TORONTO — More than 200 George Brown students, faculty and administration were inspired earlier this week by a visit and talk given by Isadore Sharp, founder and chair of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. From the moment Sharp walked into the packed auditorium on April 11, students from The Centre for Hospitality and Culinary Arts (CHCA) were in awe of every word spoken by the world-respected hotelier.
Recently named Icon of the Industry by Cornell University, Sharp regaled the students with the history of the company, as well as his philosophy and his secrets to success. After a short video introduction of Sharp (made to commemorate the launch the Isadore Sharp Lifetime Achievement award a few years ago, presented to one of the company’s top hotels annually), the charming hotelier spent the first 20 minutes educating students on the history of Four Seasons and the next 40 minutes answering the questions of CHCA students, which were posed by a panel of 12 student representatives.
Sharp took the students through the journey of how he started the company in 1961, how it became one of the world’s most trusted and iconic luxury brands, and how it grew to global dominance. He recalled how the company had to make a sharp turn in 1986 when it went public. “We decided we wanted to operate medium-sized hotels and be the best. We wanted to make service our competitive advantage, and build a brand name synonymous with luxury.”
Through it all, however, Sharp’s vision for the company has always been predicated on the Golden Rule: “The simple idea that if you treat people well, the way you would like to be treated, they will do the same.” But Sharp admitted that in the early days, some of his management team paid lip service to the philosophy and didn’t buy into it, which meant he had to make the tough decision of letting them go.
While Four Seasons now boasts 100 hotels around the world, with another 60 in various stages of development, Sharp said he never imagined how big the company would become. “I wasn’t thinking of building a big company but a good one, to be the best.” He credits employees with creating the image of the hotel by focusing on top-notch service. “We rely on each hotel to satisfy their customers,” he said.
When asked by one of the students why he chose Four Seasons as the name of the company, Sharp explained it wasn’t the first name he had come up with. “We wanted to call it the Thunderbird Hotel,” he said to laughs from the audience, explaining that at that time the Thunderbird car had recently been introduced, and its sleek and sporty image appealed to him. “We couldn’t get the name, as it was already being used by another hotel,” so his brother-in-law, who happened to be an early investor in the company, suggested a German phrase, which happened to translate into “Four Seasons.”
Asked whether technology will ever replace the human touch, Sharp said that while technology is an important tool, and robots may eventually perform certain tasks, “I’m not sure you can replace eye-to-eye contact,” admitting “we’re not a leader in it (technology). The top four reasons customers cite for staying in a Four Seasons hotel are “service, product, location, and recognition.”
As for advice for students entering the hospitality field, Sharp was unequivocal. “Don’t use the word “if,” (translation: don’t make excuses); give it your all and find something that fits with your skills and your passion.”
He also assured students “You’ve all made a wise choice in going into the hospitality industry. It’s an industry that is only going to get bigger and more global.” But he also advised them to not plan their lives. “Life is a bit of winding stream. You may come across something that will change,” adding that he started off as a builder and never imagined to be in the hotel industry, a field he knew nothing about, but one hotel led to another.
Finally, he stressed the importance of getting a job — any job. “Get into the workforce, don’t say ‘this job is beneath me.’ Do your best: put 100 per cent behind it and know that things happen for the right reasons.”