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There is no dearth of opportunities in India: Kathleen Taylor

October 16, 2008

Second only to four seasons Hotels & Resorts’ Chairman and CEO Isadore Sharp, Kathleen Taylor is responsible for Global Operations since being promoted to President & COO in 2007. In her nearly two decades with the company, she has played a key role in the expansion of its portfolio to the present 81 hotels in 34 countries and more than 40 properties under development around the world. A law graduate and an MBA from the Schulich School of Business in Toronto, she was President (Worldwide Business Operations) for seven years prior to 2007, directing Four Seasons’ worldwide hotel and residential product design, construction and development activities, managing acquisition and corporate planning, overseeing the corporate finance and legal affairs groups and other key areas. BT’s Anusha Subramanian recently met her when she came down for the official opening of the Four Seasons Hotel Mumbai. Excerpts:

Kathleen Taylor
Kathleen Taylor
How did a company whose first property was a modest Motor Hotel in downtown Toronto evolve into the world’s leading operator of luxury Hotels?
The company is now 47 years old. (Founder, Chairman and CEO) Isadore Sharp’s father was in the construction business and Isadore Sharp’s dream was to build hotels. He made a humble beginning, though. He launched his first hotel in 1961 in downtown Toronto. Four Seasons traces its roots to an idea that proved to be revolutionary: what the global business traveller wanted most was personalised service available round-the-clock.

Frequent international travel, now so common, was an emerging trend in the 1960s and ’70s. Sharp had the opportunity to capitalise on this trend when the company opened its third hotel, and its first in Europe, the Inn on the Park, now known as Four Seasons Hotel London. The success of London made Sharp realise that what he enjoyed creating—and what was really lacking in the marketplace— were medium-sized hotels of exceptional quality, with exceptional service levels. He decided to focus his efforts on this niche and embarked on a targeted course of expansion, which continues to the present time.

What makes a Four Seasons Hotel so special?
It’s the people. It’s all about the relationship that our employees have with our guests. It’s all about the highly personalised, just-forme, just-when-I-need-it service that our employees provide day in and day out. With a supportive system and the trust of co-workers and superiors, employees are able to make decisions independently, thinking in human terms about what each guest wants and needs. The result is warm, genuine and personalised service delivered every day, often in unexpected ways.

Is that one of the reasons why employees rarely quit the Four Seasons? Do you believe hoteliers can have a lifelong career with one group?
Yes, I think it is very possible for dynamic, energetic and ambitious young people to join Four Seasons and fulfil all their dreams—whether they aspire to become General Manager or the Head of Marketing or whatever. We believe in promotion from within. I’m a product of it. I started with the company 20 years ago as the second person in the two-person law department. Three years later, my boss left to become an Investment Banker and promotion from within kicked in. I took on the role as General Counsel and a few years later, worked in the development part of the business. I advanced to take over more areas, such as finance, eventually, and finally, today I am the President and COO of the company. But there are countless stories of people who are vice-presidents or general managers who came up through the business. Long service is a very important hallmark of the Four Seasons. The average service of our general managers is now more than 16 years. For our senior management team, the average is more than 20 years.

What innovations have you brought in over the years?
Innovations have given us a competitive advantage in customer service since 1960. Most innovations have been brought in through Sharp’s own personal experiences as a customer. Four Seasons was the first in North America to introduce now-standard items such as bath amenities, terry-cloth robes, hairdryers and multiple, 2-line telephones in the guest room and bath. Four Seasons was also the first to provide European-style concierge services and room service 24/7, innovative choices in cuisine, twice-daily housekeeping service, overnight shoe shine, one-hour pressing and round-theclock, four-hour laundry and dry cleaning service.

What is your view on the global hotel sector and how is it performing in the current turbulent times?
Any downturn in the economy definitely has an impact on the hospitality sector. Over the last few months, we have seen a slowdown in business demand in some markets. Overall, there has been little fall in demand in most places. But this is not the first time that the hotel industry is facing a downturn. When we think of a downturn, we think very much about what our experiences have been and what are they likely to be. The best way to deal with the tough times is to stay focussed on guests, which means staying focussed on the employees, which means doing whatever it takes to maintain a high-end good service product and be focussed on the long-term goals rather than think of the short-term impact.

How has the performance of Four Seasons Hotels been over the years?
We are 81 hotels worldwide and our group revenues are a little under $4 billion (Rs 19,200 crore). We have been growing rapidly, have doubled the number of hotels in the last 10 years and most probably will double it further in the next 10 years.

What is your perception of India and the Indian hospitality sector?
In India, we have been trying to establish Four Seasons Hotel for a very long time. We explored several joint ventures and finally zeroed in on the Jatia Group as our partners and have launched our first Four Seasons Hotel & Residences in Mumbai. We are exploring other opportunities with them in India. We have projects underway in Gurgaon, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Kerala. The Kerala property is a resort with villas and private residences coming up at Vembanad Lake, Kottayam District. Other places we might go are downtown New Delhi and Goa. There is no dearth of opportunities in India.

Don’t you think you are a late entrant into this market?
Yes, we are a late entrant into this market but, like I said, we have been trying to get the right partner and do the right thing. We do not worry about whether we are late or early entrants into a market but we believe in doing the right thing. Because at the end of the day we are building hotels to last for decades and doing the right thing with the right partner in the right market and with the right people; to offer the Four Seasons experience is of utmost importance to us.

How do room rates in India compare with those in developed markets? Are they overpriced? And is that because of demand-supply imbalance that exists?
In your estimate, how many rooms is India short by, and how many hotel chains can it accommodate? Room rates are factor of demand and supply. But, for sure, they compare very well with rates around the world. If you take Mumbai, it’s a big business and leisure market for people who are coming to explore India. So, it’s not surprising that the room rates are at par with world standards. For example, the room rate for Four Seasons Hotel New York—Superior Room per night is $1,150 (Rs 55,200), Four Seasons Hotel Milan—Superior Room per night is $987 (Rs 47,376) and Four Seasons Hotel London—Super Room per night is $692 (Rs 33,216). The room rate at Four Seasons Hotel Mumbai for a Superior Room per night is $438 (Rs 21,024).

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