his experience in opening new hotels. (During his 27-year career, the hotelier has opened seven hotels, including properties in the U.S., Egypt and France.)
It’s a move that’s benefited everyone, especially the Four Seasons Toronto. For the first time in more than a decade, the hotel has earned a Five-Diamond Award from the CAA (they lost one di-amond approximately 15 years ago). That’s due in no small part to Zarikos’ reinvention of this flag-ship hotel — a tricky manoeuvre that began when the iconic property reopened in October 2012 after closing
in March 2012.
A less confident hotelier might have agonized over the closure and panicked about declining oc-cupancy rates, but the Greek-born Zarikos was nonplussed. “Of course, at first it took a while for the rates to build, but I’m very happy with the occupancy rates right now,” he says, acknowledging that there are 120 fewer rooms in the new 259-room hotel. Still, he adds, the rates are back to the same levels they were before the renovation. It’s not unusual for a new hotel to struggle in the low 50s during its first year of operation. But, during the fall season, occupancy rates hovered between 70 and 80 per cent.
Zarikos’ leadership during the extensive renovation and restructuring, and his ongoing reassur-ance to loyal clientele that the final product would indeed be worth the wait, has garnered him several major accolades. For example, Travel + Leisure’s It List 2013 named the Toronto property the “Best New Hotel in Canada,” Condé Nast Traveler U.S.A. placed it at the top of its “Hot List 2013,” and the Robb Report’s Top 100 Hotels of the World listed it as the “Best Hotel
According to David Mounteer, GM of Toronto’s Thompson Hotel, and formerly GM of the Hazelton Hotel, which was located across the street from the former Four Seasons, Zarikos is a “big picture kind of guy,” and it’s his attention to detail that makes him exceptional at his game. With technological innovation on his agenda, for example, he introduced interactive iPads and TVs into every guestroom to streamline the ordering of room service, spa appointment bookings and online shopping at the Four Seasons Home Store.
Zarikos has been instrumental in spearheading larger programs that affect every employee of the Four Seasons “family” as he calls it. “It’s important to develop relationships with staff and to provide ongoing training,” says Zarikos. “Everyone has to be invested to deliver this level of service at a luxury hotel.” It’s for this reason that staffing the new Four Seasons required a rigourous hiring process that involved four interviews. Though every employee of the former Four Seasons Hotel was granted an opportunity to apply for work (or receive a generous severance package) not everyone was guaranteed a position.
Two hundred new staff (selected amongst thousands of applicants) were brought on board and had to be properly trained. Depending on the level of expertise needed, training took anywhere from three to eight weeks. Zarikos’ commitment to the process is evident in the lengths he goes to recreate hotel situations so staff can perfect their skills. A week before the new Four Seasons was scheduled to host its first wedding, for example, Zarikos threw a ‘mock wedding,’ recreating the menu that would be served at the real event to be held the following week. Staff invited friends and family to attend, meals were served, a band played, dancing ensued — there was even a pretend bride and groom.
The way Zarikos sees it, happy employees mean happy customers. In this respect, his leadership tactics are unique: he not only cares about the end results, but he cares how they are achieved. To accomplish this, Zarikos was an active Board member on the committee responsible for creating the “Employee Experience,” a Four Seasons’ global, corporate initiative that was designed to improve the day-to-day work and life experience of employees. For instance, he’s founded the “University of Four Seasons Hotel Toronto,” a program that has managers present a 30-minute training session on a topic of their choice, which is then delivered to peers.
“We want to cultivate a culture of recognizing our employees and engaging them in healthy activities that promote a healthy lifestyle,” says Zarikos of the Employee Experience. To foster employee engagement, he also launched an official Community Outreach Team responsible for organizing and coordinating employee initiatives such as participating in the Terry Fox Run to raise money for cancer research, donating blood with the Canadian Blood Services and collecting funds for the Ronald McDonald House and Meagan’s Walk for SickKids Hospital. And, the numbers speak for themselves. During Zarikos’ tenure as regional manager at the Four Seasons Toronto, the hotel has raised more than $500,000 to benefit the Terry Fox Foundation.
Bill Stone, EVP of Toronto-based CBRE, concedes Zarikos is invaluable to the Four Seasons’ rebirth. “He’s an amazing hotelier with a wealth of experience. It’s because of Zarikos that the Four Seasons is setting the standard for a new era of luxury.” When reflecting upon the challenges Zari-kos may have faced, Stone honed in on the difficult crossover phase. “Because there was a period of time that the hotel was closed, Dimitrios had to keep everyone abreast of all that was happening. I think for some customers the transition was more difficult than expected.”
Mounteer agrees. “Dimitrios was reinventing an icon, but he respects the history from which it comes,” explains Mounteer. “He has the ability to straddle two worlds; he understands the old-fashioned role of the hotelier but also the necessity to update the Four Seasons and remake it for modern times.”
Part of Zarikos’ original plan was to impress everyone from the moment they walked through the lobby doors. Whether it was through the stunning floral arrangements from nearby florist Teatro Verde, the gourmet restaurant led by celebrity chef Daniel Boulud or the installation of a first-class 30,000-sq.-ft. spa, Zarikos wanted guests to feel welcome and well served. Serving hotel customers and local residents alike, the Spa remains the gem of the hotel. With 70 staffers, 17 spacious treatment rooms, an indoor relaxation pool, an outdoor terrace, two steam rooms and a salon — no other Toronto spa matches its glamour, high design and size. “It’s truly exceptional,” gushes Zarikos. “We are the largest luxury hotel spa in the city of Toronto. It’s a destination onto itself.”
Four years after arriving on the Toronto hotel scene, Zarikos continues to be the wizard behind
the curtain, a visionary whose trick is to make great hotels even greater and luxury experiences more luxurious, all while making the task look effortless.
photo by Margaret Mulligan