In the spirit of education, we invited six of our Rising Stars — top agents within their first three years as travel advisors — to attend a workshop in collaboration with true visionaries in the luxury space, Four Seasons.
Our mission as one of the first partner agencies ever invited to visit this iconic brand’s home office was to dig into the magic behind this well-oiled machine. With activities ranging from a dive into the housekeeping department (hello, bed-making competition!), to a look into their coveted Research and Discovery Studio to a cocktail-making class instructed by a master mixologist, our Rising Stars departed with a deeper understanding of the art of hospitality. Our look into the “Back of House” operations was further complimented as SmartFlyer founder Michael Holtz sat down to chat with Christian Clerc, President of Worldwide Hotel Operations.
Michael Holtz: Christian, Tell us a bit more about what led you to a career in hospitality.
Christian Clerc: I grew up in Switzerland in a small town called Montreux on Lake Geneva. From very early on, I was exposed to the grand dames of the region and I felt they were very special. Aside from a curiosity about hotels, another passion of mine from childhood was food. My mom’s Italian, so growing up in my house, there was always something cooking. You’d wake up in the morning to the smell of coffee and my grandmother was constantly in the kitchen preparing something. Needless to say, from a young age, I fell in love with food and cooking. Those passions led me to pursue a hospitality career; I knew I wanted to be in restaurants and hotels. So, I went to a Swiss hotel school in Lausanne, graduated in 1992 and the rest is history.
MH: How did you begin working with Four Seasons?
I joined the company because I was fascinated with the fact that Four Seasons was focused on being the best at what they did.
CC: So, I joined Four Seasons in 2000 in Washington DC. At the time, I joined the company because I was fascinated with the fact that Four Seasons was focused on being the best at what they did. They only had hotels that were leaders in their markets and I felt that there was a culture of excellence. But, also a culture around people and service really being the key differentiators of the brand. I’ve now been a part of the Four Seasons family for nearly two decades, with posts in New York, Chicago, Punta Mita and Paris before taking on my current role.
MH: We’ve heard the hiring process at Four Seasons is unique. Can you tell us more about that?
CC: For us, one of the most important decisions we get to make is who joins the Four Seasons team both at home office and in our properties around the world. We spend a lot of time focusing on finding the right candidates to join the company. We do what’s called a behavioral-based interview; we’re less interested in the technical skills that employees have and more interested in who they are and their behavior.
We’ll ask questions like, “Tell me the last time you did something special for someone and how did that make you feel?” The intent of a question like this is to really go deep and understand the motivations of these employees. For us, we hire for attitude and teach for skill. In the hotel business, we can teach really any job functionally, but we can’t teach people to care and to want to look after our guests. And I think that’s what’s made the difference in this company is hiring people who at their core align with the cultural values here.
MH: What makes someone a good candidate to join the team?
CC: I think being passionate about what you do, caring for others, going above-and beyond, taking every opportunity to make a positive impact on guests — whether a brief interaction or a longer interaction— is what it’s all about here. Our team is determined to make the best out of every situation. I think those qualities are at the core of every Four Seasons employee and what gels us all together.
MH: As the face of a global travel brand, we can imagine you’re often on the road. How has your ‘global passport’ impacted your personal outlook on the world?
It [travel] gives you an appreciation for other cultures and it stimulates you because when you discover something that’s completely new or completely different, it adds a dimension of richness to your life.
CC: What I love about travel and one of the reasons I decided to have a career in hotels is because it allowed me to travel. Growing up in a small town, I couldn’t wait to travel. What travel has given me — and I think what it gives anyone who decides to go on a journey either personally or professionally — is perspective on this planet that we all live on. It gives you an appreciation for other cultures and it stimulates you, because when you discover something that’s completely new or completely different, it adds a dimension of richness to your life. And I think it also teaches you tolerance; we all stand on the same planet, but depending on where you stand, you have a different perspective on life. I think travel allows you to have a better understanding of this beautiful journey we are all on.
MH: Describe the ultimate vacation with your family.
CC: The ultimate vacation for my family is in a destination where my kids are stimulated by enough interesting things so they drop their phones. This is why I love ski vacations! Everyone ends up physically exhausted and once we arrive to dinner together, we don’t even look at our devices (part of this may also be due to my wife’s ‘no phones at the dinner table’ rule). My daughters are grown up now, but those moments we share making memories together on vacation are still special. Leaving the digital world aside for a moment is what it’s all about with family travel.
MH: What’s the first thing you do when you arrive to a hotel room?
CC: The first thing I do when I arrive to a hotel room is put my bags down and then, I take a deep breath. I just try to enjoy the moment and get in touch with my senses. You know, here at Four Seasons, we try to create environments through design and architecture that hopefully give you a sense of comfort, privacy and relaxation where guests feel they have a sense of place. So, if you are at the George V in Paris, I want you to feel that you are in Paris, that we brought Paris to you in your room. With that in mind, when I travel, I stop, I drop whatever it is that I’m doing and I try to understand the language that the architects and designers used to create the product that I’m seeing or the room that I’m staying in. And I always learn something; I learn about things that I wish we’d done differently and I appreciate the things that were done really well so we can continue to build on those.
MH: Where have you visited that has taken you by surprise?
CC: Well, our hotel in Seoul has this incredible speakeasy called Charles H. And when we designed the hotel, we decided that we would make the speakeasy the best kept secret in town. We even created a door that’s impossible to find, so, guests know that there is a speakeasy in the hotel, and they make it their mission to try and find where it is. It’s created this very interesting buzz both with the local community and our guests. And of course, once you finally step into the space, the design, lighting and feeling are like stepping back in time. We have another one in our hotel in Abu Dhabi where you literally have to take a back-of-house elevator to go down to the speakeasy. It’s a very unique experience. When you see the plans come to life and actually have that kind of experience, it’s very satisfying as a hotelier.
MH: What’s the single most important ingredient to Four Seasons’ success?
CC: In my view, the pursuit of excellence in everything we do is the secret to our success. This company was founded with the idea that we wanted to be known as the best luxury hotel company in the world. And in order to do that, we had to be excellent at everything we do.
MH: How does a focus on personalized service manifests in Four Seasons properties on a daily basis?
CC: For us, great hotels are only the backdrop to create magic for our guests every day. From the very beginning, Mr. Sharp, our founder, said that service was going to be the key differentiator at Four Seasons. Not the architecture, not the building, the service. We are a people-powered company. For us, the most important part of our business is people. We are very focused on creating an environment where our employees feel proud to be associated with Four Seasons and in turn, can deliver exceptional service for our guests.
As we concluded our time in Toronto, it was bittersweet to leave behind both new and old friends. But, we walked away with an even deeper connection to a brand that has made such a lasting impact on our community and clients. So, the only question remains, when is your next Four Seasons stay?