When the Four Seasons opened the doors to its new Toronto hotel back in 2012, it marked the end of an era while ushering in the beginning of a new one. For more than 40 years, the Avenue Road and Yorkville Ave. location had served as the flagship of the storied made-in-Canada Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts, one of the world’s pre-eminent luxury names. But while the hotel was iconic in many ways, and, along the way, had served as the training ground for many Four Seasons executives the world over, the actual building, which had opened originally in the late 1970s, as the Hyatt Toronto, had become tired and needing of loving care.
Not surprisingly, when the new luxury property opened on October 12th, 2012 — located only a stone’s throw from the original Avenue Rd. and Yorkville location at Bay and Yorkville — it created palpable excitement for the city and the brand. It was an opportunity for the brand to deliver the kind of elevated customer service experience it’s always been known for while now featuring a host of signature amenities one would expect from a flagship hotel, including a signature spa, a noted dining-room helmed by renowned chef Daniel Boulud as well as a spacious and elegant lobby featuring dbar, a place where regulars and guests come together in a casual environment.
For Isadore Sharp, founder of the hotel company, which now boasts 124 units in 47 countries, the Toronto hotel has always held a special place in his heart given the brand’s birth in Canada’s largest city at the corner of Jarvis and Dundas in 1961. “It was meaningful because we finally had a Four Seasons Hotel that represented what the company really stood for at this stage in its history. The timing couldn’t have better,” stresses the 91-year-old icon.
“As it was hometown for the company, it made a major statement,” recalls Sharp, explaining that — “not that it stands out more so than other hotels at that level… but because it’s the next generation of five-star hotels and it embodies everything you expect from any big city in the world. It meets everyone’s expectations,” adding that the standards the company is building and operating today are very consistent with what the hotel embodies to stand out at every level.
While over the years, Sharp has worked with a collection of owners around the world, he’s quick to sing the praises of the hotel’s current owner, successful entrepreneur Shahid Khan. “We’re fortunate to have an owner who believes in Four Seasons and wants to make the hotel raise the standards. He’s actually led the charge to make the changes. If you had to rank the ownership on a scale of one to 10, he’s an 11,” enthuses Sharp. “Shahid always encourages management to think about what’s next.”
Khan purchased the hotel in 2016 from Kingdom Holdings for a record $225-million, making it the highest-priced hotel sold in Canada. Right from the get go, the billionaire owner, who also owns Flex-N-Gate Group, a manufacturer of auto parts, with 10 factories in Ontario and the Jacksonville Jaguars of the National Football League, set out to make his mark. “Six years ago, there were a bunch of other five-star hotels that had opened up and our goal was that this hotel should really stand out from the crowd. We made some enhancements right after that because we wanted to get everything right,” said Khan.
Ten years after the opening of the Bay St. location, Khan is intent to keep the momentum going. “Our venue is great, but we want to make it even better. We’re now looking at re-doing some rooms; we have a very iconic patio terrace designed and it’s going through the permit process with the city and we’re very close. That will be a very iconic patio on Bay St. — a beautiful design [providing] a special experience for anyone. Those are the two major things that we hope to get done here in the next year to 18 months. It’s got to be a special experience — you want to be protected by the elements but also experience the vibrancy of the city.”
As the flagship, the Toronto property sets the tone for the entire brand and that’s an expectation both Khan as the owner and Sharp, as the founder, take seriously. “What’s interesting for me is, in the last six years, I’ll go to another Four Seasons property and [realize] this [the Toronto property] is very much a stepping-stone property. It’s a training ground — a lot of people have worked at Four Seasons Toronto and through upward mobility have gone to other properties. The corporate office is obviously up the street, they are regular guests here and Issy is a regular guest. It gets more scrutiny, which we welcome. We’re looking for ways to get better. We have leadership, team members from around the world, ideas and input on what you could be doing better, and the challenge is for our team to continually keeping getting better.”
For Sharp, founder and visionary of the brand, Four Seasons remains strong because of the dedication and commitment of so many people who have spent the better parts of their careers helping to build it. “There’s satisfaction and purpose and a strong commitment to service excellence. When you first start a brand, it’s hard to articulate that but today we recognize what the culture is and the dedication of the company to serve that culture enhances the brand.”
Though Sharp relinquished his CEO role many years ago, he remains the company’s best ambassador. These days he enjoys giving his stamp of approval to design ideas for new properties, host dinners for various owners at this home with his wife Rosalie, while continuing to speak to employees at company events. “A company can have many CEOs,” says Sharp, “but there’s only one founder.”
He’s buoyed by the strength of the brand and the future of the company. And he’s pleased with the appointment of the company’s new CEO, Alejandro Reynal, a 44-year-old businessman, who Sharp describes as having a “remarkable career in business. I believe we are at the threshold for the greatest era for Four Seasons,” says Sharp, pointing to the eight to 10 new hotel deals the company has in the pipeline for the current year and the projection for a total of 50 hotels in the next five years. He says residences will be an integral part of that growth, adding, “we probably will have more residences over time than hotels.” Whether the condos are hotel adjacent or standalone, “they’re a big part of the business,” says Sharp. “It’s a way of living that people gravitate to at a certain time in their life.”
And while Sharp could never have predicted the brand extensions that exist for the company today, he’s excited by them. Recently, the company announced an increase in the number of flights for its popular line of jets, fuelled by high demand. And, consumers’ continuing love affair with cruises has sparked Four Seasons recent announcement it will be operating a line of luxury yachts. Sharp is quick to differentiate the yachts from cruiseships because they are smaller and more exclusive (a total of 95 rooms). “They are going to embody all the services and the quality of any hotel you would stay in. It’s an extension of people’s desire to have a memorable experience — whether it’s in the air, on the ground or on the sea.”
While operating in a post-COVID environment has created challenges, Khan is proud his hotel was the only luxury brand to keep its doors open through the pandemic. “I’m a big believer that a person and a business is defined not by how they operate in good times, but how they act and operate in bad times. The pandemic was a great example of this. We’re the only luxury property in Toronto that stayed open throughout the pandemic. All the other ones just pulled the plug and closed. We did it because we wanted to preserve the leadership team; we wanted it to be a refuge for whoever was there. The occupancy was in the teens, and we knew we were going to lose money. But it was very important we [stayed open] …these were unique times. That was a great example for some of our customers who needed us and we were there for them, for the staff, and to set the tone for Four Seasons.” It showed, he said, “that we’re here for the long haul.”
Khan is excited restrictions have been finally eliminated. “It’s great for the city and great for the hospitality industry,” he says. Like most hoteliers and owners, he’s thrilled to see a strong rebound in rates. “We have raised rates also. We have the highest RevPAR in the city, adding, “Our rates are high but we deliver the value.”
“For us, price has never been a complaint or a resistance,” explains Sharp. “You buy something that you consider to be value to you, and the price becomes acceptable — not just in our industry but in every industry.”
Though the pandemic has created a litany of challenges, Khan isn’t concerned that hospitality has lost its lustre. “Through good times and bad times, and conflict, people need refuge — a place where you can go and recover and re-charge and face the changing, more challenging world. There’s no better place than Four Seasons Toronto, with our spa, fitness…it’s needed even more.”
But he’s quick to point out that for Four Seasons, it’s always been the people who work for the brand that set it apart from others. “We have the best people,” says Khan. “It starts with them. Finding the best employee, training them so they take care of the guests. And then there’s investment in the property and maintenance of the property, which is second to none — [it’s about] continuous excellence in making it better and better.” And, adds Khan, “There’s a personal touch here. [The hotel] is like Toronto’s living room and a civic asset. It’s a Canadian national treasure and really one of the few iconic luxury brands that is born in Toronto.”
As a first-time hotel owner, Khan has learned many lessons over the past six years. But he’s quick to point out that “there’s a lot of similarities in running any business. You think about the team members and you think about money. A hotel is really, from that aspect, not that different. But it is much more so a people business,” He’s enjoyed the last six years so much, he’s looking forward to breaking ground on his latest hotel development on a beautiful site on the river in Jacksonville, Florida, where he lives part of the year. Not surprisingly, he says, “I think it will be another iconic Four Seasons Hotel.”
Asked about whether he’ optimistic about the hotel industry, he’s quick to answer, “Very optimistic. More so than ever because we are social animals. Our DNA is about society, about family. There’s always going to be a need for travel.” It’s a belief echoed by the founder of the company, and someone who has lived through multiple recessions and natural disasters. “I’ve never been more optimistic about the future,” says Sharp. “Travel and hospitality have been around for thousands of years and people will always continue to travel.”
BY ROSANNA CAIRA